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Supermarket shelves around the world were emptied as people panic bought due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, this brought attention to the republic’s overreliance on food imports and its subsequent food security. Fortuitously, Singapore made plans in 2019 to reduce its dependence on food imports with its “30 by 30” vision, whereby 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs will be produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10% today. 

Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food supply, making it especially sensitive to any changes in the global agricultural landscape. Major importers include Malaysia, Brazil and Australia. When Malaysia announced its lockdown, many Singaporeans scrambled to supermarkets, fearing that imported food from Malaysia would suddenly be cut off. Even before COVID-19, the climate crisis already posed a threat to global food supply, negatively affecting crop yields. Additionally, the amount of fertile land in the world has fallen by 33% in 40 years, yet demand for food is expected to increase as the global population continues to rise and the affluence of developing countries grows. Hence, in times of crises, having a robust local food supply to fall back on can act as a buffer to cushion Singapore from any negative food supply shocks.

Nearly tripling local food production in 10 years seems like a daunting task, but Singapore has a robust plan to achieve this “30 by 30” vision. 

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The heightened production will be mainly focused on eggs, leafy vegetables, fruits and fish. To increase food production and achieve the “30 by 30” plan, Singapore needs to convert more spaces for urban farming. Land is a precious resource in Singapore, with 5.6 million people in an area of 721.5 km², even smaller than New York City. As of 2016, agriculture occupied 0.93% of Singapore’s land area. By creatively tapping into underused and integrated spaces, Singapore hopes to produce more in less space. Recent plans have revealed that urban farms will be developed on carpark rooftops and integrated into multi-purpose sites, one of which was initially an old school campus. Singapore Food Agency has also been collaborating with other agencies to open up more of Singapore’s southern waters for fish farms, expanding on the one that is currently in operation. 

Improving technologies to increase production efficiency is also key to ramp up food production. In the field of agri-tech, heavy research and development efforts are ongoing. At the micro level, researchers are working to discover high yield and resilient genetic species. By detecting the chemicals plants emit, researchers aim to detect their precise optimal growing conditions. At the macro level, knowing these exact conditions can help to engineer resource-efficient and productive farming systems that will raise yields as well. Many considerations will also be taken to ensure food safety, by creating new models and systems to detect and predict any safety hazards in these new foods. 

Having the infrastructure and technology in place and creating an economic environment that supports enterprises will be the next step in promoting growth in the agri-food sector. A pool of experts that are well-versed in the urban farming and food production industry can help form suitable industry regulations that will help to reduce compliance costs and ensure a high standard of food safety. Grants for high-efficiency farms such as the Agriculture Productivity Fund (AFP)’s Productivity Enhancement (PE) scheme will encourage farms to improve and upgrade their technology, while reducing business costs. To train a future network of knowledgeable and experienced professionals, Singapore has set up certified courses in urban agricultural technology and aquaculture in tertiary education institutions, as well as a SkillsFuture Programme, a subsidised skills upgrading programme for Singaporeans. 

Encouraging Singaporeans to Buy Local Produce

Most importantly, the work to increase local supply must also be met by an increase in consumer demand. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) aims to raise Singaporean’s demand for local food by raising awareness about the existence and benefits of buying homegrown food. Holding a ‘SG Farmers’ Market’ several times a year that features local farms and putting a logo on produce that marks it as homegrown are part of SFA’s plans to shine a spotlight and raise awareness of local produce.

In light of the pandemic, the government has introduced a SGD$30 million (USD$22 million) grant for local producers who can utilise high-efficiency farming systems and quickly raise their output. Producers may apply and submit their project proposals for this grant, named the 30×30 Express grant, which will help approved applicants cover up to 85% of the project costs. This is on top of the existing SGD$144 million (USD$118 million) in the Singapore Food Story R&D Program, that supports research in the agri-food sector.

Moving forward, one key way Singaporeans can help to achieve the “30 by 30” target is to support and buy from local producers, as said by Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in Singapore. Singaporeans can also look forward to hearing more about new innovative developments as a result of the 30×30 Express grant, or a new urban farm sprouting up in their neighbourhood. 

Plant-based protein could be a powerful means to solve a global food crisis. A new UBS report states that sweeping technological innovations are transforming the global food industry by changing the way the world produces food. 

The United Nations estimates that the world’s farmers will have to produce at least 50% more food by 2050 as global population is expected to rise to almost 10 billion. Climate change and water scarcity are already having major impacts on global food production, while the world would face substantial declines in agricultural output by 2030 due to extreme weather conditions and water scarcity. 

Plant-based protein and lab-grown meat could be the answers to an impending food crisis and the climate crisis, according to research from Swiss investment bank UBS. 

A report by UBS titled Food Revolution states that the market for plant-based protein is expected to surge to $85bn over the next decade as people seek out alternative options that are more environment-friendly. With the technological revolution in agriculture, the segment will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 28% by 2030, from around $4.6bn last year. 

“Mock meat was an almost comical fad 20 years ago,” Wayne Gordon, a senior Asia-Pacific strategist at UBS Global Wealth Management, says in the 67-page report. “It’s no laughing matter today, given the industry’s meteoric rise in recent years.” 

Plant-based Protein and Climate Change

Unlike past trends, it is people who are driving the call for change and not corporations and governments. UBS predicts the developments in lab-grown meat would be accelerating over the next five years because of the growing calls to produce sustainable foods that have a lesser impact on water resources and climate. Global food production currently accounts for 40% of land use, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of freshwater consumption. Citing a study from Environmental Science and Technology, the report says that lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 78–96% while using 99% less land. 

“The ability to create food that replicates meat, fish, eggs and dairy products — with a lower carbon footprint and without the need to slaughter animals — is likely to become a commercially viable option in the next decade,” the report notes. “While science can’t yet create the texture of a fine steak, processed meat such as burgers, chicken nuggets, and meatballs are getting good reviews and are expected to be available on supermarket shelves within five years.” 

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Vertical farming is one of the solutions that could reduce boost yields and improve crop resilience.

Technological innovations such as gene-editing and 3D food printing could make food much healthier and more sustainable. “We first need to bust the lingering myth that technology is the enemy of natural, abundant, nutritional and affordable food,” the report says. “After all, technology is the only way to secure the nutrition needed without destroying the planet. The good news is that we are on the cusp of a global food revolution. Transformational change, in our view, is about to occur across every aspect of how the sector works and what it produces.”

Other technological solutions

The report also lists a number of other solutions that would mitigate climate crisis and solve the food crisis: 

Satellite-enabled systems

Precision farming technologies, including the use of data from high-resolution satellite images, meteorological records, and soil nutrient sensors, can help farmers both to reduce costs and enhance production yields. 

Smart farming

Vertical farming and algae aquaculture could reduce resource use, boost yields, and improve crop resilience. 

Supply chain innovation

Blockchain, food delivery apps, Internet of Things (IoT), and bioplastics could reduce food waste, improve provenance, limit fraud risks, and increase traceability. 

Water-saving technology

Digital and analytics technologies, like smart sensors in crop fields and satellite images to glean information about soil conditions, could enable producers to understand their water availability and utilise it with precision, hence reducing water waste. 

Big data and connectivity

Connected devices like IoT and sensors make it possible to gather vast amounts of data, such as humidity, local rainfall rates, and temperature variations, which can be used to optimise many processes.

Incredibly resilient tribal farmlands in eastern India show how to fight climate change with agrobiodiversity.

India’s agricultural sector, which employs almost 60% of the country’s workforce, is already under serious threat from climate-change-induced extreme weather events, desertification, agrobiodiversity loss, and land degradation. Many countries worldwide also face the same challenges. 

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has convened its 14th session of the conference of the parties (COP14) in India’s capital New Delhi this week to discuss these pressing issues.  

Meanwhile, almost unaware of the scientific debates, far away from the bustle of New Delhi, indigenous farmers in the tribal regions of eastern Indian state Odisha are effectively resisting climate change and maintaining the quality of their soil while protecting biodiversity with their traditional agrarian practices. Kondhs, an agrarian tribal community inhabiting the forest villages in Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal, and Kalahandi districts of Odisha, have turned their farmlands climate resilient by maintaining agrobiodiversity.

The Significance of Agrobiodiversity: ‘The Dongors’ of Odisha

Agrobiodiversity — or agricultural biodiversity — is crucial for food security and instrumental in climate adaption. Studies have revealed that it increases land productivity and maximise the effective use of resources. It also reduces pressure on forests and endangered species while conserving the natural structure of the ecosystem. 

Without reading any scientific papers or hearing about agrobiodiversity, the Kondhs of Odisha already practice the idea because of their traditional wisdom. They put the idea into practice by diversifying their crops and allowing insects, pollinators, flies, and birds to thrive on their farmlands. They choose lower hill slopes for their farmlands, where they cultivate a variety of crops ranging from paddy, millets, sorghum, leaves, pulses, legumes, vegetables, and tubers in a farming season and harvest them crop by crop between October and February every year.

Raina Saraka, a 55-year-old Kondh farmer Rayagada’s Leling Padar village, says that growing over 50 varieties of crops within a single farm is a standard practice in her village.

50-year-old Sunamain Mambalaka, a tribal woman farmer from Tada village, cultivates over eighty varieties of crops on her five-acre farm. Upland paddy, finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, sorghum, maize, edible leaves, black gram, horse gram, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans and several types of vegetables including tubers like yam, sweet potato, and tapioca have found their place on her ‘Dongor’ (a tribal name for farmland).

“Our Dongors are influenced by the forest around us. The forest thrives on the diversity of plants, while our Dongors thrive on the diversity of crops. It gives us everything, including the seeds for the next year’s harvest. If any single crop fails, we have many more to survive on,” Sunamain explains. “But, so far, I haven’t seen a crop failure here.”

50-year-old Sunamain Mambalaka works on her farmland.

In order to grow so many crops within one Dongor, the Kondhs rely on a sowing period that extends up to five months from April to August while taking climatic suitability into account.

“We broadcast the millet seeds on hill slopes during the summer and upland paddy seeds at the beginning of monsoon. Simultaneously we grow vegetables and other crops too,” says another farmer Kalia Mambalaka, 40. “While we pluck our vegetables almost daily, we harvest paddy and millets over a period of five months — between October and February next year.”

Farmers say that crop diversity, which ensures optimal use of natural resources, is very effective against soil erosion and land degradation. 

The resilient farms

The main crops cultivated by the Kondhs, like pearl millet and sorghum, are climate-smart and ideal for environments prone to drought and extreme heat. Traditional upland paddy varieties, which are harvested 60 to 90 days after sowing, consume less water making them resilient to drought-like conditions. These staple food crops are less likely to fail even in extreme heat.

The crops can also survive intense and untimely rainfall because of the cultivation pattern the farmers follow on their Dongors. “Rainwater cannot damage the crops because the thick shrubby black gram and groundnut plants remarkably slow down the speed of the water flowing down the hills,” explains Gani Kumbaruka, 40, a farmer from Rayagada district.

Kondhs do not use harmful pesticides. Instead, they let at least ten species of pests, insects, ants, flies, earthworms, spiders, birds and other pollinators to thrive on their lands. They call these species ‘dus parivar’ (ten families). 

“They allow pests and insects, and birds to visit Dongors freely,” says Debjeet Sarangi Managing Trustee at Living Farms — a non-profit promoting traditional and sustainable agriculture by indigenous communities. “This natural ecosystem works so well that they don’t need to use any kind of chemical fertilisers or pesticides.” 

An ideal model

A new climate report from the United Nations has warned that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. It said that rapid agricultural expansion has led to the destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems.

The agricultural practices of Kondhs not only increase food production, but also build capacity for climate change adaptation. They rejuvenate soil quality, reverse desertification, and conserve biodiversity and natural resources. For Kondhs, agriculture is not just about maximum yield, but it is also about protecting the ecosystem. Maybe, the rest of the world can learn a lesson or two from these tribal farmers. 

 

A new UN report has warned that climate change could trigger a global food crisis. The report outlines possible solutions including sustainable land management and increasing food productivity.

How will climate change affect food production?

The United Nations climate report warns that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. A steady increase in global temperatures will make things worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt the global food supply. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and released in Geneva last week, reveals that humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded. Rapid agricultural expansion has led to destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is 10 to 100 times higher than the soil formation rate. Such rapid land degradation has created spinoff effects.

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“When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon,” says the report. “This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation.”

The report also reveals that an estimated 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions that significantly warm the planet are caused by agriculture, cattle rearing, and deforestation. 

A warming atmosphere intensifies the world’s droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other weather patterns, and it is further speeding up the rate of soil loss, land degradation, and desertification. “Since the pre-industrial period, the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature,” the report says “climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.”

Possible solutions 

Warning that the window to address threats of climate change, food security, and land degradation is closing rapidly, the report offers a variety of solutions to address the challenges. 

Tactics like improving food productivity and increasing the carbon content of soil can simultaneously mitigate climate change, help regions adapt to warming, stop desertification, reverse land degradation, and enhance food security.

“The options with medium to large benefits for all challenges are increased food productivity, improved cropland management, improved grazing land management, improved livestock management, agroforestry, improved forest management, increased soil organic carbon content, fire management, and reduced post-harvest losses,” the report says.

Enhancing food productivity means using less land for agriculture, which could help preserve forest land retaining a natural carbon intake system. Those forests move moisture through the biome and help regulate temperature, reducing the impacts of warming. Trees in the preserved forest anchor the soil, slowing erosion and preventing desertification. That stabilising effect in turn helps reduce volatility in crop yields, enhancing food security.

Sustainable land management is an effective solution. “Land management can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation. It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation,” says the report. “Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost-effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation and mitigation.” 

Reducing food waste is another important solution. The report estimates that over 30% of food is lost or wasted, which has environmental costs as food waste accounts for upward of 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to drastically limit food waste, farmers would need less land, less fuel, less water, and less fertiliser, all of which would translate to a smaller environmental footprint. “Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain,” the report states. “By 2050, reduced food loss and waste can free millions of square kilometers of land.”

The most terrifying image of climate change is not the ocean rising above our homes. It is of desiccated fields of wheat and rice, desolated and abandoned, their parched soil drained of life; the effects of climate change are already affecting global food production, with the current scenes of devastation setting the tone for the not-so-distant future. 

We expected major crop failures to happen due to climate change in a distant future. But, new research shows it has already begun. Climate change has affected production cycle of the worlds’ top ten crops — barley, cassava, maize, palm oil, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, and wheat– across the globe. Some countries are faring far worse than others.

Published in PLOS ONE, the study, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Minnesota, Oxford, and Copenhagen, interpolated data on atmospheric variables, including temperature and precipitation, with crop yield.

The amount of yield change varies across different countries and regions, implying an inequality in the effects of climate change on crop variability.

“There are winners and losers, and some countries that are already food insecure fare worse,” says lead author Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, whose high-resolution global crop statistics databases have also been used to help to identify how global crop production changes over time.

About half of all food-insecure countries are experiencing decreases in crop production—and so are some affluent industrialised countries in Western Europe. Yields have generally decreased across Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia, all while displaying mixed responses in North and Central America and in Asia.

Europe saw a staggering decrease of 21.2% in dominant crop yields due to an increase in annual temperature across various regions. The decline strongly correlates with a reduction in consumable food calorie production. Countries like  Hungary experienced a 35% decrease in food calories production.

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India’s rice production is already shrinking due to extreme weather conditions

Sub-Saharan Africa faced a significant decline in food production with steadily negative yields. Maize–the most prominent crop in the region–has suffered a 22% decline directly linked to climate change.

Another study, published in Environmental Research Letters, points to similar trends in India. Yields from rice, the country’s main crop, experienced larger declines during extreme weather conditions in this decade.

How does climate change affect food production?

Around 80% of the world’s crops are rainfed. Farmers depend on the regular seasonality of harvests that for millennia has regulated crop growth and given rhythm to countryside life. However, climate change is altering rainfall patterns around the world. When temperatures rise, the warmer air holds more moisture and can make precipitation more intense. Extreme precipitation events, which are becoming more common, can directly damage crops, decreasing yields.

Global warming enables weeds, pests, and fungi to expand their range and numbers. In addition, earlier springs and milder winters allow more of these pests and weeds to survive for a longer time. Plant diseases and pests that are new to an area could destroy crops that haven’t had time to evolve defenses against them.

Hotter weather will lead to faster evaporation, resulting in more droughts and water shortages—so there will be less water for irrigation just when it is needed most. The ultimate effect of rising heat depends on each crop’s optimal range of temperatures for growth and reproduction. If temperatures exceed this range, yields will drop because heat stress can disrupt a plant’s pollination, flowering, root development, and growth stages.

There needs to be a global coordinated effort to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable will not run out of food; food insecurity is becoming a more pressing concern as climate change affects global food production, and these vulnerable people will be the first to suffer.

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