Sunday, 11 February 2018

Rise of high-tech farming - a worrying trend

This is a follow-up post I wrote in response to some feedback on my previous post Indoor High-Tech Farming Vs Natural Farming.

Certainly, high-tech farming is perceived by many as the future of agriculture for food security, feeding the world's 9 billion people by 2050. High-tech farmers are cropping up in many places around the world.

An Internet search on high-tech farming would give you results like these:
  • The High Tech Farms Where Our Future Food Will Grow in Nothing But Air
  • Vertical Farming - An Urban Agriculture Solution
  • The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century
  • This Farm of the Future Uses No Soil and 95% Less Water
  • Future food-production systems: vertical farming and controlled-environment agriculture
  • A rosy future for vertical farming
  • Urban farming in Singapore has moved into a new, high-tech phase

It is worrying to see this global wave because I see many problems with high-tech farming.

The main issue is that high-tech farming does not pay attention to how nature works.

In recent years soil biologists are discovering the essential role of soil food web in the healthy growth of plants. Plants need to interact with communities of soil microbes around their root zone (rhizosphere). One group of bacteria, called the Plant Growth Promotion Bacteria (PGPB), supplies nutrients and hormones to the plants. These bacteria also protect the plants against diseases. Examples of PGPB include Pseudomonas, Enterobacter, and Arthrobacter. In fact, the soil creatures in the different trophic levels such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, arthropods, all work together to benefit the growth of plants. Soil is a very complex biological system, which science today is only beginning to understand. Healthy and diverse soil life is the key to healthy soil, which in turn produces healthy and nutritious crops.

High-tech farming ignores the biology and the role of healthy soil. They focus on the chemistry and dictate a cocktail of macro- and micro-nutrients in their nutrient solution for their plants. They grow crops using industrial processes, just like manufacturing iPhones in a factory.

Inside a high-tech farm

Food, whether plant or animal, is part of nature and needs nature's elements (sun, rain, soil, day and night, other plants and animals) to grow healthily. They should not be grown using industrial processes. The two following videos show a high-tech vegetable farm and a high-tech chicken farm. Their technologies are certainly impressive, but the food they produce are not healthy, not to mention the ordeals those chickens have to go through from the day they hatch to the day they are slaughtered.

Growing vegetables using industrial processes

Rearing chicken using industrial processes

There are many other issues with high-tech vegetable farming - high on capital, materials, machines and energy, etc. And much of the materials used are not recycled or not recyclable, such as sponge cubes, net pots, phenolic foam, etc., and are simply discarded as general waste.

Apparently, their yield per acre may be high, but their nutrients per acre is certainly low.

Ecological model of agriculture such as natural farming not only produces better quality food in terms of flavours and nutrition, but it also has a mutually benefiting relationship with nature. While we are growing food for ourselves, we are also returning ecological services to nature - creating habitats for wildlife, sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change, restoring soil fertility, etc.

2015 was UN's International Year of Soils to raise full awareness among civil society and decision makers about the profound importance of soil for human life. It is encouraging to see more such global efforts in recent years, such as:

Soil Solutions:
Kiss the Ground:
4 Per 1000 Initiative:
Regeneration International:

In "land-scarce" Singapore, how can we contribute to these efforts? Please read my 2016 post: We need more small farms

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Farmers' markets in Singapore and Hong Kong

A very stark difference in the use of plastic can be seen when you view the videos of the farmers' markets of Singapore and Hong Kong side-by-side. I am grateful to my friend , CY Ong, for editing the videos for me.

One more thing I observed when I visited the farmers market in Hong Kong is that the vendors were mostly the farmers themselves. They could answer in detail my questions on their farming practices. Many of them were small family farms. While some were certified organic by accredited certifying agents, the rest were proudly self-certified. They explained that they did not need a third party to certify for them. They'd rather do it through direct customer-farmer relationship. Also, being small family farms, they did not have the resources to go through the long, tedious and expensive process of organic certification.

Over the past few years, the organic label is becoming more and more of a marketing tool. We should be wise enough to distinguish "industrial organic" from genuine organic. Industrial organic farms are moving far away from the original definition of organic agriculture by USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB): “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

For consumers, it is better to know your farmers and understand their farming practices, which are so important to our health and that of the environment.

In agriculture, it seems that "Small is beautiful." is more true than "Bigger is better."

Have you heard of Akinori Kimura's MIRACLE APPLES and Hong Kong's 鶴藪白 (a variety of bok choy)? The stunningly delicious apples and the flavourful bok choy were both grown by small farmers who really took care of their soil and farms' natural environment.

If you would like to experience better the sights and sounds of the two farmers markets, please watch the original videos:

Singapore farmers' market

Hong Kong farmers' market

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Indoor High-Tech Farming Vs Natural Farming

High-tech indoor farming is a major issue in agriculture among others such as GMO, chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Ever since Dickson Despommier put forward the concept of indoor vertical farming, there has been a growing trend in indoor vertical farms in many places around the world using high technologies such as aeroponics, hydroponics and LED lighting. Some use totally enclosed systems where all environmental factors are controlled by sensors and computers.

They claim that high-tech indoor farming produces much higher yield, has no pest problems, saves water, time and labour.

Once in a farmers' market, I overheard how a staff of a high-tech farm promote their produce to a potential customer in a misleading way: "Our vegetables are grown in completely sealed rooms. Therefore there are no bugs and we don't need to apply pesticides. Hence, our vegetables are organic"

The video clip below shows how some high-tech farmers boast their farming systems.
@0:40 "Plants don't need sun, they need spectrum. They don't need soil, they need nutrients, micronutrients."
@1:56 "If you said to me the best-tasting basil I ever had was the one I was on vacation in the south of Italy in June 2006. I can literally go back through historical environmental records and find light, temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and go recreate that environment in my box here and grow that same-tasting basil for you."
@2:54 (Dickson Despommier) "A lot of people say 'I hate the idea of farming in buildings because it is not natural.' l love them when they say that. I just love to hear that. Why? Because farming is not natural. Ha ha ha!"

As a professor,  Dickson Despommier may be knowledgeable, but certainly there is no wisdom in his words. His saying "Farming is not natural" refers to that any form of farming involves human intervention and therefore is not natural.

True natural farming works in coordination with nature. Crops are planted according to seasons, climate, soil types. It is a nature-centred rather than human-centred farming approach. So, any "human intervention" in natural farming is for the benefit of nature and living things, including human.

Unlike iPhones, crops are part of nature and must not be manufactured using industrial processes.

Plants need to grow in a natural environment, constantly interacting with all natural elements including all kinds of creatures both above and in the soil. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb sunlight and produce sugars, as much as 40% of which are released from the roots into the soil to feed the microorganisms. In return, the microorganisms extract nutrients and minerals in the soil and supply them to the plants. These soil microorganisms also protect the plants against pathogens.

Also, plants' ability to produce phytonutrients depends on many environmental factors such as UV in sunlight and soil microorganisms. Scientists believe that there are more than 100 thousand phytonutrients existing in plants. Many phytonutrients, such as carotenoids, polyphenols and flavonoids, are vital in maintaining human health. Many of them also give the colours and flavours of plant foods.

Natural farming encourages biodiversity. The richer the biodiversity, the better nutrients cycle in the farm and this is how the soil gets its fertility.  Fruits and vegetables grown in healthy and fertile soil are healthy, nutritious and rich in flavours.

Whereas, high-tech indoor farming ignores the laws of nature, and totally shuts out all natural elements in the environment. Such a human-centred farming approach can only produce less nutritious crops and is not helpful to the environment.

Unfortunately, the life of many people has become disconnected from nature and its life-giving benefits. It is easy for them to believe that vegetables grown indoor under artificial environment are safe, clean and hygienic. They also believe that vegetables grown with their roots submerged in nutrient solutions instead of soil are healthy and nutritious, and they are willing to pay high price for these vegetables, which are usually appealingly packaged, but lacking in nutrients.

With efforts such as the 4 per 1000 initiative by the French government, it is hopeful that more people will soon realize that ecological farming approaches such as natural farming are part of the solution to food security and climate change.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Fertilizers can cause "empty fatness" in vegetables

(The Chinese version of this article was published in Lianhe Zaobao on 13 August 2017.)

Applying too much nitrogen fertilizer to vegetable crops would increase the nitrate concentration in the vegetables, causing health concern such as Blue Baby Syndrome and cancer. Actually, applying too much fertilizer to vegetable crops would cause "empty fatness" in vegetables. It is like feeding too much junk food to children, causing them to be obese.

If a farmer looks after the soil really well, natural processes will keep the soil fertile and hence there is no need to apply fertilizers, whether organic or synthetic. There is a wide range of organisms flourishing in a healthy soil, including small animals, worms, insects and microbes. In the Rhizosphere (root zone), there is a large amount of microbes helping to release the nutrients in the soil and supply them to the plants, which in return feed the microbes with its exudates (secretions through the roots, mainly sugars produced by photosynthesis).
Many legume plants (peas and beans) contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within nodules in their root systems. Rhizobia fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can absorb. The high-temperature and high-pressure conditions during lightning also fix atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, which dissolve in rainwater, forming nitrates, that are carried to the earth.

Natural fertilizers are what plants really need. 

Furthermore, the creatures in the air, on the land and in the soil such as birds, insects, small mammals, all help the cycling of nutrients in the environment. This is how the soil gets its fertility naturally. Natural fertilizers are what plants really need, not artificial fertilizers. Besides, artificial fertilizers would adversely affect the healthy structure of soil and break the natural nutrient cycles.

Creatures in and around the farm help the cycling of nutrients,
thus adding fertility to the soil.

If fertilizers (especially nitrogen) are applied too frequently or too much, the vegetables may grow faster, but they may not have the time to absorb other nutrients sufficiently. The vegetables, although bigger in size, are not healthy and more prone to diseases and pests. If we consume such vegetables, we won't be healthy too.

Vegetables that are big and look nice may not be really healthy. They may be the products of commercial farms where a lot of fertilizers are used to boost the yield. Such vegetables may not be rich in the nutrients that they should contain, especially phytonutrients, which are so important to our health.

Small natural farms in the neighbourhoods
Most of the fruits and vegetables sold in Singapore are imported from Malaysia, China and Australia. It is difficult for us, the consumers, to know for sure the farming practices used by the commercial farms in those countries.

We need to shift from the thinking that productive farms must be of industrial scale and occupy large areas of land. Land scarcity in Singapore is actually an opportunity for us to establish small, but yet productive natural farms. An UN report in 2011 predicts that small farms employing simple ecological methods will play an important role in addressing the world's food issues. These small natural farms not only produce healthy, nutritious food, but also create a conducive environment for both people and wildlife.

I hope that the leaders in Singapore, with their foresight, will seriously take this into consideration in their land use policy planning. There are unused green spaces all around Singapore. Some of these green spaces can be converted to small natural farms run by groups of people not as commercial farms, but as something similar to Food Commons, or as the next level of Community in Bloom initiatives. These small farms are not just recreational gardens where folks spend their leisure time. They should be productive farms and contribute to the food resilience of our nation, besides serving other functions such as enhancing the natural environment, education, community bonding and recreation. The planned Tengah Forest Town, which has an area of 700 hectares, has a huge potential of establishing a few larger natural farms too.

There are unused green spaces all around Singapore.

I vision Singapore to be a nation with many small natural farms in the neighbourhoods, where people come and get connected with nature, grow and share their food, and enjoy the lush, lively natural environment.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The "Terroir" concept applied to food crops
(The Chinese version of this article was published in Lianhe Zaobao on 5 March 2017.)

The French word "Terroir" refers to the set of environmental factors (soil, climate, etc.) and the farming practices employed to grow the grapes that give a wine its unique flavour and aroma.

For the same reason, the taste and flavours of vegetables are strongly related to the natural environment of the farm and the farming approach employed. Unfortunately, most vegetables available in supermarkets, and even wet markets, are rather tasteless.  These vegetables are probably grown (or rather, manufactured) in large commercial farms, which cannot afford to pay attention to "Terroir".

In Japan, a farmer called Akinori Kimura managed to grow stunningly delicious apples using "natural cultivation" method that employs neither pesticides nor fertilizers, not even organic fertilizers such as compost or manure. He points out that the key is in the soil.

In Hong Kong, about half a century ago, a farmer in a small village managed to grow a variety of Chinese cabbage which became famous because of its flavours and texture characteristic of the natural environment of the village. The variety was even given its own name "Hok Tau Pak Choi". Sadly, this variety is now extinct.  Those Hok Tau Pak Choi seeds available for sale online must be fake.

Photo credit: 江昱德 (鈴穀社會企業股份有限公司)

Soil is alive
Soil is not just a medium to physically support a growing plant. In nature, soil is alive with countless numbers of living creatures in it - microbes, insects, worms, etc. Above the soil, there are butterflies, bees, dragonflies, birds and other small animals. All this biodiversity, both in and above the soil, enhances the cycling of nutrients, and this is how soil gets its fertility.

The vitality of soil comes from soil microbes. Presence of healthy microbe communities in the soil is key to healthy plant growth. The world of soil microbes is much more complex than we can think. What we do know is that a lot of the nutrients that a plant needs come from the soil microbes through symbiotic exchange. It is obvious that a good farmer should take care to look after the natural environment both in and around the farm, including the soil. If too much fertilizer, whether organic or chemical, is applied, the communities of soil microbes will be adversely affected, leading to unhealthy plant growth and further problems such as high nitrate content and less nutritious crops.

Phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables
Besides vitamins, proteins and minerals, there is another very important group of nutrients, called phytonutrients, found in fruits and vegetables. Science estimates that there exists more that 100 thousand phytonutrients, but scientists have only studied less that one tenth of them, such as lycopene, anthocyanidin and carotene. Although phytonutrients aren't essential for keeping you alive, they help prevent disease and keep your body working properly. Among the benefits of phytonutrients are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, reducing cancer and heart disease risks. Phytonutrients are diverse in nature and many are responsible for the colours and flavours of the plant foods. That's probably why nutritionists ask us to take plant foods of a variety of colours.

So, how are phytonutrients produced in plants? It is "terroir" again. The set of natural environmental factors - climate,  soil, microbes, insects and animals, provides the conditions and ingredients for a plant to produce a complete set of phytonutrients in it. Human health comes from soil health.

While it is difficult for large commercial factory farms to produce crops rich in flavours and phytonutrients,  there are examples of successful small natural farms that use natural farming methods to produce healthy and nutritious foods for the communities, and are financially sustainable too. One such farm is Le Bec Hellouin Farm in France.

Small natural farms in Singapore - an opportunity
Land scarcity in Singapore is actually an advantage in establishing small natural farms. In every district, there are already amenities and facilities like community centres, parks, hawker centres, multiple-storey carparks, clinics, post offices etc. How about farms that produce food for the residents - the next level of the already successful Community in Bloom Initiatives by NParks. Not just gardens, but small farms of 0.1 to 0.5 hectares that seriously grow food for communities while looking after the environment. In this way, consumers (residents) are close to the farms and they can see the source of their food.

The Tengah Forest Town that our government is planning has a huge potential to establish a few bigger natural farms too.


香港鹤薮白 (Hok Tau Pak Choi in Hong Kong)