A new type of agriculture is on the rise in South East Asia: indoor vertical farming. Designed to encourage a revolution in how Asian communities and people across the world feed themselves, a new type of farmer is hoping that indoor vertical crop production will be a sustainable and profitable way to grow food.
The problems facing farmers in South East Asia
Although humans began farming many thousands of years ago and the world has since changed beyond all recognition, farmers still face similar battles to those of their ancestors. Whilst they have long battled the elements, developed ways to increase production and breed new crop types, farmers now rely upon pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides, irrigation and mechanisation to keep up with the world’s food demands. Despite the fact that we are now growing more food than ever before, the important questions is: how long can we keep farming in this way?
Current agricultural practices face a growing number of problems, not least in terms of climate change. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are seeing increasing cases of extreme weather, whilst there is pressure on vital resources such as water. In addition, because the population is growing, the amount of productive arable land is rapidly diminishing. When you add the expansion of cities and rising customer demand into the mix, it is clear that farmers are facing numerous problems.
Nowadays consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food quality and are looking for food that is nutritious, safe to eat, readily available and as fresh as possible. Furthermore, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge about the unpredictability of the climate: farmers dread unexpected floods and long spells of dry weather, whilst still hoping for rain and searching for ways to eradicate pests and weeds.
Science and technology offer a better way of farming
How do we feed more people without destroying our environment? When facing critical issues such as climate change and urban expansion, science and technology are increasingly stepping in to offer solutions. Urban farms which utilise vertical farming are becoming more commonplace across South East Asia. Designed to provide those living in cities and urban areas with a secure supply of good quality food, vertical farms can be found in a range of locations; from skyscrapers, abandoned buildings through to rooftops and more. Vertical farming uses highly controlled environments where the humidity, light level, water supply and temperature are constantly and closely monitored. Taking up a fraction of the footprint of a traditional farm, vertical farms also significantly reduce the need for expensive and potentially toxic pesticides.
In addition, the Association for Vertical Farming say that by making use of aquaponics or aeroponics, a vertical farm needs between 70-95% less fresh water than required by traditional farming methods. As already mentioned, the vagaries of our unpredictable climate are notorious for causing significant damage to crops, but by adopting a vertical growing method, urban farms can enjoy a yield of at least 90% - regardless of how bad the weather is.
Urban agriculture also offersan opportunity to create a more circular economy. For example, farming can be integrated into urban life in a more integrated way by combing food production with other essential services such as waste management. Finally, urbanised farming provides increased opportunities to re-use, recycle and repurpose valuable resources.
Singapore leads the way in vertical farming
Thanks to companies such as Comcrops and Sky Greens, Singapore is currently leading the way in vertical farming. In 2018 there were more than 30 vertical farms in Singapore; demonstrating to the Asia-Pacific region the potential effectiveness of a growing system which is increasing the island’s food production.
Singapore has always faced a number of food production problems. Due to an unavailability of land, a growing population, urgent food security issues and climate change, the country only produces 10% of its food. Clearly, Singapore is reluctant to rely upon importing food to feed its population and so the government is encouraging farms to grow more whilst using fewer resources, with the aim of increasing food production to 30% over the next ten years.
Although the crops grown by companies such as Sky Green and Comcrops might cost a little more than those produced using traditional farming methods, freshness is guaranteed thanks to close proximity to their customers. This also means that storage costs are lower, whilst there is less chance of spoiling during transit.
Urban farming across South East Asia
Although vertical urban farming is still fragmented and limited across South East Asia, it is becoming increasingly popular. The Philippines has introduced new laws which allow the Department of Agriculture to encourage and promote vertical farming and agriculture in urban environments. Introduced to guarantee food security and breathe new life into the ecosystem, the new laws also state that government owned buildings and abandoned government lots should be considered as locations for indoor farming.
The picture is also looking positive in Malaysia where there a number of movements who are working to encourage city farmers to grow locally produced food for sustainable production. In Bangkok a number of building developments are underway which feature rooftop farms, alongside skyscrapers which are intended for mixed-use and have open-air farms.
It’s interesting to speculate whether vertical farming really could solve the region’s food security problems. With backing from governments, sufficient investment and talented individuals with the creativity to invent the methods required, the trend towards vertical farming is likely to continue to rise.
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