Food security from the ground up: A community approach

By Woo Hoi Yuet

How community and local farms are playing a pivotal role in building a robust and resilient agro-food industry.

Fresh produce harvested from Edible Garden City’s farm in Queenstown, Singapore. Local produce plays an increasingly important role in sustainability and food security. Image: Edible Garden City

Technology has often been championed as a game-changer in boosting Singapore’s food security. From automating agricultural workflows using AI to regulating novel foods like cultivated meat, Singapore has dedicated over S$300 million (~US$224 million) so far to the Singapore Food Story R&D programme, which seeks to promote R&D in sustainable urban food production, future foods, and food safety science.


But there is a need to diversify approaches beyond only using technology to increase food production, according to Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Garden City, a social enterprise that champions the Grow-Your-Own-Food movement. With supply chain disruptions across the globe, Singapore’s food production capabilities have been stretched. 


Indoor farms, for instance, often rely on seeds and fertilisers imported from other countries, which they have struggled to secure during the pandemic, Low explains. Such indoor farms also require a high input of resources, such as electricity and water, which are vulnerable to disruptions. 


As the world continues to face challenges in achieving food security, communities can play a crucial role in promoting a sustainable and resilient food system. This involves empowering and equipping people to be part of the food security narrative, diversifying the source and types of food, and promoting sustainable farming practices.


A community-supported agriculture system


A sustainable solution to food security is to have the “community going into spaces, growing food, and creating small production systems within the district and HDB estates”, Low says


By connecting people with a shared goal of growing food, community farms can foster connections while encouraging environmental stewardship. Engaging with plants and nature teaches people how to be more in tune with nature and the food that appears on their plates, says Low. 


With a higher level of environmental responsibility, people will become more responsible consumers—they start eating better and supporting local food production.


Low suggests that it is time to consider whether the 1,800 community gardens in Singapore today are ripe to be transformed into community-supported agricultural spaces, rather than just hobby spaces. 


Already, Tampines, a precinct in eastern Singapore, is planning to increase its farming and food production capabilities by building more community gardens and vertical farms, reported the Straits Times. As part of the Tampines goes Farming initiative, there are also plans to explore how the farms can distribute the harvests to residents locally at a cheaper rate. 


There is also a wealth of local knowledge to tap into in Singapore, highlights Low. For example, communities like the Orang Lauts have farming practices that are in sync with the environment and the older generation also has a lot of expertise regarding farming. But these knowledge bases regarding edible plants and farming in Singapore’s unique tropical climate might disappear if nothing else is done.

“There’s a sense of urgency to capture this knowledge and transcribe it into our community gardening spaces, stories, food habits, and even recipes,” Low says. Community farms are one way to do so, as gardeners and volunteers at the farms can share valuable knowledge about edible plants in Singapore. 


“The idea is to spread the knowledge and know-how through the community to encourage people to take this up either as a hobby or even a small business”, says Low. “We need that resurgence of agricultural knowledge and motivation within our citizen core to reach the [food security] goal.” 


Making green spaces productive 


As a Garden City, Singapore is well-known for its green spaces scattered all over the city. But a more purposeful curation of these green spaces [can] allow for the implementation of systems that are more regenerative, says Low. By growing edible native plants in these spaces, they can serve a dual purpose of providing food and creating a more livable space. 


The Funan Urban Farm, for instance, is the first urban farm to be designed as part of a shopping mall in Singapore. Open to the public, it features indoor, soil-based, and vertical farming. It also has a volunteer programme for new and veteran farmers alike. This is not just a great way to turn unused spaces into productive farms, but also to bring the community together to learn about plants and the environment, stated Edible Garden City.

The Funan Urban Farm is located at the top of a shopping mall. Located in the Central Business District, it is one of the first urban farms in Singapore to be integrated as part of the shopping mall’s design. Image: Funan SG

When the community is involved in urban farming, it is possible to gauge the social and economic outcomes of the spaces. One way Low and his team hopes to do so is through a metric known as the Landscape Nutrition Index, which measures the amount of nutrition stored in a landscape. 


For example, a rooftop garden only growing bougainvilleas might be visually stunning, but will have less nutritional value than a garden growing tapioca, he explains. With this approach, the space would not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also highly productive. 


As Low emphasises, the spaces, infrastructures, and soil are already there. It simply requires a switch in the mindset of agencies, developers, and architects to transform what we already have into productive spaces.


Promoting local produce


Beyond community farms, the local agri-food industry is also an essential pillar in Singapore’s food security. In this area, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has been actively engaging different stakeholders in the industry to promote the consumption of local produce. 


For instance, SFA’s #fromSGtoSG campaign aims to encourage Singaporeans to support local farmers and produce. As part of this scheme, the “SG Fresh Produce” badge on produce packaging makes it easier for consumers to identify and buy local produce while grocery shopping, explains Jocelyn Ng, Director of the Industry Development and Community Partnership Division at SFA. 


SFA also organised the SG Farmers’ Market at community and online spaces, such as Lazada Redmart, to increase consumers’ access to local produce. 

Consumers play a major role in supporting local produce to sustain a healthy and vibrant agri-food ecosystem, Ng says. As more consumers purchase locally farmed produce, the higher demand will keep local farms commercially viable and encourage farmers to upscale their businesses. 


Another way SFA seeks to improve access to local produce is by facilitating the distribution of fresh local produce to hotels, restaurants, and cafes, says Ng. In February 2023, SFA established the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Demand Offtake and Consumer Education, which helps to match the supply of local farm produce to commercial demand by these establishments. 


To support the commercial viability of local farms, Ng shares that the SFA has also partnered with local supermarket retailer Fairprice to establish the SFA-Fairprice Retail Incubation Programme. “Beyond knowing how to farm, our farmers need to master marketing and business development to secure sales channels,” said Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment in Singapore, at the Made in Singapore Fair 2022.  


The Incubation Programme is a six-month pilot where local farms are guided by Fairprice on how to fine-tune their products, pricing, and marketing techniques to cater to consumers’ preferences.


“These initiatives help to support the businesses of our local farmers,” says Ng. “Local farms can also take proactive steps to diversify their sales channels for greater resilience.”

“There’s a need for us to diversify approaches and not just silo ourselves into one solution”, says Low. “It is a whole-of-society effort to [achieve] food security and sustainability.”