Looking to 2023: Searching for science-based solutions to ensure food security

| By Professor Prakash Kumar |

More than 60 per cent of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050 and many of the large cities are in Asia. Rapid urbanisation is an inevitable part of societal evolution and this is accompanied by an unprecedented pressure on cities to feed their residents. There is also a need to cater to the increasing expectation by customers of the availability of higher quality fresh produce with added health and nutritional benefits. These factors, and the recent lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic, tell us that our future food supply will face periodic challenges if we stick to the old ways of securing food, namely, growing crops in big countries with large land areas and importing the products. Our policies will thus need to be modified.

Developing an urban farming research thrust

Therefore, in the face of impending climate change and a predicted population increase, coupled with the potential disruptions caused by future pandemics and natural calamities, we will need to find innovative ways to grow crop plants and ensure adequate food supply in the coming decades. Human societies have exhibited remarkable adaptations by continually developing newer farming technologies over the past several centuries.

The idea of producing some food plants under controlled environments in vertical indoor farms is one such novel concept. There are clear advantages to this approach, including avoiding the uncertainties associated with outdoor farming and minimising the water used for agriculture. Furthermore, by growing plants at high density and in multiple tiers, this farming technology will have a low environmental footprint. However, the technology is currently expensive and requires strategies to enhance its productivity and profitability.

We recognise the urgent need to develop science-based solutions and technological innovations to shape the future of indoor farming. The specific requirements of indoor farming mean that we cannot merely adopt the traditional farming methods. Novel solutions that integrate multiple disciplines need to be developed, requiring multidisciplinary specialist teams to work together, as we plan to do at NUS.

We expect that any novel solutions will be adopted by the stakeholders (such as growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers) as soon as they are developed. Such solutions will be relevant to Singapore and the regional urban centres where several start-up companies have emerged in recent years.

Strengthening our food security

For land-scarce cities and nations, the production of some food in local vertical indoor farms is clearly one of the mitigating strategies to overcome challenges to food security.

The NUS Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF), which was officially launched in August 2022, aims to facilitate multidisciplinary research in the field of indoor urban farming. We will leverage on the wide spectrum of expertise at NUS to formulate sustainable and transformational science-based solutions for urban farming.

Besides the various aspects associated with the cultivation of food plants in indoor farms, we will also explore the production of novel biotech products (such as nutraceuticals and high-value proteins) via such ‘plant factories’. Integrating good environmental and farming practices to limit potential pollutants from the farms and indirectly promote public health is important for the long-term sustainability of indoor farming.

Principal Investigators (PIs) from the Faculties of Science, Engineering and School of Computing have initiated multidisciplinary research covering expertise in genomics and biochemistry of plants, microbiomes, food science and technology, materials and polymer science, data science and artificial intelligence (AI). More of such multidisciplinary teams that focus on improving plant performance in indoor farm conditions are expected to be established under the cross-boundary platform of SUrF.

This may involve selecting genetic materials and pinpointing optimal growth conditions through genome-editing, the control of microbiome and light wavelengths, phenomics and AI. The research teams will formulate technical plans for launching such flagship projects that will help in securing external research funding.

Efforts will also be made to coordinate the information flow regarding the various PI-driven research projects NUS is currently undertaking in this discipline so that the thematic effort will be better coordinated and projected to our industry partners.

Some examples of multidisciplinary research for urban farming at SUrF

The major scientific and technological gaps and challenges of indoor farming will help to shape our research plans.

This will include developing:

  • novel plant varieties using genome editing or genomic selection/molecular breeding techniques
  • integrated pre-harvest production system followed by post-harvest processing including wavelength-controlled LED systems
  • a detailed knowledge base of nutrients and nutraceuticals specific for indoor crops
  • beneficial microbial consortia to improve crops
  • optimal management solutions using novel, non-destructive sensors for plant metabolites & the environment, together with data science and AI
  • robotics for indoor farms
  • novel materials from farm waste streams
  • mitigation strategies for future/emerging microbial threats associated with innovative agricultural practices

These fundamental and multidisciplinary research areas cannot fit within the R&D scope of small or medium companies. Hence, the currently available solutions are generally unsatisfactory because they tend to merely assemble various off-the-shelf solutions. With integrated approaches that can be undertaken in a full-spectrum university such as NUS, we have the potential to develop disruptive solutions for the emerging urban farming industry and make impactful contributions for societal benefits.

Partnering with the various stakeholders

NUS PIs will continue to hold periodic discussions with Singapore-based agribusinesses that include both upstream producers of multiple large-scale agricultural products (such as RGE/APRIL, Indofood Agri, Olam, New Agri Seed) and downstream partners (such as Archisen, SinGrow, Kalera).

In addition to the various participating NUS labs, a new indoor farming facility will be ready for research use at the start of 2023 within the NUS Faculty of Science. This core research facility, managed by SUrF, will house equipment for plant phenotyping and facilitate various projects undertaken by our PIs and their industrial collaborators.

Through these strategies and the participation of NUS PIs with their diverse research expertise, SUrF is designed to address multidisciplinary challenges. Overall, we hope that our research efforts in urban farming will contribute towards maintaining a low environmental footprint while enhancing our food security and health in 2023 and beyond.

About the author

Surf - Prof Prakash_cropProfessor Prakash Kumar is the Director of the NUS Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming. He is a plant biologist, and his research spans the areas of improving crop plant biomass, enhancing phytonutrients in leafy vegetables, and salinity tolerance mechanisms in plants. One of the projects he leads aims to develop novel biomimetic membranes incorporating water channels for desalination and water purification applications. Since starting his research career at NUS in 1989 he has published about 120 papers, many of them in prestigious international journals. He has served for several years as the Deputy Head and Acting Head of the Department of Biological Sciences, and as the Faculty Associate (Provost’s Office, NUS). He serves on various national and international committees and is the current Chairman of the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee, Singapore.

Looking to 2023 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the first instalment of the series.