AI and automation increase productivity and efficiency in the farm, says Ray Poh, the Founder and Managing Director of Artisan Green, in a TechNode Global Q&A. “AI helps reduce the time needed to manage the farm and run experiments, as it can recognize and process data at a speed and volume that allows us to make instantaneous informed decisions,” he shares.

Read on for the full interview.

Ray Poh, Founder & Managing Director, Artisan Green

What are the trends driving innovation in the agriculture and food industries today? How is technology playing a part in optimizing these industries?

The global state of food security during the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the numerous inefficiencies and inequalities of access to fresh and nutritious food around the world. Even a highly developed country like Singapore showed lapses when supply chain disruptions affected food supplies at the start of the pandemic, with its long-lasting effects still being felt in the economy now, as core inflation in Singapore recently hit a shockingly all-time high of 4.8 percent in July!

Singapore had clinched the top spot for the second year running in the 2019 Global Food Security Index, but was not spared when countries shut its borders and scrambled to keep supplies for domestic consumption over exports. And this has further exacerbated the food security issue in Singapore, which only produces less than 10% of our food! Over the last few years, shortages in vegetable imports and even the more recent fresh chicken export ban by Malaysia illustrated our urgent need to not just bolster food security, but of self-sufficiency as well.

In a small city-state with limited land space like Singapore, survival has always been the top priority of the Government since independence. This can be seen from our holistic water strategy, which has seen Singapore weaning off being completely dependent on water imports to achieving partial self-sufficiency with its water supply since the mid-2010s. However, it is a completely different story for our food supply. With our strong supply trade links, Singapore imports over 90 percent of food from over 170 places around the world.

This food strategy worked well until the recent few crises, where it has now become apparent that there is a need to accelerate the nation’s self-sufficiency efforts. One such initiative is the 30 by 30 goal the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has set up – to build up the nation’s agri-food industry’s capacity to produce 30 percent of nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030.

Can you briefly share your background? How did Artisan Green come about?

Coming from a non-agricultural background, I spent the early years of my career in the casino gaming industry. I was based in Macau as the Chief Operating Officer of a casino gaming manufacturing company and a casino operations company. After six years, I wanted to venture into other industries, with a focus on sustainability and future technologies. This led me to look at indoor farming and the growing of crops using hydroponics. I wanted to start a modern indoor farm incorporating agricultural science, automation, and AI, and saw an opportunity in the AgriTech space where there are gaps in the integration of science, engineering, and commercial viability.

Artisan Green was born, with the aim to be one of the leading controlled environment agriculture farms in the world. Incorporating AI and automation came about as a necessity to increase productivity and efficiency in the farm. AI helps reduce the time needed to manage the farm and run experiments, as it can recognize and process data at a speed and volume that allows us to make instantaneous informed decisions.

An example is our Precision Nutrient Injector, which is able to automate the precise dosing of any type of nutrient profile to plants on-demand. This cuts the time needed for research and trials by half and saves nutrients and water by 50 percent and 90 percent, respectively. Another iteration that we are incorporating in our upcoming new farm is our Automated Storage and Retrieval System which automatically conveys crops to different stations, from seeding to post-harvesting, and reduces the need for manual labor.

How is technology innovating food production? How will this be advantageous, compared to simply optimizing for the current supply and demand situation on a regional scale?

We are also currently building a digital twin of a plant, with a stored database of parameters, allowing us to subject it to different climate conditions and nutrient formulas and simulate the real plants’ responses. This accelerates the research process without having to go through the time-consuming process of going through multiple iterations of experiments.

However, in land-scarce Singapore, locally-grown produce are definitely pricier due to the limited resources and smaller economies of scale. Consumers have always lamented the fact that locally-grown produce has always been more expensive than cheaper imports. But we have noticed that a large proportion of consumers are still willing to pay a premium for local produce. For Artisan Green, we are taking conscious steps to reduce the prices of our products as the technologies for the new farm build is optimized for electricity savings and scalability.

Even so, supporting local indoor farming produce has the advantages of having a much smaller carbon footprint as the produce only travels a short distance to supermarkets compared to the longer distances traveled by imports, being pesticide-free, and due to technology and the specific way of growing, local produce can even keep fresh in the fridge for over two weeks, which is around three times more than the ones imported.

Ultimately, every packet of local produce bought contributes to farms being able to invest more into research and bolstering the self-sufficiency of food supply. In addition to that, consumers are able to put a face to the people who farm the produce, thereby providing provenance for the food that they eat.

What is your vision for food sustainability in Singapore?

With more consumers aware of the pitfalls of a nation relying mainly on imports, the shift of consumers’ mindsets towards local produce requires the conscious and concerted efforts from the government, consumers, and finally the innovation of the farms themselves. Through Artisan Green’s next-generation farm, we are looking to contribute 25 tonnes of local produce monthly to Singapore’s supply and provide a healthy and affordable option for the community. 30 by 30 is an ambitious goal, but with enough support from the government, farmers, and consumers, we will be able to achieve this target.