Turning Empty Spaces Into Urban Farms

By Research Analyst at EMIR Research, Amanda Yeo

Even as many ordinary Malaysians struggle to make ends meet arising from the Covid-19 outbreak, empty shop lots continue to mount along the street and some even display signs that say, “available for rent”.

With the growing importance of food self-sufficiency, now is the time for Malaysia to turn empty spaces into urban farms – tackling food security related issues besides making good use of the existing sites.

Urban farming is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around urban areas.

Although Malaysia is rich in natural resources, we are highly dependent on high-value imported foods. Presently, our self-sufficiency level (SSL) for fruits, vegetables and meat products stands at 78.4 percent, 44.6 percent, and 22.9 percent, respectively.

With a lower occupancy rate in both retail and office spaces, property developers probably could redevelop the buildings for another usage – urban or vertical farming as done by Singapore with tremendous success.

According to the National Property Information Centre (Napic), the occupancy rate for shopping malls in Malaysia has dropped consecutively for five years. It declined from 79.2 percent in 2019 to 77.5 percent in 2020, the lowest level since 2003.

Among the cities in Malaysia, Penang recorded the lowest occupancy rate at 72.8 percent, followed by Johor Bahru and Kuching (75.3 percent), Selangor (80 percent), Kuala Lumpur (82 percent) and Kota Kinabalu (82.1 percent).

In addition, the Valuation and Property Services Department (JPPH) revealed a lower occupancy rate at Malaysia’s privately-owned office buildings compared to the pre- outbreak era.

For instance, Johor Bahru recorded the lowest occupancy rate of privately-owned office buildings at 61.9 percent, followed by Selangor (67.5 percent), the city centre of Kuala Lumpur (77.8 percent), Penang (79.8 percent), Kota Kinabalu (86.5 percent) and Kuching (87.1 percent).

Aquaponics, pesticide-free farming that combines aquaculture (i.e., growing fish) and hydroponics (i.e., growing plants without soil), would be the way forward.

To summarise, aquaponics is one of the soilless farming techniques that allow fish to do most of the work by eating and producing waste. The beneficial bacteria in the water will convert waste into nutrient-rich water and fed into the soil-less plants.

Following are the steps for vertical aquaponic farming:

  1. Small growth cups are filled with coco peat, which are then sterilised under ultraviolet (UV) light, preventing bacteria and viruses from entering into the water pumps. There is an additional control over the environment with regards to temperature and daylight through the use of LED growth lights.
  2. A hole poked in the middle of the cup, where a plant seed is placed inside. The use of non-genetically modified organism seeds where the majority are imported from reliable sources is very much encouraged.
  3. The seed is germinated for one to three days in a room.
  4. Once the seed has germinated and grown to about 2cm, the pots can be placed in the vertical harvest tower.
  5. Nutrient-filled water from the fishpond flows to the plants automatically. Big plants grow within 30 days.

While enabling the growth of many varieties of vegetables with indoor temperature condition, aquaponics could generate fish production – sustaining economic livelihoods, particularly for the underprivileged and disabled communities, as well as fresh graduates who are still struggling to secure a decent job.

Although Sunway FutureX Farm, Kebun-Kebun Bangsar (KKB) and Urban Hijau, for instance, are good urban farming initiatives in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur, there are still many potential sites that could be transformed into urban farms.

Therefore, Malaysia perhaps could adopt Singapore’s approach by using hydroponics on roofs of car park structures and installing urban farms into existing unutilised buildings.

As it only requires a quarter of the size of a traditional farm producing the same quantity of vegetables, the vertical rooftop system would yield more than four times compared to conventional farming. At the same time, it also reduces the need to clear land for agricultural use while avoiding price fluctuation.

Besides reducing over-reliance on imports and cutting carbon emissions, indoor vertical farming within the existing building also allows local food production as part of the supply chain. It could expand into workshops, demos and expos besides offering guided and educational tours that promote the joy of urban farming.

With an urban farming structure inside a building, stressed-out office workers and the elderly, in particular, could enjoy a good indoor environment, air quality and well- ventilated indoor spaces. They could also relax their mind through gardening and walking around urban farms.

To increase the portion of food supplied locally, the government needs to empower farmers and the relevant stakeholders, incentivising the private sector in urban farming and providing other support through facilitating, brokering and investing.

This, in turn, would enhance the supply and affordability of a wide range of minimally processed plant-based foods, as suggested under the latest Malaysia Economic Monitor “Sowing the Seeds” report by the World Bank.

With the current administration’s laudable commitment to tackling food security-related issues, this would provide the opportunity for Malaysia to review the current national food security policy by addressing productivity, resources optimisation, sustainable consumption, climate change, water and land scarcity.

By putting greater emphasis on urban farming, the government could empower farmers to plant more nutritious, higher-value crops; to improve their soil through modern technologies application (i.e., Internet of Things/IoT), Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI)); and to benefit from increased opportunities by earning higher returns on their generally small landholdings.

The government could also provide seeds, fertilisers and pesticides related subsidies paid directly to the urban farmers through a voucher system.

For instance, the urban farming operators could use the voucher to buy high-quality seeds from any vendor or company. The vendor also could use the voucher to claim payment from the government. Not only this approach would create healthy competition among vendors, but it also would stimulate agricultural activities.

And given that the current youth involvement in the agriculture sector is only 240,000 or 15 percent of total farmers in Malaysia as noted by Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries (Mafi) I, Datuk Seri Ahmad Hamzah, Mafi, the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives (MEDAC) and Ministry of Youth and Sports (MYS) have to craft training programmes and develop grant initiatives together – attracting the younger generation of agropreneurs to involve in urban farming.

These ministries also can work with the Department of Agriculture (DOA), Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) and Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) to develop more comprehensive urban farming initiatives.

While providing job opportunities for youths to embark on urban farming, young agropreneurs could enjoy higher income and productivity and yields, on top of increasing the contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product (GDP).

For urban farming to thrive in Malaysia, the Malaysian Government perhaps could adopt and adapt the Singaporean Government’s approach – developing specific targets to encourage local food production. Even though Singapore has limited resources, Singapore is still setting an ambitious target – increase the portion of food supplied locally to 30 percent by 2030.

The upcoming 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) also would provide timely opportunities for the government to turn empty spaces into urban farming in the context of the ongoing impact of Covid-19 besides fostering agricultural modernisation by leveraging on Industrial Revolution 4.0.

In a nutshell, every Malaysian can do their part to help Malaysia become more food resilient. By converting empty spaces into urban farms, it could reduce food waste, encourage local products purchase and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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