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Made in Singapore: Strawberries, and the Future of Sustainable Farming

By Bianca Husodo

Bianca Husodo/Felicia Yap

In one-north’s startup complex, an office, unassuming in its facade, houses a small research and development laboratory. A peek through its glass doors rewards curious passersby with the soft glow of magenta light illuminating from the lab, and an uncustomary sight of budding strawberry plants, stacked on metal shelves.

Strawberries are finicky to cultivate. More so in Singapore where year-round equatorial humidity hinders the growth of the cool-clime fruit. Thus the nation’s reliance on strawberry-producing countries, mainly Korea and Japan, for supply.

The strawberries grown indoors at Sustenir, then, are Singapore’s very-first to be grown for commercial consumption; a revolutionary milestone for local agriculture. 

Sustenir is a hydroponic facility. Said lab is a downscaled model of its 10,000 square feet farm, of which is tucked away within a seven-storey industrial building situated on the northern tip of Singapore. Inside the high-tech vertical farm, the plants aren’t rooted in soil. They are grown, instead, in a controlled-environment space with artificial lighting, lined in neat rows of beds assembled on shelves. Here, non-native crops — kale, arugula, basil, lettuce, cherry tomatoes — are nurtured, with strawberries being its latest addition.

Sustenir produces about 600 kilograms of strawberries a month. Monikered ‘Splendid Strawberries’, they are now carried at selected supermarkets such as Redmart and Cold Storage. Their kales (‘Kinky Kale’ and ‘Toscano Kale’), arugula (‘Almighty Arugula’) and basil (‘Brilliant Basil’), too.

“Not even human hands touch the plants. They’re so clean, you don’t even have to wash them,” says Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir.

The farm’s contact with the outside world is stringent to avoid contamination. Farmworkers and visitors are required to don scrubs, surgical masks and bouffant caps. An air shower is necessary prior to stepping into the sterile premise. External air is sealed off. The plants take in a regular supply of pure carbon dioxide that’s pumped in to help them photosynthesise, and in return, they release oxygen for the farm workers to breathe in.

In the modest-sized R&D lab, however, the system is laxer. An environment set up for experiments, innovations and collaborations, it’s designed for people to come and go. And dressed in his office attire, Swan was examining his strawberry test plants. He notes, “Some flowers or fruits are growing bigger, some smaller, some fruits are misshapen. We are testing different wavelengths of light to achieve different results.”

Bianca Husodo/Felicia YapSustenir co-founder and CEO, Benjamin Swan, at the R&D laboratory in one-north.
Sustenir co-founder and CEO, Benjamin Swan, at the R&D laboratory in one-north.

The Australian entrepreneur plucked a near-ripe strawberry from the middle shelf. “Try this,” he says, handing over the conical fruit. At first bite, its juice bursted — first with intense sweetness, followed by a zesty finish at the tailend. Its flesh was firm on the outside and softer at the core. It was good.

“We want to understand whether our customers want our strawberries sweeter or more bitter, which by the way is a thing. We’ve noticed our customers preferring that zest in the end rather than being overbearingly sweet like some varieties from Japan, especially when paired with champagne,” Swan quips.

He offered another from the lower shelf. Despite being merely one level of shelf apart, the taste was significantly tangier.

What Sustenir has learnt through its controlled environment growing techniques was not only that it could grow perfected products, but more imperatively, how to grow them optimally while tailored to the palates of the addressed demographic. Specific changes to the characteristics of the plants can be achieved by altering certain facets of growth — whether they’re light wavelengths; air temperature and humidity; or the macro- and micro-nutrients in the plants’ water. The novelty of soil-free crops raised within the closed confines of a building may raise questions on edibility. Are they safe to consume?

Unlike GMO methods, controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) adjustments are done on the plant’s external growth factors. The definitive difference between controlled environment farming and traditional outdoor farming is that the latter has no control over what its plants absorb, while the former does. In both cases, the plants still grow on its own, naturally gleaning nourishment from its respective environments. That being said, CEA vertical farm produce is just like traditional farm produce. Perhaps, better.

“What even the best-in-class of organic growers can’t do is control the air quality. When it rains, the heavy metal, the pollution — these go down into the soil. The plants soak them up, and we consume them,” Swan elucidates. 

At Sustenir, where everything that surrounds and goes into the plants is under constant surveillance, the end products that go into the market are scrupulously clean. “There’s zero pesticide because not even haze or pollution are in or on the plant,” he explains. “We think that goes beyond organic.”

SustenirInside the sealed-off farm in Admiralty, workers dressed in scrubs tend to the plants housed in rows of metal shelves.
Inside the sealed-off farm in Admiralty, workers dressed in scrubs tend to the plants housed in rows of metal shelves.

Traditional Farming Needs to Change

The concept of vertical farming has not been around long. The method, ostensibly coined in 2011 by Dickson D. Despommier — author of ‘The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century’ and a professor of parasitology and environmental science at Columbia University Medical School — is deemed one of the key answers to securing the sustainability of farming. 

According to a comprehensive new study issued last month by the World Resources Institute, the cold hard facts are staggering: Currently, agriculture occupies a rough 40 percent of the world’s land and is responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that the global population will grow from 7.2 billion people today to nearly 10 billion in 2050, requiring farmland the size of Brazil to feed the growing community. Farmers and ranchers will be pressed by the rising demand to cut down forests and other ecosystems for cropland and pasture. The environmental chain reaction, at large, is deadly.

The report alerts the acute need for drastic changes to ensure a viable future for food. Swan, knowing this full well, recognises vertical farming not as the silver bullet, but a conscious step towards securing that future.

Scarce in farming land and fishing grounds, Singapore is dependent on its neighbouring countries for food supply, importing over 90 percent of the nation’s food consumption, according to a 2017 report by Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore. Today, 53 percent of imported food is wasted on logistics alone. However, Swan believes the statistic has yet to factor in wastage after the produce is handed over to merchants, who would dispose 15–20 percent of it through shrinkage. And by the time the imported produce reaches the end consumers’ shopping carts, it no longer has lasting shelf or refrigerator life, having spent most of it on logistics. Spoiling within days, that’s another 10–15 percent of waste.

Sustenir“We have to pump carbon dioxide that we buy from the market into the room to help with photosynthesis. No air comes from outside,” says Swan. “The plants create oxygen so technically the air inside the room is 100% clean.”
“We have to pump carbon dioxide that we buy from the market into the room to help with photosynthesis. No air comes from outside,” says Swan. “The plants create oxygen so technically the air inside the room is 100% clean.”

In total, over 60 percent of produce wasted through centralised farming systems, says Swan. It also means that growers need to produce much more than what’s being consumed.

“We can get it to the community and tables the same day of harvest. We get rid of food waste and reduce carbon footprint. Plus, we guarantee our products to have up to two weeks in the fridge. So that’s zero waste for consumers,” he affirms.

On top of that, vertical farming produces more on less land and maximises yield on minimal input. “What we’re doing here increases yield as much as 127 times per square foot compared to traditional farming,” states Swan. “We don’t have seasons and we can extend our day cycles.”

The growing presence of vertical farms is not meant to cripple existing traditional farmers. These farms nurture varieties that are already grown in Singapore. “If we’re going to spend effort growing products inside a building then we should be growing the impossible products that can’t be grown in Singapore. Thereby bringing Singaporeans better variety,” Swan explains.

Strawberries and kales are the tip of the iceberg. At the moment, Sustenir’s laboratory is toying with the possibilities of cultivating grapes, goji berries and blueberries, while AI control systems and upgraded machines are phased in. The farm is integrating incremental improvements to expand the limits.

Sustenir Natural pollination: The vertical farm recently became home to 5,000 bees.
Natural pollination: The vertical farm recently became home to 5,000 bees.

“We’ve recently just hired 5,000 new workers at the farm,” Swan grins, handing his phone over to show a photo of a bee perched on a strawberry flower, tinted in the illuminating pink light of the facility. “Right now we have bees doing the pollination for us. Something that hasn’t been done before. We all went for a course to learn how to be around bees.”

The precursors of the bees were man-powered forensic brushes. It wasn’t practical and the success rate was low. In a bid to optimise both yield and operation efficiency, the idea of cohabitation with bees was thrown in. To Swan, it was a matter of “why not?”.

It always has been from the beginning. The former construct manager and regional project manager came across an article on nascent vertical farms. The designs he saw weren’t space-friendly. He knew he could improve them. Backed with zilch agriculture knowhow — “I have never planted a tree in my whole life.” — Swan set out on a self-learning journey, meeting professors and greenhouse operators who told him his idea would never work.

Today, Sustenir runs on a patented farming system entirely designed by Swan and his team, creating their own infrastructure, technology and methodologies. The independent start-up has come a long way.

Still, for a global farming shake-up to take place, indoor farmers and outdoor farmers have to come together. “We want to be able to place our indoor farms in every major city, but take those lessons learned from indoor planning to outdoor farming and help feed the community better,” Swan says. “Through educating the community on the benefit of quality over quantity, we can reduce our farming requirements to meet the growing population.”