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Precision Agriculture for Future Nutritional Needs

Insights to a research initiative by Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s Research Enterprise in Singapore, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) and their work to produce food in a sustainable and innovative way.

Announced in early 2019, the Singapore government will aim to increase home-grown food production to meet Singapore’s nutritional needs from 10 percent to 30 percent by the year 2030.1 Well known as the “30 by 30” food strategy was set forth by Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Mr Masagos Zulkifli during a parliamentary session.

“To get to the 30 by 30 vision we require our agri-food industry to acquire new solutions to raise productivity, apply R&D, strengthen climate resilience, and overcome our resource constraints. We need new paradigms in the agri-food industry,” explains Mr Masagos.

The strategy will pave the way for Singapore to ensure food security in the future and reduce the reliance on foreign imports of food – which is currently over 90 percent, making the city-state vulnerable to the uncertainties of the global food market. Contributing to this shift in paradigm is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s Research Enterprise in Singapore. The research arm – Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) – by SMART aims to change the way food is produced through ground-breaking research and innovation in precision agriculture.

We had the privilege to get first-hand information on DiSTAP and understand their research in urban farming and precision agriculture through our conversation with Professor Michael S. Strano, co-lead principal investigator of DiSTAP at SMART, MIT’s Research Enterprise in Singapore.


1. Why is precision agriculture important for urban farming?

Human beings have a vision for food production, that we are going to transition agricultural production into an intensified factory model. Currently, the research centre that I run in Singapore at DiSTAP which is organized by SMART, MIT’s Research Enterprise in Singapore, allows myself as a MIT faculty member and my team to collaborate with local research groups such as those from Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Life Science Laboratory. This will make it a perfect combination between engineers at MIT and the plant biotechnologies here in Singapore. With the vision to amalgamate engineering to create new tools applied to urban farming is our view of precision agriculture.

Plants are complex organisms, and the question today should be if engineering can be applied to plant biotechnology and whether other engineering feedback controls to living plants. Based on the research from my team is that you can do that through new sensors and diagnostics to get new types of information from the plant and digitize that information for precision agriculture.


2. Would these translate into manufacturing tools for urban farming?

The urban farm has a challenge, which is to intensity production with little room for error. In traditional agriculture you can benefit from natural sunlight and water resources. As for urban farming the model has to be different and precise tolerances have to identified. We need to determine what are the optimal conditions for the growth of the plant and part of agricultural production is to really get a handle on the specificities required by the plants and controlling those precisely.

It requires a multidisciplinary approach including the biotechnology component, engineering component, and mathematical as well as computational aspects.


3. As the Singapore government is investing more in urban farming technology, how can Singapore as a population benefit from urban farming?

Singapore is looking to become a regional leader and eventually global leader in this space. With their aim to produce 30 percent of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030, this means that there is a need to boost domestic supply and provide food assurance. This means that there is a guarantee of the quality through locally produced food. The urban farm is a way to simplify the supply chain and obtaining significant control over its inner operations. The 30 by 30 goal should be viewed in terms of nutritional needs and move away from the view of calorie count in food production.


4. Would that mean the focus of food production should be on nutritional needs rather than calorie count?

Yes, in the past the calorie view has worked well for producing food generally. So, if you think of it in terms of calories you wouldn’t need tight tolerances for engineering. But if food production is defined in terms of the nutritional quality of the produce it will become an engineering challenge. Especially when there is a need to maintain the price. I believe the nutritional aspect of it is critical and looking at it in a manufacturing perspective there is a need to make high value products that are more difficult and expensive to produce and at the same time collapse the cost of production.


5. Seeing that this is a very collaborative effort between the disciplines of engineering and plant biology, how has this benefitted the development of tools for precision agriculture?

The first benefit would be getting engineers who don’t have a background in plant science to turn their attention to bring new ideas into the field. Partnering with other plant biologist like in the partnership between DiSTAP and Temasek Life Science Laboratory (TLL), where the plant biologist from TLL have deep knowledge of particular problems in the field of plant biology. TLL has a proven track record of biotechnology innovation for example, Temasek Rice, and they have first-hand experience as to what tools are needed for precision agriculture. We now need drawn the attention of more engineers to help these plant scientists, with the SMART program here in Singapore it provides a vehicle for doing that.


6. With your research now focused on nano sensors in plant engineering, where do you hope to see your research applied in the future in relation to food security and meeting nutritional needs?

One of the things that nano sensors can do is that they can measure things inside the plant and across species of plants that we have not been able to detect. Personally, I see a plant as an internal communication network that humans have very sparsely tapped into. As someone relatively new to plant biology, one of the most surprising things for me is that when looking at a plant or a crop I used to think that it is a relatively static object. What’s interesting is that with the right sensor, you able to see even on your mobile phone all of the activity and information in this complex machine. I would like these tools to be used for feedback control in the urban farm so that in the future with this technology it will be constantly probing this complex organism and adjusting growth conditions in response to get optimal growth. Thereby able to control the amount of water and energy supplied is the key. [APBN]

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