How AI and automation can shape the future of farms

In just a short span of two years, incidents on the world stage have exposed the vulnerabilities of the global food supply chain. Faced with the crippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries faced an uphill battle in ensuring their citizens have stable sources of food and medical supplies during the early stages of 2020.

The twists and turns of food security

And while food supply has since stabilised, it has accelerated the Singaporean government’s push for food resilience through self-sufficiency and brought forth the necessity of locally grown produce. The 30 by 30 goal set out by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) took centre stage, but as the pandemic woes eased, other issues came to the forefront.

With the unexpected fallout from the Ukraine war, the increase in the prices of gas and agricultural products threw the world into yet another food price-supply shock. With Singapore producing only around 10 per cent of its food, the reliance on imports puts us in a precarious position where we will be caught off-guard with unexpected disruptions in the upstream supply chain processes.

Back in 2010, I entered the glitzy world of casino gaming where I was based in Macau, the then gaming hub of the world. It was definitely an eye-opener, and we would often see people splurging on fine dining and luxury goods.

I was exposed only to the consumption part of the food supply chain, and it did not occur to me what goes on behind the scenes. After almost six years in casino gaming, I decided to move back to Singapore and looked towards the green economy industries as the area I wanted to venture into.

The beginnings of Artisan Green

I stumbled upon vertical farming projects and was fascinated by how they married technology with traditional agriculture. I saw this field as one that is forward-looking and was intrigued and wanted to be able to play a part in providing food sustainably.

Also Read: GREENS aims to empower Indonesia’s 240M non-farmers with its meta-farming solutions

The vertical farming industry back in 2016 was still in its nascent stages, and market data was not readily available on its commercial viability. However, after some research and financial modelling, I found that integrating plant science to increase yields, engineering to obtain economies of scale and having a sound commercialisation plan was the breakthrough the agritech industry needed.

2018 was the year that Artisan Green started its operations as a modern indoor farm using controlled environment techniques and hydroponics. Within the first year, we established ourselves as the only indoor farm growing baby spinach, one of the most sensitive crops to grow indoors in Singapore.

Through continued research and experimentation, we managed to grow our own produce that surpassed the quality of imports, netting our first success in our foray into the vertical farming world.

Due to the constant need for research and development, we understood the necessity of using a system that enables us to conduct more experiments in a shorter time frame. Especially since we are now embarking on building our new farm, which will increase the production area from 300㎡ to 5,400㎡, the integration of automation and AI is central to scaling production.

Ray Poh, Founder and Managing Director of Artisan Green

Scaling up production with automation and AI

Singapore is known for its scarcity of resources such as water, food, and land. Through innovation and technology, Singapore has managed to ensure a robust water supply. There should be no reason why we are not able to ensure this for food resilience as well.

Also Read: How an 87-year-old enterprise aims to change the packaging game

One way to achieve this would be through using automation to convert the farming process into a factory line, increasing productivity and efficiency. Increasing our production footprint by almost twenty-fold does not increase our labour force proportionately, and in fact, through our Automated Storage and Retrieval System, which automatically conveys crops to different stations, from seeding to post-harvesting, we will only experience a four-fold increase in headcount.

Developing an AI platform in our farming system reduces the time needed to conduct experiments and get results quicker. We are currently building a digital twin of a plant that is fed with the various parameters and data from our experiments to subject it to different climate conditions and nutrient formulas to simulate the real plant’s responses.

This accelerates the research process without having to go through the time-consuming process of going through multiple iterations of experiments. With this digital twin, we can create virtual farms and allow us to optimise the various parameters in our controlled environment that we are normally not able to.

With Singaporeans now being more aware of sustainability and adopting healthier lifestyles, the consumption trend for local food products with traceability will continue to rise. Consumers now understand the pitfalls of a nation relying mainly on imports, and the shift of their mindset towards local produce requires concerted efforts from the government, consumers and finally, the innovation of farms themselves.

The support of the community has been a great boon to local farms and has allowed us to develop this nascent industry where it is slightly more mature and accepted by consumers. Consumers now get a wider range of choices and can purchase local produce that has not gone through the long journey of travelling thousands of kilometres before arriving on their tables. Every packet of produce bought from local farmers also contributes toward our long-term food security and creates a new economy for Singapore to excel in and export out to the world stage.

Nonetheless, climate change is still a major concern, and erratic weather conditions have subjected farms to crop losses and lower than normal yields. This has brought up the necessity of indoor farms to ensure a stable supply.

And while indoor farms will never replace the traditional outdoor farms, we can still play a part in the supply chain and ensure consumers have access to pesticide-free, fresh, and clean produce grown locally at their doorstep.

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