The pressure on food, land, the environment: Implications for urban food security

“Business as usual” is no longer an option

The world’s population exploded over the last few decades at the same time that urbanization accelerated. Fewer people now live in rural areas – 55% of the global population reside in urban areas, corresponding to 4.2 billion people in 2018. It was only 751 million or 30% in 1950. By 2050 the urban population is projected to grow to 6.7 billion, or 68% of projected global population [Ref 1].  More people, more food required. Higher urbanization means food has to be sourced further afield, travel further, and consequently increased risks on the supply chain and on food safety.

Why is this important to for us in Singapore and other such food import dependant nations?

As the United Nations report on The Future of Food and Agriculture (2018) noted “Business as usual is no longer an option”. [Ref 2 “The future of food and agriculture” on the need to make changes]

Because agriculture production globally is being constrained by the scarcity and diminishing quality of land and water resources. The unpredictable effects of climate change with increasing temperatures “affect agriculture and forestry systems through higher temperatures, elevated carbon dioxide concentration, precipitation changes, increased weeds, pests and disease pressure” [Ref 3 “How to feed the world in 2050” on threats, yields and trends].

These have already been manifested in frequent and prolonged droughts, floods, increased pestilence and the loss of traditionally arable land in every continent bar none. Food quality and a loss of nutrition in food is a result of unsustainable agricultural practices as well as the wanton use of pesticides, vaccines, hormones and many other chemicals and drugs to satisfy its “production”.

These global systemic threats, their current manifestation on food supply and quality, will only get worse – much worse. The impact will be felt most by 2/3rds of the global population, the urbanites.

Technologies are available for new sustainable farming, food and agricultural systems

To develop these new sustainable food and agricultural systems needs a strong government purpose, a clear vision, relentless innovation on current best-in-class technologies, and investment in the development process.

As a small nation like Singapore, we cannot change nor influence much of the global traditional food and agricultural systems and their established commercial interests. But as an innovative nation with a strong government and a demonstrated ability to achieve its visions, we can make the impossible possible.

We have a strong motivation: the competition for food and the increasing uncertainties in the supply chain and food quality will only increase substantially with the growth of the urban population from half the world’s population today to two-thirds in the next 30 years. All the world’s population growth and some will take place in urban areas – within our life-times.

Best-in-class farming technologies are available to develop the new models of sustainable farming, food and agricultural systems to feed urban populations. We have the ability to innovate on these technologies, integrate them, and achieve both food security and nutrition goals for our country. By developing integrated systems, wholesome food can be achieved by all urban populations in the world.

What are the best-in-class technology areas required to develop farming for Urban Food Security?

Urbanization brought with it changes in life style and consumption patterns. Our urban diet has a much higher demand for perishables – vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy and fish, as compared to a diminishing proportion of grains and other staple crops [Ref 3]. Simply summarised, the technologies to develop urban farming systems must address these consumption patterns of the most perishable and critical foods to achieve food security for urban populations. Technology areas that must be addressed include:

  • Proximity: Farms brought closer to the consumer, within the urban area perimeter – defined as within the land and/or sea that is the city and the area under its administrative control. This ensures that the food supply chain is short, food safety is enhanced, transportation is reduced.
  • Land and sea Intensification: Significant land and sea use intensification is a necessity for obvious land and sea constraint issues. Small footprint, with high production capacity. Intensification factors should range from 10 times to 30 times or more.
  • Environmental sustainability: The environment must be protected from damage caused by pollutants, poor farming and food processing practices. This includes waste, sea and air pollution. Traditional farming places a much too heavy burden on the environment.
  • Efficient use of resources: Water and grid energy are two of the key resources that can be significantly reduced through recycling in closed loops and renewables respectively. But efficient use of resources covers much more – labour, yields and cropping intensity, integrated platforms and infrastructure, and so on.
  • Modular units and scalability: Farms must be designed for modularity and scalability as a necessary condition for food security and food safety. Modularity designed well also enables food production flexibility and reduces total asset investment.
  • Wholesome food: Vegetables, fish and poultry farmed must be wholesome – defined as being farmed without the use of pesticides, chemicals, vaccines, antibiotics and other drugs. It also addresses the quality of food – a term that includes high nutritional value, unlike what is now being sourced from commercial farms near and far, where the beneficial nutrients have fallen substantially due to current agricultural practices [Ref 4, and many studies since].

One small step for a government, one giant leap for the country

One of my favourite films is Dead Poets Society, a 1989 film where Robin Williams plays the main character, John Keating, an English teacher. Keating encourages his students to break free from conformity, pursue their own dreams and seize the day, and a memorable call was:

There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.

This so much personifies the spirit of Singapore from its tumultuous birth, through the development paths it successfully carved out, to the recent bold steps it took for the nation to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, a recent EDB campaign pitched Singapore as the city for people who ‘love to prove the world wrong’. And with the food security challenges feeding an urban population of a city state against a burgeoning and competitive global urban population growth, while traditional agricultural systems and international trade assumptions are so vulnerable, this is the time for the government to be daring, to seize the day, and to secure its future.

John Keating advised his students in the same film:

We must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you must look at it in a different way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try. Dare to strike out and find new ground. Despite what anyone might tell you, words and ideas can change the world. We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Poetry, beauty, love, romance. These are what we stay alive for. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Poignantly poetic, and we certainly do not think our words and ideas are silly or wrong. Keating’s advice is absolutely illuminating in addressing one of the big challenges facing Singapore!

 

 

The partners of KLOSS & Associates are committed to integrative technology innovation in accelerating the transformation of traditional farming into sustainable and successful urban farming for food security and quality food for the good of humanity.

 

References

  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Urbanization Prospects 2018”. New York 2019.
  2. United nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Alternative Pathways to 2050”. FAO Rome 2018.
  3. United Nation, FAO Expert Meeting, “How to Feed the World in 2050”. FAO Rome 24-26 June 2009
  4. Donald Davis et al, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Texas at Austin, published December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Referenced in Scientific American. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” April 27 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15637215

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