Janson Chan: Mushrooming Food Security in Singapore

Urban farming has many benefits but not as important as maintaining food security in land scarce Singapore. Mallika Naguran and Chan Shu Yin speak to Janson Chan, CEO of Agrivo Mycosciences to find out why the company connects with children on mushroom farming.

SINGAPORE, 27 July 2017. Singapore has built a name for itself in many areas such as commerce, finance, trade, manufacturing, shopping and tourist attractions. It has even gotten fame for popular food items like chilli crab, chicken rice and char kway teow. But one thing it severely lacks, and ironically too – its own food sources. 

Most of the food devoured in hawker centres and restaurants, supporting the unrelenting food culture here, are imported. According to AVA Singapore, more than 90 percent of food supplied in Singapore comes from overseas.  

 Janson Chan, CEO of Agrivo Mycosciences, believes in the importance of agriculture for self-sustenance.

Janson Chan, CEO of Agrivo Mycosciences, believes in the importance of agriculture for self-sustenance.

There are a few companies that grow food here, with farm land and fishery supplying only eight percent of vegetables and fish each, as well as 26 percent of eggs consumed in Singapore.  

One of the local producers is Agrivo Mycosciences that focuses on mushrooms.  

Agrivo Mycosciences is a subsidiary of Agrivo International Ltd, a Singapore-based agribusiness with offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Gaia Discovery caught up with Janson Chan, founding member and CEO of Agrivo Mycosciences. The company does not just produce and distribute mushrooms for consumption in Singapore, it also reaches out to students to teach them about the nutritional value of mushrooms, and of the importance of food growing.  

“When we asked children where chicken comes from, they tell us from the supermarket. We found that kids in Singapore know nothing about how food is grown - they also know nuts about farming. So it struck us that this (food farming) is something that locals need to embrace because in times of difficulties, for example, when other countries refuse to export food to Singapore, locals will face a serious food shortage.”

This (food farming) is something that locals need to embrace because in times of difficulties, for example, when other countries refuse to export food to Singapore, locals will face a serious food shortage.
— Janson Chan

Chan continued to emphasise the need for food security in Singapore. “This kind of scenario, coupled with 0.87 percent of land available for farming in this island state, food prices might go up. And if we don’t know how to grow our own food, we might face famine.” 

According to Agrivo, as of 2015, over 90 percent of mushrooms consumed in Singapore are imported from China, Taiwan and Korea. With shipping time placed between days and two weeks by the time they appear on the shelves and chillers of supermarkets, this could affect the freshness of the produce. 

 Substrate bags in Agrivo Mycosciences' farm in Kulai, West Malaysia, less than 50km away from Singapore

Substrate bags in Agrivo Mycosciences' farm in Kulai, West Malaysia, less than 50km away from Singapore

Agrivo’s farm is located in Kulai, West Malaysia, which is less than 50km away from Singapore. The mushrooms are harvested daily from the eight-acre farm and 24 growing houses there and delivered fresh to the shelves in Singapore within one day.

Around four to five tons of mushrooms are sold monthly under the brand Mushroom Kingdom to Quan Fa Organic Farm, and restaurant chains such as the Hai Di Lao Hot Pot.

High Tech Farming

Feeding the world can be a challenge. “Traditional farmers can experience low harvest due to the effects of climate change. Another challenge is how they manage their business model. Marketing of produce is also tough because they are growers at heart,” Chan said. 

 Grey oyster mushrooms sprouting from a substrate bag in the farm.

Grey oyster mushrooms sprouting from a substrate bag in the farm.

This is why technology in agribusiness plays a vital role, contributing towards the sustainability of farming. 

Parent company Agrivo International Ltd has also invested in Frontier Agrotech, an indoor farming startup that utilises the latest agricultural technology (AgTech). Apart from growing leafy vegetables, Frontier Agrotech seeks to educate urban farmers, provide technical expertise and data analytics. 

Technology can help overcome many farming challenges, Chan tells Gaia Discovery. “We can use the Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities to study crop growth and maintain crop quality,” Chan said, referring to the advent of ‘networked farming’. 

Hydroponics and indoor farming for land scarce Singapore appears to be the way to go. However, the environmental footprint could still be huge. “They must have efficient use of electricity as farming uses a lot of power,” he said, adding that farm design needs to be efficient to be commercially viable. 

Sprouting an Idea

Janson Chan loves solving problems, which is why he studied Engineering Informatics at tertiary level. He also digs cooking and marketing. Having attended a session about how to grow mushrooms, and how underrated mushrooms were compared to other kinds of edible vegetal matter, he was hooked.  

However, Chan was not just content to stay on the business side of retailing mushrooms. “I thought, why not educate people as well,” he said. 

Since May this year, the company has reached out to students in local elementary schools, pre-school kids and resident communities on mushroom farming as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. “It first began with CSR, but later we felt that it was a need. We are also working with cancer patients as part of therapy,” said Chan. 

A do-it-yourself portable kit is given out during the talks to make mushroom growing fun and easy. The “My Mushroom Garden” kit contains an inoculated substrate bag that contains edible mushroom spawn, which can be grown at home with basic care. 

 "My Mushroom Garden" grow kit allows anyone to grow three cycles of mushrooms over a period of one month.

"My Mushroom Garden" grow kit allows anyone to grow three cycles of mushrooms over a period of one month.

Only a little water needs to be sprayed on the bag to activate the mushroom spawn. The oyster mushrooms can be harvested anytime from seven to 12 days when they are fully grown. “In just one kit, 320g of mushrooms can be produced through three cycles over a period of one month,” he said. 

The substrate bags contain natural ingredients such as saw dust, corn husk and rice husk.  No chemical fertilisers or pesticides are used in the production of the substrate bag.  

Once the mushrooms have been harvested, the compost within the substrate bag can be reused as fertilizer for other plants, completing the production cycle loop and thereby creating no waste. 

“By providing students with easy and convenient mushroom grow kits, Mushroom Kingdom hopes to educate the next generation of young Singaporeans in the viability and accessibility of urban farming,” Chan said. The company has also partnered with Ecoponics and collaborated with schools to conduct mushroom growing workshops together with their other curriculums.

 The company conducts lessons on growing mushrooms at Mulberry Learning Centre

The company conducts lessons on growing mushrooms at Mulberry Learning Centre

Apart from imparting knowledge about food security during these talks, Chan is confident that urban farming teaches children patience and food appreciation.

Nutrition in Mushrooms

Mushrooms can be found in a number of dishes because of their taste, texture and nutritional value. Mushrooms are high in B vitamins, which help provide energy by breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. They also play an important role in the nervous system. Furthermore, mushrooms are one of the richest sources of selenium, making it a good choice for vegetarians whose sources of selenium are limited. Selenium has anti-oxidant properties, protecting the body cells from damage that might lead to heart disease and cancers. Unlike other plant food that do not contain vitamin D, mushrooms are rich in the vitamin responsible for calcium absorption and bone growth. Mushrooms are also high in potassium, which regulates blood pressure.

Mushrooming Business

Chan revealed that the company will be introducing a new product segment – vacuum fried mushroom chips – in September this year, also under the Mushroom Kingdom brand. The mushrooms will be grown, harvested and produced as chips in Taiwan, and will store Vitamin D among other nutrients within them, thanks to technology.

Currently, the farm produces grey oyster mushrooms, black jelly fungus, royal abalone mushrooms and lingzhi (known as ganoderma in English). The grow kits are inoculated to grow oyster mushrooms, and the company is looking into introducing the other mushroom species for the kits in the near future.  

Even as the company expands in terms of distribution and product diversification, the informational and educational aspects are still of prime importance. “Most people do not know the importance of farming. And they might look down on it,” Chan said.  

“Actually it is a noble thing to do,” he smiled. 

Images by Agrivo Mycosciences.