The small island nation, Singapore is modern, futuristic, and home to some of the most impressive buildings in the world. But, there’s one thing that’s hard to find in this skyscraper-studded country and that is — farmland. With over five million people thronged on a landmass of just 715 square kilometers, Singapore has only 1% of its land available for agriculture. This explains why more than 90% of its food requirements come from other countries. Such heavy reliance on food imports makes it vulnerable to global supply shocks and price disruption, posing serious threats to its food security. Committed to changing this scenario, an ardent agricultural entrepreneur who is paving the way forward for sustainable urban farming in Singapore is Peter Barber, the CEO of ComCrop, a pioneering rooftop farming company in Singapore.
“What we have done with ComCrop is to show that it is possible to turn traditionally under-utilized or marginalized spaces, such as rooftop car parks, into controlled-environment food production eco-systems that are closer to consumers than ever before. This move is an important achievement in a country like Singapore where food security is a pressing issue,” elucidates Peter.
The Journey to the Prominence
Prior to joining ComCrop, Peter spent several years working as one of Asia’s top video editors. He is also a co-founder of Blackmagic Design, a company that creates broadcast equipment, state-of-the-art video software, and digital cinema cameras. The visionary entrepreneur joined ComCrop in 2017 as co-owner and CEO, and with his business savvy, strategic acumen, and a keen eye for production, he has led this farm from strength to strength, ushering its pesticide-free produce onto supermarket shelves across the island.
Harvesting the Highest Quality Pesticide-Free Produce
ComCrop grows a variety of leafy greens and herbs on rooftops in the heart of Singapore. It makes sure its produce is grown using pesticide-free methods. This changes people’s expectations and appreciation of vegetables, from relatively inexpensive and indistinguishable packets in supermarkets to fresh, healthy produce with the quality they can be confident of. While shipping, most of its products are packed with roots still intact, so that the vegetables continue to stay alive throughout the transportation process. This extends the lifespan of its vegetables in the fridge and minimizes the wastage that typically occurs during the shipping process especially if from overseas. The farming company also offers instructional videos to encourage its customers to better understand and appreciate the growing process, thereby valuing its food more and wasting less.
Reducing the Carbon Footprint and Energy Consumption
Since the company harvests daily and sends them out quickly, it spends very little energy on chillers to store the vegetables. Also, with the use of heat-adapted crops, it strives to minimize its impact on the consumption of environmental resources. “Our energy consumption is also much lower than indoor farms, in fact on par with traditional soil-based farms because we use natural sunlight instead of energy-intensive LEDs,” asserts Peter.
ComCrop’s model hydroponic workflows produce a much higher yield per area than soil-based farms. It uses fewer resources than traditional soil-based farms because its water and nutrients are continually cycled, reducing the amount of runoff which is both a waste of resources and often carries a huge negative impact on the environment. Moreover, it continues to advocate for the support of locally-produced vegetables, simply because it can cut down on the carbon footprint and energy consumption associated with cold chain logistics over large distances.
Ensuring Food Security with the Best Use of Technology
The culture at ComCrop revolves around finding the best techniques and methods of growing healthy, pesticide-free produce for the community in marginalized urban spaces. “Unlike others, we don’t pretend to have invented “special technology” that revolutionizes food production. The truth is, virtually all the “high-tech” farms in the world utilize a form of hydroponics (or aeroponics), the science of which has been around for many decades. What sets productive farms like ComCrop apart is our experience of local growing conditions and expertise in using these technologies in the best way,” affirms Peter.
According to Peter, the best use of technology combined with efficient power use is incredibly important to produce vegetables and make them available at a similar price point to regional imports. In the opinion of the agricultural entrepreneur, food security is the ability to produce a higher quality, healthier product that lasts longer, yet costs the same or less than the international imports. “We are feeding our community, and we can’t expect them to pay more for their food just because it’s produced locally at higher standards. We need to displace part of the global imports and integrate them into the existing supply ecosystem. Then, as we get better at supplying to our local market, we will eventually be in a position to become a net food exporter, just like Holland. It may be a bold target, but I think it is worth aiming for,” adds Peter.
The pioneering farming company also works with social service organizations to figure out how it might tailor work such that people with disabilities (PWDs) can seek employment in farms like ComCrop. It understands that everyone has different strengths. Therefore, it strives to have open conversations with its staff on how they might best contribute in areas they are most interested in or are most able to contribute.
Aims to Make Food Production More Cost-Effective and Sustainable
At present, ComCrop is focusing on expanding its production site. Banking on the past few years’ experience on rooftop farming, now, it has the expertise and know-how of the best conditions and technology to apply to the rest of the available space. Based on this extensive experience and knowledge, by the end of next year, it aims to have over 3000 square meters of controlled environment growing space that will produce over 220 tonnes of vegetables a year. In addition to this, ComCrop has multiple rooftop farm projects in the pipeline over the next 24 months in Singapore and around the world.
Under the insightful leadership of Peter, the company is also closely following the new developments in growing techniques and technologies and is exploring methods that will make indoor controlled environment food production more cost-effective and sustainable. “Some people may laugh at me, but I genuinely believe that the long-term goal for Singapore should be to get so good at cost-effective, high-quality food production, that we can be a model for sustainable urban food production, much as the Dutch are an example of a small country that solved their internal food security and is now a global supplier,” concludes Peter.