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A crew of volunteer "aunties" weed and harvest basil at the ComCrop rooftop farm, set high above Singapore's Orchard Road. (NPR)

Urban Farms Build Resilience Within Singapore's Fragile Food System

by Maureen Pao
Aug 20, 2014

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With the little unused spaced left in the island-state, Singapore's farmers are trying new ways of improving the island-state's food security. Here, a view of the Marina Bay Sands resort complex in central Singapore. The mint and basil grown on the 6,000-square-foot ComCrop farm is used mainly by high-end bars and restaurants. Eventually, ComCrop will sell or donate the tilapia it uses to enrich the water that irrigates its Italian basil, peppermint, spearmint, heirloom tomatoes and leafy greens. The top floor of the People's Park Complex garage is home to the Edible Gardens showcase -- where the company grows herbs, sells supplies, holds classes and presents lectures on urban and sustainable farming techniques. Sky Greens' crops grow on 30-foot-high A-frames in water-powered rotating troughs. Sky Greens' leafy greens, such as nai bai (similar to bok choy), cost about 10 percent more than vegetables from Malaysia and are sold through FairPrice, a local supermarket chain.

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At a local FairPrice Supermarket in central Singapore, you'll find baby carrots grown in Bakersfield, Calif., - the same ones for sale at my local grocery store in Washington, D.C.

Such well-traveled vegetables aren't unusual in the tiny island-state, which imports more than 90 percent of its food from some 35 countries. Singapore may be one of the most affluent countries in the world, but it depends heavily on others for basic foodstuffs.

A new crop of farmers is trying to change that. Just as property developers build up when they can't build out, so, too, are these agricultural pioneers. Vertical farming is taking hold across Singapore — not only in greenhouses in the vanishing countryside but on rooftops in the heart of the city, amid soaring skyscrapers and housing blocks. The goal is to farm as efficiently as possible and maximize the remaining land — as well as abandoned and under-utilized spaces — and shore up Singapore's food security.

In the 1960s, farms occupied about 10 percent of Singapore's 280 square miles, says Ngiam Tong Tau, a former government official who now is chairman of Sky Greens, one of Singapore's vertical farms.

Today, it's shrunk to less than 1 percent to make way for housing and industry.

Not only land is in short supply, but water is, too. Singapore imports an estimated 30 to 40 percent of its water from neighbor Malaysia.

All this means that these new rooftop and vertical farms could make a big difference for Singapore, helping to insulate it from both natural and man-made threats to its food supply that result in periodic food shortages and price spikes.

"In times of emergencies or food shortages around the world, [if] our neighbors ... don't want to export to us, we still have some food left for certain short periods of time until the food emergencies subside," Ngiam says.

Farming High In The Heart Of The City

Once lined with plantations, Singapore's Orchard Road is now a sort of Asian Rodeo Drive. But overlooking the commercial mecca is a different kind of oasis: 6,000 square feet of vegetable and fish gardens.

The aquaponic garden features mint, basil and leafy greens growing in clay pellets in rows on vertical A-frames that draw water from tanks filled with fish. The waste from the fish fertilizes the plants; eventually, the tilapia will become another crop — to be sold or donated to charity.

It's an economical system, says Allan Lim, one of the founders of ComCrop, the startup that built this garden. It costs about $1.60 a day to pump the water through the 10-foot-tall frames, which go for about $1,000 each.

This closed-loop irrigation system makes sense in tropical Singapore since it uses less water and loses less of it to evaporation and runoff than traditional soil farming. Still, for now, ComCrop relies on roughly two-thirds tap water — versus harvested rainwater — to replenish what's lost to evaporation.

Electricity costs are fairly low, too, and ComCrop's central location means it doesn't have to spend much to distribute its food to clients. Its vertical system yields eight to 10 times more crops than conventional, soil-based farming, according to Keith Loh, another one of the company's founders.

ComCrop sells its herbs wholesale to a local distributor that supplies high-end bars and restaurants. But one of the macro problems that these entrepreneurs are addressing is how to help Singapore's food supply withstand external disruptions like drought, flooding or trade restrictions due to regional public health issues - for example, when Malaysia halted poultry exports during the country's 2004 outbreak of avian flu.

Next year, they hope to scale up the farm by 10 times at another building that houses 80 food-processing companies, with a goal of producing 23 tons of food per month.

"Our goal is that when a time of need comes, the rooftop farm can convert into something important," Lim says.

From Ghost Town Garage To Showcase Garden

Atop the mostly empty garage of the People's Park Complex, a massive housing and commercial development in Chinatown, is a pop-up boutique, spare with a minimalist color palette and lots of reclaimed wood. It wouldn't look out of place in Brooklyn.

It's an outpost of Edible Gardens, a design firm founded two years ago by Briton Rob Pearce and Singaporean Bjorn Low that does foodscaping and landscaping for hotels and restaurants.

"Space in Singapore has to work really hard," says Pearce, who comes from a family of farmers in Somerset, England. "People see what we're doing, so it has to be beautiful."

The next beautification project is turning half of the garage's 60,000-square-foot roof into a farm. Pearce sees rooftop gardens that use otherwise abandoned or under-utilized spaces as a win-win solution for developers and urban farmers.

Reaching Higher In The Countryside

Singapore's vanishing countryside — accessible via a 40-minute ride on the immaculate and ultra-punctual MRT train — is home to Sky Greens, one of the world's first commercial vertical farms.

Though Sky Greens has put down roots on 8.6 acres, its crops grow in greenhouses on 30-foot-high vertical frames with hydraulic rotating troughs that bring the plants down to water and then up to the sun.

This kind of farming, says Ngiam, Sky Greens' chairman, yields five times more food than conventional farming.

"For every [2.5 acres], we should be able to produce 1,000 tons of vegetables per year — or about 1 percent of Singapore's needs for leafy green vegetables," Ngiam says.

With about half of the farm developed, Sky Greens is already producing 1.5 to 2 percent of Singapore's demand for leafy green vegetables such as baby bok choy, Chinese water spinach and Chinese broccoli, he says. Eventually, the farm will have 2,000 A-frames, which cost about $12,000 each.

Like other urban farms in Singapore, one of Sky Greens' advantages is how little water it uses, relying primarily on collected and recycled rainwater. And its system of hydraulic-powered rotating troughs means less spent on electricity, and even less water is wasted.

"The troughs come down and go into the water and go up. So there's no leaching of the water," Ngiam explains. "If you are planting on the soil, what the farmer does is pour a lot of water and then it just leaches out. For us, every drop is used by the plant."

Another advantage is that Sky Greens products can go from harvest to market within the same day. By comparison, vegetables from Malaysia travel one to two days to market.

Sky Greens vegetables do cost more: up to $2 per 3.5-ounce package, or about 10 percent more than vegetables from Malaysia. But Ngiam thinks some middle- and upper-income Singaporeans are willing to pay that premium.

Despite the challenges — of scale, pricing and sustainability — for each of these vertical and rooftop farms, the trend toward quality and the push toward self-sufficiency all point in one direction: up.

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Is the baby American, German, Pakistani, or Maldivian. (NPR)

If You're Born In The Sky, What's Your Nationality? An Airplane Puzzler

Aug 20, 2014

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A pregnant American woman boards a plane. The pregnant woman takes a nonstop flight from Germany to the Maldive Islands. 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, a baby girl is born in seat 13B. You can own the land but you can't own the clouds above it. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. A sky-baby passport.

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Here's a puzzle I bet you've never pondered.

Imagine you are very, very pregnant. For the purposes of this mind game, you are a married American woman (with an American spouse) and you are about to board a plane and, pregnant as you are, they let you on.

Your flight, on Lufthansa Airlines, will leave Frankfurt, Germany and travel nonstop to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Germany is cold, wet and unhappy-making, and you crave the aquamarine waters, the balmy skies of the Maldives.

You take off. Then, hours later, just as your plane passes 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, heading south, your baby, in an inconvenient act of impetuosity, decides she wants to be born right then, right there — and so in row 13, Business Class seat 13B, you give birth to a healthy, somewhat surprised baby girl. The moment of birth happens as you are directly above Pakistani territory. Karachi is passing below as she emits her first cry. Everybody's fine — you, the baby, the crew.

Now comes my question. We've got an American mom on a German airplane in Pakistani airspace. What nationality is the baby?

Is she American? German? Pakistani? Maldivian? Or, some combination of those? Baby's choice? Mom's? Pakistan's?

I ask, because the question comes up in a book I'm reading, Unruly Spaces, by Alastair Bonnett. It's a book that thinks a lot about place. In this case one of the pertinent questions is, "Who governs the air?"

Theirs All The Way Up To Heaven

There is an ancient doctrine, enshrined in English common law, that says "Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos," which means, "Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way up to heaven and down to hell."

That was the old rule, before the advent of air balloons, then airplanes, then V2 rockets, then spy satellites. It's been seriously amended (at least in Britain) to, a much more modest, you own the airspace necessary for "the use and enjoyment" of your plot of land. So how high up is that?

Apparently, not that high. Clouds, for example, don't belong to you.

Nations have made bolder claims to owning the sky. Some countries say their territory extends 43 miles up, some say 99. Everyone agrees there's an upper limit, but legal theories differ. One notion says when there's no longer enough air in the atmosphere to lift a plane, that's where outer (and shared) space begins. Others say the private zone must include the path of an orbiting satellite. Eight equatorial nations, in the Bogota Declaration of 1976, bumped their claims to 22,300 miles above earth — where geostationary spy satellites can park and look down.

The Airborne Baby Question

Whatever the reach of nations, most of the earth is covered by ocean, and nobody owns the seas; so when traveling above the oceans you are geopolitically nowhere or everywhere. There is, of course, a notion from admiralty law that says if your ship is French, then while on board, you are legally in France.

Which means, writes Alastair Bonnett, "that if your plane is registered in Norway, even when you are in mid-Pacific, flying between Fiji and Tahiti, you are still in Norway and have to abide by Norwegian law." And that gets him to the Airborne Baby question:

This precept also suggests that babies born on planes will sometimes be citizens of the country where the plane is registered and sometimes take their parents' citizenship.

Apparently it depends. The national registry of the airline matters. The nation you are born over matters too. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. Some don't.

According to Alastair, "If you are born over the United States, in a foreign plane with foreign parents, you can still claim U.S. citizenship." Really? That's so generous! (Do Brazil, Russia, Egypt, grant a flyover baby the same option?)

I may be the only person on earth fascinated by this legal puzzle, but I bet there are some of you out there — lawyers, airline attendants, maybe even a real life "flyover baby" — who know if there's a general rule governing sky-births. Is there a practice followed by most nations, or does every case turn on its details, on its particular who, when and where?

Whatever the current practice, I have a suggestion. If you step back from our planet, and see that thin wisp of atmosphere girdling our big blue orb, it seems that air should have a special legal designation, with extra privileges for anybody lucky enough to be born in the sky. If I were king of the world, babies born in airplanes, balloons and blimps would, instead of choosing to be German, Maldivian or American, all get special heavenly blue passports with a stork on the cover labeled "Sky Baby" — and they'd be allowed to come and go anywhere they please. But that's just me talking.

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The Depths Of Memory And Pain In 'Ancient Oceans'

Aug 20, 2014

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A pregnant American woman boards a plane. The pregnant woman takes a nonstop flight from Germany to the Maldive Islands. 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, a baby girl is born in seat 13B. You can own the land but you can't own the clouds above it. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. A sky-baby passport.

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Even for those of us who despise the heat and are well past school age, it's always kind of sad when summer vacation comes to a close. It feels like the end of an era, every year — goodbye to the swimming pools and water parks, the long days, the late evenings with friends. Those "back to school" sales are a kind of low-grade torment, even for those of us who kind of liked school.

Or maybe not. It's tough to look fondly on your childhood summers when your childhood summers were always pretty terrible. "All children want to go to space," David Connerley Nahm writes. "Earth only offers parents wailing about overdraft notices and evening news playing in an empty den. Dead pets too. Childhood is a rot."

There's plenty of what you might call anti-nostalgia in Nahm's wonderful debut novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky — a shell-shocked sense of intrusive memories that come to the surface when you're least prepared for them. For the protagonist of Nahm's book, it's a sensation that is inevitable, painful, never-ending.

Leah Shepherd runs a nonprofit organization for women and children in the small town of Crow Station, Kentucky, dealing with troubled and poverty-stricken clients every day. Leah is poor herself — her retirement savings were wiped out settling an unfair lawsuit, and she drives the same ancient, unreliable car she's had for years.

Much of the novel is told in flashbacks, as Leah remembers spending her youthful summers trying to fit in, occasionally accepted, mostly bullied. Her younger brother Jacob clung to her, scared to be out of her presence because of a mysterious man he claimed to see sometimes.

Jacob disappears one day, and the Shepherd family live in a false kind of hope for a long time, not quite willing to accept that he's gone forever. One day, a group of boys find a stack of folded clothes — the outfit Jacob was wearing when he was last seen. The clothes are stained with blood.

But not even her brother's disappearance can keep the bullies away from Leah; they torment her for years, speculating loudly about where her brother's body is buried. "They weren't bad children, were they?" Nahm wonders. "They just wanted to carve their names into something while they were still sharp."

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is far from a conventional novel — it's told in a series of poetic, impressionistic vignettes, moving from the present to the past with little warning. Nahm is equally good at powerful descriptions and authentic dialogue; there's nothing about the writing that's forced or glib. The pacing is perfect — while this isn't a thriller, at least in any traditional sense of the word, it's deeply suspenseful, and it ends where it needs to.

More than anything, it's Nahm's deep sense of place that's most apparent in his novel. His descriptions of rural Kentucky are gorgeous, but he digs far below the surface to portray the real soul of the town. In one remarkable section, he writes, "Crow Station, Kentucky: a girl at the window watching a shift in the shadows, listening to the sound of the night, the glittering dark above her bed, her father's hands having placed the sky there, cracked plaster rivers among constellations of dead boys and girls."

This goes on for nine pages, and it's impossible to stop reading until you've gone through each beautiful line, a beauty that infuses the whole novel, even in its darkest moments. It's not quite enough to call Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky a book about memory and loss, although Nahm explores those themes gracefully and with real insight. There's no abstraction here, only real people enduring unspeakable pain, two siblings who "were rippling reflections of one another," one who's gone, and one who almost is.

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Missing: Bag Of Money Left On Roof Of Armored Car

Aug 20, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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A pregnant American woman boards a plane. The pregnant woman takes a nonstop flight from Germany to the Maldive Islands. 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, a baby girl is born in seat 13B. You can own the land but you can't own the clouds above it. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. A sky-baby passport.

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Hello Kitty Joins The Space Race

Aug 20, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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A pregnant American woman boards a plane. The pregnant woman takes a nonstop flight from Germany to the Maldive Islands. 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, a baby girl is born in seat 13B. You can own the land but you can't own the clouds above it. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. A sky-baby passport.

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