Newswise – In the face of challenges from climate change, population growth and potential food chain disruptions caused by pandemics and natural disasters, ensuring an adequate supply of food for the next decades requires a significant change in crop growth. One solution to alleviate food supply disruptions includes growing crops in indoor urban farms. However, just adopting currently available growing solutions from traditional outdoor farming is very inadequate for indoor vertical farming, as there are different requirements needed for successful indoor farming.
Addressing the need for indoor urban farming solutions, the National University of Singapore (NUS) officially launched the Research Center on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) on August 5, to bring together the diverse expertise of principal investigators across the university for new science to develop technology-based solutions for urban agriculture in Singapore. The launch event was graced by Mr. Lim Kok Thai, Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Food Agency, as Guest-of-Honour.
The university has committed S$10 million to build the new centre. In addition, the projects of researchers at SUrF have also secured external research grants of approximately S$11 million. SUrF had started operations in January 2022, while a new state-of-the-art research facility is expected to be completed in 2023.
“NUS is committed to making significant contributions to Singapore’s food policy agenda, together with partners in the public sector and industry. We aim to create a globally competitive research program in sustainable urban agriculture that integrates smart agriculture solutions for various stakeholders. The Research Center on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) provides a platform to focus our multidisciplinary efforts and accelerate Singapore’s food security research and innovation,” said Professor Tan Eng Chye, NUS President.
“SUrF offers an interdisciplinary team with expertise on plant science, genomics and gene editing, microbiome, food science, material and polymer science, sensor technology, data science, and artificial intelligence for indoor agriculture. Our research efforts in areas such as variety improvement and increasing the nutritional value of edible Plants could directly benefit growers and consumers. Our new solutions can contribute to making food production more efficient and sustainable for the long-term benefit of Singapore and the region,” said Professor Prakash Kumar, Director of SUrF.
A holistic and high-tech approach to food production
SUrF’s research area covers three stages of food production – namely pre-production, production, and post-production. The center aims to develop solutions for growers, and collaborate with local industries to address their needs.
A new facility for the center is expected to be completed by early 2023, with approximately 200 square meters of indoor plant growing area for research. There are three growth rooms, and an additional precision growth room where various environmental parameters, such as temperature and the light spectrum, can be varied to ensure better plant growth with possibly improved phytonutrients. Research equipment includes the PlantEye, a phenotyping system to monitor plant growth and record plant health in a non-destructive manner, and various analytical equipment to study nutrient content. The center will also have access to the high-tech laboratories at NUS to conduct molecular genetics research including gene editing.
Improved agricultural productivity from growth to post-harvest stages
There are currently 16 Principal Investigators in SUrF from the NUS Departments of Biological Sciences, Food Science and Technology, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science, and they lead about 10 research projects.
One of these projects focuses on improving leafy green varieties for urban farms. Most crops produced in indoor farms are not ideal cultivars for controlled environments because they are grown under field conditions. This causes ineffective and unsustainable indoor crop production with low yields. Research led by Professor Yu Hao, Head of the NUS Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) and Chairman of the SUrF Management Board, and Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim of NUS DBS, are exploring advanced breeding strategies, including genomic selection and gene editing, to create leafy vegetable varieties with traits adapted to controlled environments to maximize agricultural productivity and quality.
Researchers are looking to improve the yield and nutritional value of economically important food crops, including choy summ and kale for indoor growing. Other characteristics such as taste, shelf life, metabolite and nutritional value can also be selected for new plant species for consumption.
Another project, led by NUS DBS Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, focuses on developing sustainable agricultural management practices by studying interactions between crops and microbes in their environment. For example, researchers have found that root-produced volatile organic compounds promote microbial biofilms, which in turn can promote plant growth by 25 to 30 percent. With a comprehensive understanding of the plant-microbe-environment system, researchers can target specific interactions of interest and develop new agricultural solutions. Specifically, the team designed bio-inoculations of plant growth-promoting bacteria that can handle different agricultural circumstances, such as growing plants in different growth substrates, including soil, peat, and coconut fibers, or the use of hydroponic systems. This could improve crop production and resilience in a sustainable manner, while reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers.
Post-harvest intervention can also help improve the nutritional qualities and microbial safety of produce. A project led by Professor Zhou Weibiao, Head of the NUS Department of Food Science and Technology (FST) and Co-Chair of the SUrF Management Board, and Assistant Professor Li Dan of NUS FST and Associate Director of SUrF, targets the wastage of leafy vegetables and the Singapore distribution chain by improving the quality and shelf life of products in retail storage. Currently, Singapore’s distribution chain is heavily dependent on refrigeration that does not kill microorganisms that cause spoilage. The team’s preliminary results showed that LED lighting not only eliminates organisms that cause spoilage, but also improves the nutritional quality of leafy vegetables. The next steps for the research team include developing LED lighting technology specifically for leafy vegetables commonly consumed in Singapore and testing their technology in simulated retail conditions.
Going forward, SUrF aims to create multidisciplinary teams to discuss and propose joint projects to support the food sustainability efforts of various government and research agencies. The Center also wants to facilitate close collaboration and focus group discussions with industry representatives to propose innovative solutions for local urban agriculture.
For more information about SUrF, please visit – https://www.dbs.nus.edu.sg/surf/.