Addressing sustainable food production and consumption

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 27, 2021 - October 03, 2021.
Sunway City Ipoh’s organic farm adopts gardening practices that encourage food to be grown and harvested in a sustainable way (Photo by Sunway)

Sunway City Ipoh’s organic farm adopts gardening practices that encourage food to be grown and harvested in a sustainable way (Photo by Sunway)

-A +A

In early 2019, 20 acres of undeveloped land was repurposed in Sunway City Ipoh for food and agriculture. This led to the establishment of Sunway Organic Farm. 

The concept of organic farming came from Sunway Group founder and chairman, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, who hails from Pusing, Perak. The birth of Sunway Group was founded on the concept of sustainability with the rehabilitation of a former tin-mining wasteland into Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, a vibrant sustainable township serving a community of more than 200,000 people today. The success has been replicated in Sunway City Ipoh, Perak, and Sunway City Iskandar Puteri, Johor. 

“In the words of our chairman, sustainable food production and consumption is crucial in any environment, be it suburban or in the city. It needs to be done responsibly and farm-to-table dining reminds us about the things that really matter — our inseparable relationship with nature, our infinite capacity to nurture, our imperative to eat healthy and our inherent responsibility in the stewardship of this planet,” says Sunway City Ipoh executive director Wong Wan Wooi.

Cheah was appointed as a member of the National Agriculture Advisory Council for the 2020-2021 session by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries. 

According to Wong, Sunway is deeply committed to advancing the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and has incorporated its practices in compliance with these goals. 

“Organic farming is in line with SDG Goal 2,  zero hunger. Sunway aims to help the country address food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Goal 12 is responsible consumption and reproduction, where we believe that sustainable food production and consumption is crucial in any environment and must be done responsibly,” shares Wong. 

Sunway has invested a significant amount in its capacity and capabilities to embrace the SDGs, including the establishment of the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development in Sunway University, which hosts the Malaysian chapter of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the third location in the world after New York and Paris. 

“Sunway aspires to be among the leading organic vegetable producers in Malaysia by incorporating the latest technologies in organic farming such as IoT farm manager, CCTV as well as smart irrigation system to improve efficiency,” says Wong. 

Sunway Organic Farm is adjacent to The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, which is managed by Sunway Hotels & Resorts. The farm produces pesticide-free fruits and vegetables with fresh water from the mountains, and obtained a MyOrganic certificate from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries in March for the work it has done. 

Some nine acres of idle land was used for the pilot project in 2019, and 10 acres are being developed for the next phase of farming by the year end. 

“The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat has cultivated three organic gardens — Organic Garden, Herbal Garden and Chef Boon’s Garden. The fresh organic vegetables and herbs harvested are served to retreat guests and restaurant patrons to encourage sustainable living and advocate farm-to-table dining.

“Our professional organic farmers practise healthy crop rotation in the gardens — an essential part of organic gardening to add nutrients that also naturally enrich the soil,” says Wong. 

In the first year, Sunway Organic Farm produced more than 32,000kg of organic vegetables, which was increased to more than 52,000kg in 2020. 

Wong: Sustainable gardening and farming practices ensure long-term land sustainability that benefits the environment, while yielding more nutritious produce (Photo by Sunway)

Wong notes that Sunway still has a lot of available undeveloped land in Ipoh with good terrain, fertile soil and an abundance of natural water supply, which are the main ingredients for good farming. 

“Right now, the quantity [of vegetables] is not sufficient to cater to bigger markets. We are fortunate that we have been able to gain the trust of some local famous supermarket chains, hypermarkets and organic shops as our early customers. We are also working towards marketing our produce via online platforms as well,” says Wong. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Sunway delivered more than 200kg of fresh organic produce to more than 6,000 frontline healthcare workers and patients of Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun, Ipoh. 

“We aim to produce at least 150,000kg of vegetables by 2023. We also aim to get more from the yet-to-be developed land in our land bank and put it to good use by using it for organic farming, further expanding organic farming to Johor and Penang,” he says. 

Urban farming

Sunway has brought organic farming to the city in the form of urban farm innovation hub, Sunway FutureX Farm. 

According to Sunway Group chief innovation officer and Sunway Innovation Labs (Sunway iLabs) director Matthijs van Leeuwen, the idea was sparked by three major signals picked up in Sunway iLabs.

“We started to see a growing interest from our student population in Sunway University to build agriculture technologies and solutions, but they were lacking a real test bed to validate their ideas. We also noticed there were a lot of underutilised spaces such as car parks, rooftops and indoor spaces that could be turned into food production spaces. Then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it showed us how fragile our food supply chains were and how we needed innovation to address deeply rooted farm-to-fork inefficiencies,” he says. 

In 2020, Sunway FutureX Farm was established as a collaboration between Sunway Education Group and Sunway Property. The first-of-its-kind, non-profit, urban farm innovation hub brings together urban farming professionals, tech companies, researchers and young talents to create transformative solutions in food and agritech. Built around the four main objectives of nourish, educate, empower and innovate, the hub has the vision of strengthening food supply chains and improving food security to cater to the growing urban population. 

Sunway FutureX Farm plans to scale the building and operation of decentralised farms across cities through its commercial arm, Sunway XFarms (Photo by Sunway)

Within the hub are four urban farms which use farming technologies including hydroponics, aquaphonics and vertical farming technologies in a controlled environment that serves as a living laboratory. Sunway FutureX Farm plans to scale the building and operation of decentralised farms across cities in the country through its commercial arm, Sunway XFarms. The living lab also functions as a launchpad for talent and agriculture-preneurs to access global partner hubs in the US, Europe and other parts of Asia, including innovation hotbeds around academic institutions that have strong partnerships with Sunway University such as Cambridge and Oxford.

Van Leeuwen says starting with Sunway City, it will expand into areas where Sunway has a presence, such as KLCC, Cheras and Kota Damansara in the Klang Valley, as well as Penang, Ipoh and Iskandar in Johor.  “Our vision is to have a smart farm within 5km of urban communities in Malaysia, giving any urbanite access to clean, fresh and nutritious food. We have demonstrated over the last year or so that we are able to build and operate a range of smart and sustainable farms. Within eight months, we were able to grow more than 60 varieties of pesticide-free leafy greens and herbs, and sell these to communities in and around Sunway City KL.” 

The four smart farms of 3,500 sq ft yield about 350kg of produce every month. 

“Sunway XFarms currently uses a B2B and B2C distribution channel though our online platform, sunwayxfarms.com. Customers can subscribe and get a vegetable bag every week, which include a variety of greens and herbs that are freshly harvested from the farm. 

“On one hand, we have individual customers who live in close proximity to our farm and want to use the vegetables in their own households. One the other hand, we also serve F&B businesses that enjoy getting consistent high-quality supply, which they subsequently prepare for their own customers,” says van Leeuwen. 

Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries, Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee (second from left) with Cheah (third from left) and Van Leeuwen during a visit to Sunway FutureX Farm (Photo by Sunway)

Championing organic and urban farming

Organic farming is kinder to the environment, an important factor to consider when buying fresh produce in today’s world. 

“Principally, our organic farming helps reduce food wastage, has a smaller carbon footprint by minimising greenhouse gas emissions, conserves and builds soil health, and replenishes natural ecosystems for cleaner water and air, without toxic pesticide residues. 

“Organic farming discourages the use of harsh chemicals and, therefore, contributes towards the preservation of the natural environment. In fact, studies have revealed that organic farming can eliminate about 250 million kg of pesticides and chemicals from entering the environment annually. Sustainable gardening and farming practices ensure long-term land sustainability that benefits the environment, while yielding more nutritious produce,” says Wong. 

According to van Leeuwen, the UN projects that 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050. 

“The figure is even higher when we look at Malaysia’s urban population, which is projected to grow to 80% by 2030. With only 8% of agriculture land allocated for agrofood production and an increasing food import bill, close to RM60 billion annually [currently], we cannot afford to delay efforts to increase the food security of Malaysia. And we cannot rely solely on traditional farming to solve this burgeoning deficit,” opines van Leeuwen. 

He believes that the local agrofood sector has the potential to significantly contribute to Malaysia’s GDP. Agriculture outputs contributed 7.1% to the country’s total GDP in 2019. 

“The food deficit is due to continuous reliance on several imported products such as animal feed, cereals and vegetables. We see  that urban farms can help to close the gap as these farms can grow more with less resources, producing clean, fresh and healthy vegetables in large volumes and of high quality, while utilising existing buildings or land in urban areas,” says van Leeuwen. 

He stresses that urban farms are not meant to replace the output of traditional farming but they can definitely augment these farms and impact food security in a sustainable way as our urban populations continue to increase and consumers need healthier food and to know where they come from.

“For example, urban farming can reduce carbon footprint by cutting the distance the food needs to travel from farm to fork and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides. By using precision farming technology, we can reduce the reliance on water by 90% and, at the same time, increase the yield by 10 times. This is exactly what has played out in my home country, The Netherlands, which has become the second biggest exporter of agriculture products by investing in continuous R&D to make smarter and more sustainable farms over the last two decades,” says van Leeuwen. 

Van Leeuwen: Urban farming can reduce carbon footprint by cutting the distance the food needs to travel from farm to fork and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides (Photo by Sunway)

R&D road map

The pandemic has accelerated a number of things, including digitalisation and urban farming. The latter, van Leeuwen believes, is due to the increasing concern about the availability and safety of the food we eat. 

“We are in the process of installing new farms and by next year, we expect to grow to 165,000 sq ft, yielding close to 38,000kg of produce per month. In five years, we aim to activate one million sq ft of smart farms and with increased efficiencies, we expect these to provide urban communities with 2.7 million kg of produce per month, which is more than 32 million kg annually,” shares van Leeuwen. 

Sunway has invested significant resources into building its own smart farms and coming up with a recipe to scale them. “However, we don’t want to keep this close to our heart as a secret recipe as we don’t think this will grow fast enough to have a meaningful impact on Malaysia’s quest to achieve food security. So we are looking to collaborate with other urban farmers on our Farm as a Service (FaaS) techology platform, which will give them access to the key ingredients they need to run and scale their farms, including affordable space, farm management systems, operational know-how and market access,” shares van Leeuwen.

Support will also be given to agripreneurs by giving them access to loans and equity funding, allowing them to focus on growing fruits and vegetables and reduce business risk. 

“Meanwhile, we will continue to invest in R&D and talent development. We have an R&D road map with clear milestones that helps us to ensure we are on track to activate the solutions within our business and that of our partner urban farms. 

“As part of our R&D and tech development, we do a lot of testing and we benchmark regularly against existing solutions in the market. For example, during the MCO, we took the opportunity to have calls with some of the top agritech start-ups from urban farming innovation clusters in The Netherlands, the US, Japan and China. Some of these companies have become strategic partners or collaborators in R&D. By combining our strengths and competencies to build localised solutions with this global network of agritech players, we believe we are on track to create a real dent in the urban farming industry in Malaysia and ultimately, Southeast Asia,” says van Leeuwen. 

Sunway believes that nutritious and safe food should be made accessible to all tiers of society. It is also working closely with food banks and soup kitchens to donate a portion of its farm produce to the needy, which consist of the B40 communities, the urban poor and refugees.

“Over the next two years, we will further build our platform and onboard urban farmers that have a similar vision to grow more fresh, clean and nutritious food for our communities. In tandem, we will train and equip budding agripreneurs with the skills and tools they need to support the growth of the agritech industry in Malaysia,” concludes van Leeuwen.