Ever heard of the saying, “if you ate today, thank a farmer”? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed our growing population. However, the world is also seeing fewer people interested in traditional farming as mass rural-urban migration occurs. Urbanisation is not only inevitable; it is set to increase by 70% among the world’s population. Nevertheless, hope is not lost. This rise is breeding a new crop of urban farmers worldwide and the ASEAN region is no exception.
Feeding the Future
The truth is, urban farmers may just be the saviours we urgently need! As some developing countries in the region are experiencing a comparatively higher population growth, food production is expected to increase by 100%. Urban farming currently provides 15 to 20% of the world’s food supply. Therefore, it could play a key role in addressing food security in the future especially to the urban poor who will end up being the most at risk.
Food produced in cities have easier access to consumers requiring less transportation and refrigeration, as well as providing employment opportunities to diversify livelihoods. Urban agriculture also increases resilience against climate change. In addition to green spaces and maintaining food supplies for city-dwellers, there are opportunities for disaster mitigation strategies, natural resource management, and waste recycling. Moreover, it provides room for innovation such as making smart use of space by growing vertically or using mobile apps to monitor farms.
In ASEAN, food security is highly regarded as a regional priority. So much so that the ASEAN Summit in 2009 yielded the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework (AIFS) and updated the Strategic Plan of Action- Food Security (SPA-FS) to the 2015-2020 edition. The message is clear – ASEAN needs to strengthen food security arrangement, promote conducive food market and enhance food security information systems. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) blueprint also mentions it seeing that agriculture as a critical sector in the region. With over 30% of land dedicated to farming, it goes without saying that some ASEAN member nations rank worldwide as top exporters of rice, coffee, fruit, palm oil, rubber, and pepper.
Young and Hungry
The region is indeed seeing a new crop of growers, changing the urban landscape in ASEAN. This emerging sector is often spearheaded by youths under the age of 35; some of whom employ modern farm techniques such as aquaponics (closed-loop, soilless farming) and use innovative technology such as agricultural drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Additionally, while agriculture technology (Agritech) is not exclusively found in city farming, it has become a growing industry of its own dominated by youth-led startups. These startups work with both rural and urban farms particularly with regards to capacity building and knowledge sharing.
The region is seeing more and more urban farms cropping up in major cities in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. For example, Singapore, a country of 5.5 million people is relying on over 90% of food imports. Consequently, she is vulnerable to fluctuations in supplies and/or prices due to climate change or geopolitics. While urban farming in the small-island state won’t eliminate the need for imports, it can set the precedent for a more resilient nation. One such prominent initiative can be found in Edible Garden City. Founded in 2012 by Bjorn Low, who left his corporate job to pursue a career in transforming Singapore’s food and agriculture scene. Now working with 22 employees, his agribusiness provides services ranging from supplying produce to farm education to setting up community gardens, all with sustainability in mind.
Then, there’s CityFarm Malaysia in Selangor: launched in 2016 by a trio of young men mainly focused on setting up hydroponic (soil-less) systems in households to cultivate a community of urban farmers across Malaysian cities. However not all urban farms are predominantly commercial in nature such as the City Farm Project based in Bangkok. At 25, Nakorn Limpacuptathavon began planting in the city in 2008 and then in 2014, he established the project with the intention to advocate for a more self-sustaining city. He later went on to set up a community-supported agriculture initiative to supply food for 5 families with his 650 sqm farm. Urban agriculture is also not solely found in the private sector as evidenced by Jakarta administration’s renewed initiative to introduce more green spaces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Growing the Urban ASEAN
The motivations behind this growing trend range from the intention to improve community development, utilising unused urban spaces, creating a sustainable food system, addressing the overarching issue of food security, or all of the above. For a region of 600 million people who are rapidly urbanising, agriculture cannot afford to go anywhere but forward whether that means investing in traditional farmers or their urban counterparts. Sustainable food systems do not entirely rely on the producers however, as it requires the participation of all stakeholders. Furthermore, as these young urban farmers of ASEAN have shown: urban agriculture is not just about addressing our consumption needs, it’s about transformation.
Written by: Mas Dino Radin
Mas Dino Radin is currently a solo founder and CEO of her recently established social enterprise startup called Future Resilience (FutuRe). Beyond that, she’s an all-around hype girl for empowerment. When she isn’t spending all her time hustling her budding startup life or hyping people up to live resiliently, she can be found with her nose buried in books and making the occasional solo travels. Her interests are in sustainability, resilience, urban development, biomimicry and social entrepreneurship. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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