New NUS Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming seeks high-tech solutions to boost Singapore’s food security

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2022 0808 – SUrF launch_1
(anti-clockwise from front row extreme right) The NUS Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) is led by Professor Prakash Kumar, Director of SUrF, and comprises a multidisciplinary team including Professor Yu Hao, Chair of SUrF’s Management Board; Professor Zhou Weibiao, Co-Chair of SUrF’s Management Board; Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, Principal Investigator at SUrF; and Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim, Principal Investigator at SUrF.

In the face of challenges posed by climate change, population increase and potential food-chain disruptions caused by pandemics and natural calamities, ensuring an adequate supply food for the coming decades requires a significant change in crop growing. A solution to alleviate food supply disruptions includes growing crop plants in indoor urban farms. However, mere adoption of currently available growing solutions from traditional outdoor farming is grossly 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 Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) on 5 August, to bring together the diverse expertise of principal investigators across the University to develop novel science- and technology-based solutions for urban farming in Singapore. The launch event was graced by Mr Lim Kok Thai, Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Food Agency, as the Guest-of-Honour.

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2022 0808 – SUrF launch_2
NUS SUrF was officially launched on 5 August 2022 at an event graced by Guest-of-Honour Mr Lim Kok Thai (fourth from right), CEO of the Singapore Food Agency, and NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye (third from right).

The University has committed S$10 million to set up the new Centre. Additionally, projects by researchers in SUrF have also secured external research grants of about S$11 million. SUrF had commenced 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 towards Singapore’s food policy agenda, together with partners in the public sector and the industry. We aim to create a globally competitive research programme in sustainable urban farming that incorporates smart agriculture solutions for diverse stakeholders. The Research Centre 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 boasts an interdisciplinary team with expertise spanning plant science, genomics and gene editing, microbiomes, food science, materials and polymer science, sensor technology, data science, and Artificial Intelligence for indoor farming. Our research efforts in areas such as variety improvement and enhancing nutraceutical values of edible plants could benefit growers and consumers directly. Our novel solutions could 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 scope covers three stages of food production – namely pre-production, production, and post-production. The Centre aims to develop solutions for growers, and collaborate with local industries to address their needs.

A new facility for the Centre is expected to be completed by early 2023, with about 200 square metres of indoor plant growth area for research. There will be three growth rooms, and an additional precision growth room where various environmental parameters, such as temperature and the spectrum of light, can be varied to ensure better plant growth with, possibly, improved phytonutrients. Research equipment will include the PlantEye, a phenotyping system to monitor plant growth and record plant health in a non-destructive manner, and several analytical equipment to study nutrient content. The Centre will also have access to the high-tech laboratories at NUS to conduct molecular genetics research including gene-editing.

Enhanced agricultural productivity from growth to post-harvest stages

There are currently 16 principal investigators in SUrF from the NUS Departments of Biological Science, Food Science and Technology, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science, and they are leading about 10 research projects.

One of these projects focuses on improving leafy green varieties for urban farms. Most crop plants produced in indoor farms are unideal cultivars for controlled environments, as they are bred under field conditions. This causes ineffective and unsustainable indoor crop production with low yield. Research led by Professor Yu Hao, Head of the NUS Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) and Chair of SUrF’s Management Board, and Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim from NUS DBS, are exploring advanced breeding strategies, including genomic selection and gene editing, to create leafy vegetable varieties with traits tailored for controlled environments to maximise agricultural productivity and quality.

The researchers are looking into improving the yield and nutritional values of economically important food crops including choy sum and kale for indoor growing. Other traits such as taste, shelf life, metabolite and nutritional value can also be selected to breed new plant varieties for consumption.

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2022 0808 – SUrF launch_3
Professor Yu Hao (left) and Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim (right) with a kale cultivar tailored for indoor farming as part of their project on improving leafy greens for urban farms.

Another project, led by NUS DBS Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, focuses on devising sustainable agricultural management practices by studying interactions between crops and microbes in their environment. For example, researchers found that root-produced volatile organic compounds promote microbial biofilms which can, in turn, promote plant growth by 25 to 30 per cent. With a comprehensive understanding of the plant-microbe-environment system, the researchers can target specific interactions of interest and develop novel agricultural solutions. Specifically, the team designed bio-inoculants of plant growth-promoting bacteria that can cater to different agricultural circumstances such as growing plants in various growth substrates including soil, peat, and coconut fibres, or using hydroponic systems. This could improve crop production and resilience in a sustainable manner while reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers.

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2022 0808 – SUrF launch_4
Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup (right) with Dr Darren Sim (left) are working on developing sustainable agricultural management practices using microbes.

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 SUrF’s Management Board, and Assistant Professor Li Dan from NUS FST and Associate Director of SUrF, aims to minimise the wastage of leafy vegetables in Singapore’s distribution chain by improving the quality and shelf-life of produce in retail storage. Currently, Singapore’s distribution chain is heavily reliant on refrigeration which does not kill microorganisms that cause spoilage. The team’s preliminary results have shown that LED illumination not only eliminates organisms that cause spoilage, but also improves the nutritional quality of leafy vegetables. Next steps for the research team include developing LED illumination technology specifically for leafy vegetables commonly consumed in Singapore and testing their technology in simulated retail conditions.

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2022 0808 – SUrF launch_5
Assistant Professor Li Dan (right) and Mr Seah Rui Hong (left) are part of a research team that aims to improve the quality of produce in retail storage using LED light.

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 Centre also intends to work closely and facilitate focus group discussions with industry representatives to propose innovative solutions for local urban farming.

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