Dr. Shyamli Mehra, ACI Fellow, Senior Lecturer and Assistant Programme Chair (Diploma in Consumer Behaviour and Research), School of Management and Communication, Republic Polytechnic
Tio Wee Leng, ACI Fellow, Assistant Director (Capability and Industry) and Programme Chair (Diploma in Consumer Behaviour and Research), School of Management and Communication, Republic Polytechnic
Yuko Yamashita, Professor of Marketing, Graduate School of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University, Japan
Singapore is one of the most progressive cities in the world, embarking on the latest trends with fervent enthusiasm whether it is high-tech electronics, popular music genre, cutting-edge fashion or unconventional food delicacies. We are ready to consume it all, from K Pop to bubble tea. This article uncovers the initial response of Singaporean consumers to a new range of vegetables called “Hydroponics,” a trend that has followed swiftly on from the popular “organics” movement.
The world is moving away from producing food enough to fill stomachs to producing healthier food options. With a growing ageing population and a worrying rise in obesity and diabetes, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about what they eat and how to use food both as prevention and a cure.1 Research conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, along with the University of Southern California, estimates that the annual cost of diabetes amongst the working population will exceed S$2.5 billion by 2050. By the same date, Singapore is predicted to have 1 million diabetics if nothing is done to combat the onslaught of the disease.2 This affords opportunities for food companies to develop novel cutting edge food solutions which can boost their competitiveness and benefit consumers at the same time. Hydroponics is deemed to be one such solution in this direction.
The word hydroponic comes from Latin and means working water. Simply put, it is the art of growing plants without soil. Hydroponic plants are grown in an inert growing medium in which a perfectly balanced, pH-adjusted nutrient solution is delivered to the roots in a highly soluble form. This allows the plant to uptake its food with very little effort compared to soil-based growth where the roots must search out the nutrients before extracting them. The energy expended by the roots in this process is energy better spent on vegetative growth and fruit and flower production.3
Although hydroponic farming is not new to Singapore, hydroponic vegetables remain largely unheard of by consumers. In fact, there are more than 20 varieties of green leafy vegetables and herbs produced hydroponically, including common ones such as lettuce, coriander, kai lan, xiao pai chye and spinach. The hydroponic vegetables offered in supermarkets are limited to “prepared mixed” (washed ready-to-eat salads/ready -to-cook vegetables), produced locally and from neighbouring Malaysia. Their main competitors are from the organic segment, which is an established category widely accepted as being fresh, healthy and safe for consumption.
The advent of hydroponics has prompted questions from the general public including how different they are from organic vegetables, which have set a benchmark of sorts, and if their heralded benefits are genuine or if this is simply another fad. Another question is whether the premium pricing of these products is justified by their potential health benefits. Here we aim to address some of these questions and dispel some myths around hydroponics.
Conceptually speaking, the difference between organic vegetables and hydroponics lies in the inputs. One major difference is that hydroponic fertilisers contain the proper amounts of essential micro -nutrients in a more refined form with fewer impurities, making them more stable and soluble for better absorption. By contrast, organic fertilisers rely on the synergistic action of bacteria and microbes to break down nutritional substances for easier uptake by the plants.4 We can compare the nutritious composition of the fertilisers but cannot assume that they are consequently converted to the outputs of organic and hydroponic farming accordingly. Further research is required to confirm the benefits of the fertiliser to hydroponics and as a consequence to human health.
Although Singapore has some local farms selling hydroponics, given that over 90 per cent of the food consumed here is imported1, it is not a surprise that Japanese hydroponic producers have entered the market with high-end produce with the intent to establish their stronghold. In order to study the scope of hydroponics in Singapore, Hitotsubashi University, Japan, collaborated with the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight (ACI), NTU, Singapore, and Republic Polytechnic, Singapore to conduct a study which has uncovered some interesting insights into the hydroponics market in the Red Dot City.
The key objective of the study was to analyse the product mix of organic and hydroponic vegetables in the market and at the same time to understand the buying behaviour of consumers. It explored specifically the factors affecting their choice of vegetables and their awareness and receptivity towards hydroponics, in order to recommend a suitable value proposition to convince the consumers. The research approach adopted included product mix observation studies at the leading supermarkets offering Japanese produce, followed by in-depth interviews (IDI) with potential consumers. The study was conducted on a small scale but being qualitative in nature, provides in-depth insights into hydroponics market and consumer perception.
As a starting point, the study looked at the perception of organic vegetables, which seem to be the closest competitor to hydroponics in the market, in order to draw some parallels. The study illustrated some interesting findings about the factors influencing purchase of organic vegetables including:
- Consumers’ perception of organic vegetables is positive which justifies their willingness to pay a higher price for them.
- Responses show that the power of the “organic” label is stronger than any specific brand labels. Indeed, during an interview, a consumer mentioned “before I buy I would see, look for the organic label. “ And yet another said “…I don’t really notice the brand.”
- Interestingly, consumers who patronise organic vegetables do not perceive much difference in taste compared to normal vegetables “…can’t really tell if there is any difference in the taste” “…it doesn’t really matter for me it’s as long as it grown organically.” So it may appear that the health benefits outweigh the taste distinction.
- The place of origin also has a big influence as one of the consumers shared, “Ah! yes definitely, I don’t take from China, I don’t take from Indonesia…news about China products.” Japanese products seem to occupy a superior position as one consumer mentioned. “Japanese have their own standard; they are one of the very meticulous in how systematic things are, so the errors are lesser.”
Our in-depth interviews revealed that the reason for the low consumer awareness of hydroponics was the lack of readily available information. What they do know is very vague and limited to what they have read in the media. The few articles that are available on hydroponics on the internet seem to provide contradictory views making consumers still wary to try them. Locally, the Singapore Science Centre introduces visitors to the concept through its exhibits and guide books. Some supermarkets too share information on the product category as illustrated below.
During the interviews consumers shared that they would be more likely to buy hydroponics if they understood more about the technology and the consequent benefits better. Since the perception of hydroponics is weaker than that of organics, consumers expect them to be priced lower. So to justify the higher price, consumers have to be convinced of the USP. The observational studies that we conducted across supermarkets in Singapore identified a gap in the existing product range that could possibly be filled by Japanese non-prepared hydroponic mixes with roots. In order to command this space, producers will have to highlight the Japanese origin and prove the health advantage of hydroponic vegetables with roots intact. However, the scientific evidence at present is insufficient to establish the supremacy of hydroponics.
Some of the conflicting information has been extracted in the box below to illustrate how grey the area is.
Food for Thought
Lab Research vs. Ground Reality: Several research studies (Treftz, 2015; Buchanan, 2013, Premuzic 1998)5 show that the average vitamin C content in vegetables that are hydroponically grown is higher than for those that are soil grown. Hydroponically grown vegetables have the advantages of a higher essential mineral content and lower heavy metal content. However, producers are reluctant to state this nutritious advantage in their communications because although they can control the inputs during the production processes, they are not able to control how much of it will be absorbed by individual vegetables and subsequently delivered to the person consuming it.
Another study in 2000, published in “Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses” compared hydroponics to conventionally produced vegetables and found that hydroponic produce can be superior in nutrition and taste – but this is dependent on the nutrient content of the hydroponic solutions. Stronger nutrient solutions can ensure a better product than conventionally produced vegetables. 6
Hydroponics technology encourages pesticide free approach but the hydroponics may not be free of pesticides. Pesticide screenings for test cases shows that the hydroponically grown root-free vegetables are free from pesticides. But the same may not be said with confidence for those produced by farms and sold with roots. There are some claims that these roots are cleaner with lower risk of contamination and foodborne illnesses owing to the environmentally friendly technology used in farming and no contact with soil, water flooding or animal pests. 7 Such claims need scientific evidence. Roots are suitable for preserving the vegetables longer but they are also susceptible to bacteria and insects. Hence, most hydroponic farms use the pesticides if they deliver the products with roots.
In sum, it is clear that hydroponic producers need to invest in further research to prove the benefits of hydroponics and provide clarity on these contradictions to persuade consumers and allay any fears. Backed by scientific data, they then need to embark on intensive marketing strategies to establish this category of vegetables in Singapore through series of educational initiatives across multiple touchpoints such as Live Showcase at Nature Attractions, Roadshows @Point-of-Sale and Online presence. In the meanwhile, next time you are picking your greens in the supermarket, you may want to go down the hydroponics aisle to taste/test for yourself whether there is true merit in this new and emerging industry.
1 Leong, J. (2016, May 13). Food companies need to collaborate more and set industry benchmarks. The Business Times. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from https://www.iesingapore.gov.sg/Media-Centre/News/2016/5/Food-companies-need-to-collaborate-more-and-set-industry-benchmarks
2 Abu Baker, J. (2017, Aug 18). Are we winning in the war against diabetes yet? Retrieved August 22, 2017, from Channel News Asia website, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/are-we-winning-in-the-war-against-diabetes-yet-9129194
3 What is hydroponics? (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from Simply Hydroponics and Organics website, http://www.simplyhydro.com/whatis.htm
4 What is hydroponics? (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from Simply Hydroponics and Organics website, http://www.simplyhydro.com/whatis.htm
5 Tinker-Kulberg, R. (2016, Feb 02). Is Hydroponic Food as Healthy as Traditional Soil Grown Food? Retrieved August 22, 2017 from abundancenc.org website http://abundancenc.org/is-hydroponic-food-as-healthy-as-traditional-soil-grown-food/
6 Padayachee, A. (2013, May 23). Nutritional quality of hydroponics vs. soil grown veggies and fruit. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from The Simple Scientist website https://drannelinepadayachee.com/2013/05/22/191/
7 Morgan, L. (2013, Dec 1). Organic and Hydroponic Food Safety. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from maximumyield.com website https://www.maximumyield.com/organic-and-hydroponic-food-safety/2/1036
About the author
Dr. Shyamli Mehra is a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight and a Senior Lecturer and Assistant Programme Chair (Diploma in Consumer Behaviour and Research) at School of Management and Communication, Republic Polytechnic. Tio Wee Leng is a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight and Assistant Director (Capability and Industry) and Programme Chair (Diploma in Consumer Behaviour and Research) at School of Management and Communication, Republic Polytechnic. Yuko Yamashita is a Professor of Marketing at Graduate School of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University, Japan. This article is based on a Collaborative Research Project by Republic Polytechnic, Singapore with Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, Singapore and Hitotsubashi University, Japan.