[The Star] 4 engineers believe vertical farming offers answer to food sustainability
When Chew Jo Han decided to set up a small hydroponic system in his office because his fashion start-up was not doing well, his friends Jayden Koay, Looi Choon Beng and Low Cheng Yang joked that, if nothing else, he could survive on the vegetables grown!
But, jokes aside, Koay, Looi and Low were struck by how the plants were grown using artificial light.
With his interest piqued, Koay soon started filling his own balcony at home with hydroponic plants and even converted his bathtub into a germination area for seedlings.
“I started my own system, and my (now business) partners also started to do the same, at home or in their offices, ” said Koay, 32.
They then discovered a common problem – the industry was still in its infancy and materials, equipment like hydroponic fertilisers had to be bought from countries like Japan, Singapore, China and Taiwan. And, they were expensive.
“We realised that if we needed these materials, more urban farmers in the country would also need them. So, over a mamak session one day, we decided to start up a company to address this issue, ” he said.
CityFarm Malaysia was established in 2016. Within six months, they reported impressive sales. In 2017, they were invited to join a United Nations programme held in Kuala Lumpur, where they gained a bigger perspective on urban farming, and specifically, vertical farming.
“We realised we should have a bigger vision of not only solving industry problems but food security (the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food) issues as well.”
“We wanted to play a bigger role and that’s when we decided to start a consultancy services to plant factories in Malaysia, to get the required technology in and to prepare ourselves for the next 30 years, ” said Koay.
Vertical farming refers to large scale, mostly indoor, system where crops are grown vertically in layers of racks.
The United Nations estimates that the world population will reach over 9 billion by 2050, out of which two-thirds will be living in urban areas.
A study recently published in the journal Bioscience estimates that overall food production needs to be increased by 25-70% between now and 2050. However, at present, over 80% of arable land suitable for agriculture are already being used.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealed that one-third of all food produced for human consumption, valued at US$1tril (RM4.2tril), is lost or wasted each year.
That’s where vertical farming – touted as one of the possible answers to food sustainability – comes in.
Employing hydroponics, aeroponics or hybrid systems, this method involves growing plants like vegetables, herbs and fruits in a highly-controlled environment where temperature, humidity, light, air, wind and water levels are strictly monitored.
The benefits are many, ranging from higher yield – experts estimate that a 30-storey farm could feed 50,000 people for an entire year – to no wastage from spoilage due to unfavourable weather. This way of farming also reduces water consumption by up to 70% compared to traditional farming, prevents food-borne illnesses such as E. coli, and reduces the need for pesticides or herbicides.
Seasonal produce can also be harvested all year round since there is no dependence on climate. Produce that reach consumers are also fresher as they do not need to travel from out-of-city farms.
Verticals farms located in cities are also good for the environment in terms of reducing carbon footprint from transportation costs.
However, there are downsides to vertical farming – high start-up costs, constant monitoring required, high power consumption from constant use artificial lights (although energy-efficient LED light technology is used), and power outage problems.
And staple crops like rice and wheat have yet to come under large scale vertical farming projects.
However, the fact remains that more and more vertical farms have been cropping up all over the world, Malaysia included.
To date, CityFarm’s portfolio of customers include those from the commercial, research, education and retail sectors, to individuals. Clients come from Shah Alam, Melaka and Johor Baru to as far as Kuching and Sibu.
A trend that is here to stay“Hydroponic systems – which is basically planting using water – have been around for a while in villages as well as modern households. Before, it’s more like a hobby and trend. But now, hydroponics is part of urban farming, ” said Koay.
Personally, he said he would rather use the term ‘soil-less planting’ as opposed to hydroponics.
“The definition of hydroponics today is different from before, when it was considered hydroponics as long as you used water and not soil. Today, it’s more of a hybrid. In general, as long as water-soluble fertilisers are used, it is considered a hydroponic system.
“What we have is deep water culture (which is done in rectangle boxes), a type of hydroponics. With this system, we enjoy the benefits of using water but also face the challenges that come with it, ” he explained.
These include issues related to micro-organisms, air quality, temperature control, concentration of nutrients, PH level and so on.
Hence, there is a need to train more urban farmers when it comes to water-based planting, Koay shared.
“They need to know what is inside the water and what are the parts per million (ppm) measurements. For example, tap water has 70-80ppm of chlorine in Malaysia, which is still acceptable to use. Another thing is the PH levels in the water. For example, you need PH6.5 for lettuce and there also needs to be adequate nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), ” he explained, adding that temperature, air quality and wind factor also need to be considered when it comes to indoor farming.
At the moment, three out of four main vegetable groups can be planted indoors – leafy greens, herbs and fruiting plants. Root plants can be cultivated indoors with the aeroponic system, something which Koay and his team will look at in the future.
While there is the perception that hydroponic vegetables can be ‘tasteless’ or ‘watery’, Koay explained that it all boils down to the nutrients added to the plants.
“The taste depends on the nutrients we give it. If we give the same nutrients as in soil planting, it will taste the same, ” he claimed.
The future of indoor farming
For now, Malaysia still has enough farmable land on the outskirts, but Koay and his team are looking way ahead.
“Urban farming is a solution to the food security issue and will have a future as long as urban populations continue to grow, which means more people to feed and less farmable land, ” he said.
In the next 10 years, Koay and his team aim to be the backbone of the industry where they will play a supportive role to customers.
“Secondly, we also need to educate people about how food is produced, that it’s not just soil, fertiliser and sunshine but there are other systems. Today, we are even able to manipulate the nutrients in vegetables, for example, lower the potassium content in lettuce.
“By 2050, we are confident that the industry will mature, thus lowering costs of indoor farming. We also hope that people will be more equipped with the knowledge of urban farming, and that it might be part of the syllabus in our education system too.
“The future must include indoor farming. If people are living vertically, our food production will need to grow vertically as well, ” he emphasised.
[The Edge] UPSTART: Taking urban gardening mainstream
Hydroponics player CityFarm Malaysia – born out of four friends’ love for urban gardening – lets you grow fresh lettuce and kale in your very own balcony garden.
[The Edge Malaysia] Future Farm Could Be In Plant Factories
Special thanks to The Edge Malaysia for featuring Cityfarm Malaysia under "Responsible Business 2.0" magazine.
[The Malaysia Insight] Farming gains ground in the city
THE notion that farming is an activity that requires a huge land area has been clearly debunked as urban farming gains ground among Malaysian city dwellers.
In the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Wong Min Lik has co-founded Moutou Art Space on the rooftop of a building at Lorong Panggong.
The 35-year-old Wong said the rooftop was empty space before they took over in December last year. Today, it has a bar and a garden which brimming with fresh vegetables and herbs such as lemongrass, ginger, mint, lemon, passionfruit, and bitter gourd.
"This is the first time we tried (growing a garden). This is a new experience, growing an edible garden in this city area," said Wong, who didn’t have any prior farming experience.
The full-time artist said the idea to grow their own garden was prompted by concerns about pesticide contamination.
Wong said the produce they gain from the garden is currently used for their own consumption, but they are eventually planning to distribute to communities around their area.
"We hope to influence others to do this, because the more people joining the initiative, the better for the environment," she said.
CityFarm Malaysia, a company specialising in indoor and vertical farming using the hydroponics method, said that demand for their hydroponic kits has increased almost tenfold since the company launched last year.
Run by engineering graduates Looi Choon Beng, Johanson Chew, and Jayden Koay, CityFarm was borne out of a hobby for the trio, who whose gardening kits are priced from RM13.90 for a beginner’s kit to a few thousand ringgit.
Looi, 28, said the public’s rising interest in urban farming could be due to greater health awareness as well as growing concerns over food shortages as the world population increases.
"All these factors will contribute to need for urban farming. Indoor farming promotes high utilisation of land.
"This will help to sustain the world in the future. Somebody needs to do this thing now, or else we will not be ready for a possible crisis in the future," he said, adding that the company also holds urban farming courses.
To address the lack of space and soil in the city, Plant Cartridge has come up with an ingenious method for city folk to grow their own vegetables without the need for any land.
The company has come up with a cartridge that acts as the growing medium for seeds. Essentially, growers need only to water the cartridge which contains nutrients and seeds, and watch their “farm” grow.
"Soil has three functions which are to hold the root so the plant doesnt fall, to retain water, and to house bacteria that will provide nutrients to the plant,” said company CEO Channing Liang.
"If you can replace these three functions, you don't need soil," Liang told The Malaysian Insight.
Environmental consultant Eats, Shoots and Roots believe that urban farming is a trend that is here to stay.
The key to sustaining the interest is education and support, and the group does not only provide gardening courses and workshops, it also helps to design gardens for city dwellers with with limited land space.
Strategy director Beatrice Yong said they have built 30 to 35 gardens since they started in 2012.
"I think food plays a very big part of taking care of your family so naturally you see people turning lawns into gardens," said Yong.
Yong, who grows spinach, sweet potato, chilli, and brinjal in her own garden, said having a personal garden at home does not only ensure the plants are safe to be consumed but also reduces one's spending.
"I think it's (urban farming) a trend but it's not going to die anytime soon.
“It will become a need in the future due to increasing prices of produce and other factors such as general health scares. People will prefer to grow their own food." – November 26, 2017.
Original Article: https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/24561/
【星洲日报】打造室内农场，当个城市农夫 (Sinchew Daily Featuring CityFarm Malaysia)
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