Never Enough Food – Can We Change Our Ways?

I’m sure you must have heard this saying: “Waste not, want not”. As kids, our parents taught us the values of consuming only what we need. Who would blame them? In times past, food was not so abundant, and certain foods counted as “luxuries”. These luxury food items were only consumed on special days such as New Year celebrations, birthdays and weddings. What were these foods, a curious me asked? Chicken came the response.

How times have changed! Chicken is consumed by most daily without a thought. Fast forward a few decades into our present times, humanity seems not to have spared a thought about consuming just what we need to sustain us. One of our country’s leaders used to say: “Elegant sufficiency, not elephant sufficiency”! Are Singaporeans consuming what we need? Or are we guilty of “elephant sufficiency”? It would seem we are guilty.

Singaporeans simply love our makan. But we do waste a lot too. We throw away S$342 million dollars worth of food. To help visualise this, a Singapore Environment Council study equates this wastage to disposing a whopping 68.4 million plates of Nasi Lemak annually. You can just hear my heart shattering. So how do we square up with other countries? Perhaps the bigger question is with global consumption and wastage of food on the uptrend, can food production match up? Can agriculture still be sustainable?

What a waste of good food …

We can literally feed the world from the ‘trash’ we generate. This food is still perfectly fit for consumption.

So just what is sustainable agriculture and why is it important? Sustainable agriculture can be thought of as agricultural practices or methods which ensure that our food needs are continuously satisfied, and are economically viable, while sustaining, or even improving the natural environment for future agricultural uses.

Our ancestors once relied on agriculture, or farming for a continuous food supply. In the modern era, farming is playing an increasingly impossible catch-up game with the needs, or should I say wants of us humans. To understand who is at fault, we just need to look at ourselves in the mirror. How many times does the food provided exceed the food consumed at buffets? I have walked past the tray disposal stands at eateries, seeing plates of half-consumed, wasted food. Humanity now asks for more food than we actually need. Perhaps this is a wake-up call to us to only consume what we need.

In order to catch up with the increased demand of food, agriculture has to turn to technology for help. This often involves the use of chemicals and machinery to help us clear land faster, plough fields faster and grow crops faster. Sounds good, doesn’t it? However, the use of technology is a double-edged sword. These methods basically cause two problems. One, they cause long lasting damage to the soil. Two, they destroy the natural habitat of animals which are natural predators of crop pests around the farms. With these two combined, it makes it even harder for us to grow crops on the land in the future, causing us to use more chemicals, resulting in even more damage to land… Well, you know how that will turn out. With so many chemicals used, some of those chemicals leach into the groundwater, eventually finding their way into the sea and marine ecosystems. This also becomes our problem when the crops we grow take in that polluted groundwater. The chemicals then find their way into our stomachs when we eat the crops and they definitely aren’t good for our health.

As Encik Muthu would say: “You die, I die, everybody die”.

So, what’s the deal behind all these practices? We want more food than we actually need. Demand for food increases. Farming corporations need to meet these demands (or they want to make more money). Those corporations use unsustainable practices to produce food faster. The environment gets damaged, and this wicked cycle repeats itself unabated. Due to unsustainable farming practices, up to 24 billion tons of fertile soil is lost every year. That is the weight equivalent to 4 billion elephants! This is the sad reality of unsustainable modern agriculture methods.

An elephantine amount of good soil lost every year.

Fortunately for us, science has also helped us to more or less, reinvent the wheel, with some improvements too. Farmers of the past utilised a method called crop rotation. They practiced a cycle of growing crops, where after growing and harvesting one type of crop, they grew another type of crop on the same plot of land, without affecting the ability of the soil to nourish crops many years down the road.

Of course, back then the farmers had no in-depth understanding of science. Science today has let us discover how the cogs work behind the idea of crop rotation. Scientists have uncovered the properties of various agricultural crops accurately, therefore allowing us to group crops that can be grown within an annual crop cycle. We can alternate nitrogen-fixing crops such as legumes with nitrogen-depleting crops to ensure that the soil is always rich in nitrogen, an element necessary for plant growth. We can also alternate deep-rooted crops such as alfalfa with shallow-rooted crops like cereals to ensure the soil structure is open, allowing for good drainage of water.

Stick to the cycle and the soil will be well.

Technology has also allowed us to develop vertical farming. Imagine instead of one open field, we now have stacks of crops growing on top of one another. These vertical farms can also be housed in greenhouses where green methods are used (pun intended). Vertical farms also utilise methods like crop rotation within the farm, and do not use chemicals or machinery that damage the environment. With vertical farms, we can now grow a larger number of crops simultaneously on the same plot of land. This reduces the need to clear land for agriculture, thereby reducing the damage done to the environment.

Vertical farms are on the rise in our homeland of Singapore, where food is not a natural resource, and land for farming is scarce. Packet Greens, a vertical farm in Singapore, only takes up the space of two 3-room HDB flats, and can produce 30kg of vegetables daily, while requiring only three people to harvest the produce. Larger companies of vertical farming in Singapore include Sky Greens, where they can produce up to 10,000 kg of vegetables a day. The vertical farms of Sky Greens tower at nine metres in height and are capable of producing up to 10 times the amount of crops compared to regular farming methods given the same area available.

No space to expand sideways for crops? Expand upwards!

Science and technology can provide some solutions to unsustainable agriculture. Ultimately, human choices are the key to shifting agricultural practices to the sustainable sort. How so? Remember how the increased demand for food results in a shift to unsustainable agricultural methods to suit the demand? We can start off by limiting our food consumption and purchases to what we need.

How we shift our consumer spend might also help in supporting a shift toward sustainable agriculture. We can use our spending to support the push behind sustainable agriculture by buying food from corporations or farms that use sustainable practices. When we create more demand for foods based on sustainable agriculture, it is only a matter of time before farming corporations also make the change.

Together, we can build a more elegant and efficient agriculture worldwide.

So the next time you find yourself at a buffet line or other chow down spot, remember elegant sufficiency, not elephant sufficiency. Certainly helps the waist line, if not your wallet too!

Written by Raphael Ng
Illustrated by Toh Bee Suan