Turning empty spaces into urban farms in the city

By Amanda Yeo


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%, 44.6% and 22.9%, 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.

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% in 2019 to 77.5% in 2020, the lowest level since 2003.

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 fish pond 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.

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.

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.

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

Growing Malaysia’s urban farming scene

For urban farming to thrive in Malaysia, the Malaysian Government could perhaps 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% 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. – April 21, 2021


Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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