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.
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