From fish farms bobbing in the Straits of Johor to industrial warehouses and the rooftops of hotels downtown, urban farming is all the rage in Singapore. Covid-19 has given the country, which produces only a tiny fraction of what its people eat, a big scare. Dependence on neighbors for sustenance is a huge vulnerability the government says it's determined to rectify.
Developing agriculture almost from scratch doesn't come easy. Obstacles include a shortage of labor, competition from lower-cost economies elsewhere in Asia and a chronic scarcity of space. How the nation addresses these hurdles will say a lot about whether food self-sufficiency is a fad or a smart deployment of state muscle. The Singapore Food Agency is dispensing millions of dollars to solve this existential challenge. While food supplies have held up during the pandemic, some shelves were emptied of staples like rice and instant noodles in the early days. A few months ago, truckloads of chickens from Malaysia perished while drivers waited for hours at Covid checkpoints.
“Nobody contemplated the Causeway shutting down or air freight becoming more difficult,” said Benjamin Swan, co-founder and chief executive officer of Sustenir Group, referring to one of two road links to Malaysia. His company, whose backers include sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings Pte., grows vegetables vertically in a warehouse in Singapore's northern suburbs. “We got lucky this time. Next pandemic, who knows?”