S’pore farmers seek greener pastures abroad, and the Republic could be better off for it

16 August 2017 Singapore

A handful of Singaporean growers have started farming on foreign land, a move that could help Singapore strengthen its food resilience. Photo: UnsplashA handful of Singaporean growers have started farming on foreign land, a move that could help Singapore strengthen its food resilience. Photo: Unsplash

SINGAPORE — When Apollo Aquaculture Group chief executive officer Eric Ng realised his fish farm lease in Lim Chu Kang would expire in 2019, the 44-year-old started looking for an overseas alternative.

“Land is very limited here, and the cost of setting up a farm in Singapore is very high… But Brunei has vast land and abundance of sea water,” he said.

Now, he owns a plot of land in Brunei that can produce up to 5,000 tonnes of trouts, groupers, snappers and sea bass when it is eventually operating at full capacity within the next five years. In comparison, he produces about 110 tonnes of fish a year from his farms in Singapore.

The fish farmer was spurred to venture overseas after a trip to Israel about seven years ago, where he accompanied the Singapore authorities overseas to learn about the Israeli’s fish farming technologies.

“We were in the middle of a desert… but if (the Israeli farmers) were asked to leave the place – Israel is always at war – these farmers would be able to pack up overnight and set up the farm at another place to continue farming,” he said.

“That really inspired me to really think about how to make things mobile… The knowledge in creating an environment suitable for the products that you are trying to grow or farm, I think once you have that know-how and soft skill, it’s going to enable you to do a lot more that you can think of,” he said.

Mr Ng is one of a handful of Singaporean growers that have started farming on foreign land, a suggestion some experts felt could help Singapore strengthen its food resilience by securing more sources of food.

Professor Paul Teng, a food security expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), felt that Singapore could turn to countries which consistently have agricultural surpluses for contract farming, so that there are better chances of importing food from them during a crisis. These countries include the United States, Argentina and Australia.

However, Professor William Chen, the director of Nanyang Technological University’s food, science and technology programme, pointed out that such a practice was not fail-safe. “If you rely on other people’s land, there is always a risk that the relationship turns sour,” he added.

Even without formal contracts, some Singaporean farmers have ventured overseas.

Mr Patrick Low, 28, said: “Food security is the main reason we’re in this business as we believe that every individual has the right to safe, chemical-free produce and foodstuff.”

Their farm grows 120 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and harvests 15 to 20 tonnes of processed produce each month.

While the Government has been pushing for high-tech agriculture in Singapore, Mr Low said traditional methods should not be discounted as well, particularly on overseas land that have fertile and suitable climates.

The authorities could also provide technological support for instance, to help improve productivity and raise the quality of the produce grown by Singaporean farmers overseas, he added.

More can also be done by the Government to fund international research and technological developments in farming, some experts said.

Prof Teng noted that Singapore has been slow to support global work on this front, as there are no immediate benefits to local farms. “But we cannot be so short-sighted,” he said. Singapore could indirectly benefit should exporting countries remain productive in agriculture and have sufficient surpluses to export, he pointed out.

Former civil servant Lai Poon Piau, 52, recalled how he had to settle for plain prata after the roti prata stall near VivoCity ran out of eggs a few years back, due to the global food crisis which saw prices of food shoot up. It was then that he realised how vulnerable Singapore was, in terms of food security.

Seeking to reconnect with his farming roots - both his father and grandfather owned plantations - Mr Lai eventually acquired 80ha of land in Kampot, Cambodia in 2010 and started farming peppercorns three years later.

Out of the 50 tonnes of pepper he produces each year, only 100kg is being exported to specialty stores and restaurants in Singapore. But he is gradually trying to build up his distribution channels for export. “I would like to sell all of it to Singapore if I can… Eventually, the idea is to use Singapore as a hub to export (my pepper) to other parts of Asia as well,” he said.

For the Singaporean father-and-son pair behind 5th Element, a retail store in Ho Chi Minh City selling organic produce from their 4ha farm in Da Lat, Vietnam, their goal has always been to produce food for Singapore.