Environment & energy, Food & water | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

12 June 2020

COVID-19 has exposed the ills and virtues of local communities, national systems, and global regimes when it comes to food, Cecilia Tortajada and Andrea Biswas write.

Since the pandemic began, talk of all things food has gained prominence in public and private. In fact, it has garnered a level of attention perhaps only rivalled by the stellar place toilet paper took in the collective imagination.

At the height of the quarantine, a rushed walk through supermarket aisles in large Asian cities showed the extent to which food security strategies have been successful. In countries like Singapore and South Korea, shelves remained fairly well stocked, despite relying on food imports for 90 per cent and 75 per cent of their food respectively.

These countries have been aware of their vulnerability to shocks to food supplies and have planned accordingly. Singapore has stockpiled, diversified imported sources, encouraged local production, and grown overseas for decades.

In 2019, it launched its 30-30 goal, which aims at producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, and in early 2020, it launched an acceleration fund to further boost urban agriculture.

However, this is not the story of the whole region, and things could not be more different in the Pacific Island countries and territories, who face concerns over basic food supplies. Years of cheap imports of low nutritional value have been linked by some to a rise in cardiovascular diseases, and food production has already been affected by climate change.

In this hyperconnected world, how could national food security strategies improve? Changes to prepare for weather disruptions in overseas farmers’ ability to grow crops, or to solve logistical issues abroad that delay the delivery of agricultural inputs could be invaluable.

More on this: Food security after COVID-19: Staying afloat in Indonesia

Food importers cannot force food trade flows or stop food protectionism abroad, but shortening and tightening existing supply chains is possible, including establishing new ones in urban areas, and extending social protection to ensure food is readily and affordably available to those who need it.

To strengthen urban food systems, there are great hopes for initiatives that are more sustainable, climate-resilient, healthy, and scalable. A closer look to fresh produce figures reveals the potential of highly sophisticated initiatives such as vertical farming.

In land-starved Singapore, close to 14 per cent of leafy greens have been grown in 77 urban farms, including 25 highly mechanised vertical farms and two rooftop gardens.

In Japan, a single farm in Kyoto has been growing 30,000 heads of lettuce daily, and in Fukushima, a vertical farm in an abandoned semiconductor factory can produce up to 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, amounting to 100 times the productivity – measured per 0.1 square metres of land – of traditional farming methods.

Vertical farms are also quickly taking hold in South Korea, where they have been established even in metro train stations in Seoul. Taiwan is now housing the largest indoor plant production facility in the region, and this technology is quickly expanding in Hong Kong, another land-constrained city that imports almost all of its fresh food.

The main drivers for vertical farms include rising demands for healthier food, the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact, and limited availability of arable land, but disruptions to food supply chains due to the global health emergency and climate change have heightened interest for these innovations too.

More on this: Asian responses to COVID-19

Sheltered away from pests and weather elements, indoor facilities could be expected to establish stable, resilient, closer to consumers, environmentally sustainable food supply chains. Since they hold the promise to grow nutritious vegetables in more sustainable ways, they have been heralded as the next big solution to address food insecurity, the professionalisation of agriculture, and encouraging young people to farm.

It is estimated that the Asia-Pacific region will hold the largest share of the vertical farming market by 2022 of anywhere in the world. Technologically advanced countries such as Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan are those driving this growth.

Despite its huge potential, however, vertical farming has been limited to a small range of products, and commercial vertical farms overwhelmingly tend to produce higher-value crops like leafy vegetables, herbs, and berries.

Speaking in calories, these represent only six per cent of the food energy we consume. It will take time for these enterprises to commercialise staple crops like pulses and tubers, if they ever do.

Additionally, while they are much more efficient in terms of water and consumption, vertical farming operations can become unprofitable compared to traditional farming due to high electricity costs. In some cases, the overall cost of produce can be up to 20 to 30 per cent higher than conventionally grown foodstuffs.

Expansion of these farms may be limited to those able to afford high capital costs, not to mention the necessary know-how to build an entirely integrated system. Efficient systems have to interact with the entire building infrastructure and there is still more work to be done to ensure more comprehensive energy management, including for cooling facilities.

In spite of these limitations, there is no reason to abandon the pursuit of such innovations. Quite the contrary. The means to feed larger populations can simultaneously come from neighbourhood and rooftop gardens, backyard greenhouses, urban and vertical farms, lab-grown meat, mushrooms, legumes, soybeans, and even insects shaped into compelling meat alternatives.

This can take the form of small or large-scale agriculture, not to mention the use of highly sophisticated technologies that promise to grow rice in seawater.

Innovation across the board is essential to improving food safety, security, and resilience in ways that respect the environment and the people growing, harvesting, transporting, serving, and dealing with food.

The growth in these local initiatives during the pandemic has shown that the agriculture sector could do a great deal to improve community-level food security, and just how many potential systems are worth exploring and promoting. If the world is to feed its billions of people, especially during testing and disruptive times, some things will have to change, and COVID-19 has made clear how much promise there is in this space.

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