The University has committed S$10 million to set up the new Centre. Additionally, projects by researchers in SUrF have also secured external research grants of about S$11 million. SUrF had commenced operations in January 2022, while a new state-of-the art research facility is expected to be completed in 2023.
“NUS is committed to making significant contributions towards Singapore’s food policy agenda, together with partners in the public sector and the industry. We aim to create a globally competitive research programme in sustainable urban farming that incorporates smart agriculture solutions for diverse stakeholders. The Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) provides a platform to focus our multidisciplinary efforts and accelerate Singapore’s food security research and innovation,” said Professor Tan Eng Chye, NUS President.
“SUrF boasts an interdisciplinary team with expertise spanning plant science, genomics and gene editing, microbiomes, food science, materials and polymer science, sensor technology, data science, and Artificial Intelligence for indoor farming. Our research efforts in areas such as variety improvement and enhancing nutraceutical values of edible plants could benefit growers and consumers directly. Our novel solutions could contribute to making food production more efficient and sustainable for the long-term benefit of Singapore and the region,” said Professor Prakash Kumar, Director of SUrF.
A holistic and high-tech approach to food production
SUrF’s research scope covers three stages of food production – namely pre-production, production, and post-production. The Centre aims to develop solutions for growers, and collaborate with local industries to address their needs.
A new facility for the Centre is expected to be completed by early 2023, with about 200 square metres of indoor plant growth area for research. There will be three growth rooms, and an additional precision growth room where various environmental parameters, such as temperature and the spectrum of light, can be varied to ensure better plant growth with, possibly, improved phytonutrients. Research equipment will include the PlantEye, a phenotyping system to monitor plant growth and record plant health in a non-destructive manner, and several analytical equipment to study nutrient content. The Centre will also have access to the high-tech laboratories at NUS to conduct molecular genetics research including gene-editing.
Enhanced agricultural productivity from growth to post-harvest stages
There are currently 16 principal investigators in SUrF from the NUS Departments of Biological Science, Food Science and Technology, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science, and they are leading about 10 research projects.
One of these projects focuses on improving leafy green varieties for urban farms. Most crop plants produced in indoor farms are unideal cultivars for controlled environments, as they are bred under field conditions. This causes ineffective and unsustainable indoor crop production with low yield. Research led by Professor Yu Hao, Head of the NUS Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) and Chair of SUrF’s Management Board, and Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim from NUS DBS, are exploring advanced breeding strategies, including genomic selection and gene editing, to create leafy vegetable varieties with traits tailored for controlled environments to maximise agricultural productivity and quality.
The researchers are looking into improving the yield and nutritional values of economically important food crops including choy sum and kale for indoor growing. Other traits such as taste, shelf life, metabolite and nutritional value can also be selected to breed new plant varieties for consumption.