SINGAPORE: As part of his job, Liew Woei Chang keeps a close eye on hundreds of tilapia fish daily.
But the 39-year-old does not work in the fish trade. In fact, the tilapia that he monitors possess quite an atypical trait.
A freshwater fish, tilapias tend to grow slower or face high mortality rates when reared in sea water. Together with four other researchers, Dr Liew, a research investigator at the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), has been looking at how to change that.
Eight years since the research programme started, the team has “almost achieved” that.
“Tilapia is one of the most important aquaculture species, being the second most-farmed fish in the world. Traditionally, tilapia have been grown in Singapore and around the region but they do not take to sea water well, so the survivability and growth rates here have not been high,” Dr Liew told Channel NewsAsia during a visit to his lab earlier this week.
Through the use of technology that can accurately identify fish with desired traits and select them for its selective breeding programme, TLL researchers have been able to breed good-quality and salt-tolerant tilapia, now in the fifth generation, without any genetic modification.
“We will do mass cross-breeding for each batch of fish and after about 3 months, do a size selection where we will pick out those that have grown the fastest. We will find out the parents of these superior fish and use them to breed more fish. Their offspring will then be used for the next batch,” said Dr Liew who has been involved in the tilapia selection project since 2014.
“We have been hoping to achieve high-yield, fast-growth tilapia that can survive in sea water. I think we have almost achieved that.”
In another TLL laboratory nearby, Dr Urano Daisuke is hoping to grow vegetables that are climate-proof and have improved agronomical traits and nutritional values.
While an indoor setting allows researchers to come up with optimal conditions, it brings about a different set of challenges.
“Unlike outdoor farms with problems like the weather or pathogens, we don’t have to consider these threats in indoor farms. But plants here need to grow at a high-density setting with low-light intensity.”
The latter stems from cost issues faced by many indoor farms. “Lighting makes up the biggest cost for the business of indoor farming. In Japan, for example, advanced indoor farms spend about 70 to 80 per cent of their costs on LED lights and the remaining on temperature control,” elaborated Dr Urano, who is the principal investigator for TLL’s research on vegetables.
Under low light conditions, plants tend to start growing longer stalks to help them fight for light. This usually results in smaller leaves.
“But the plants we want is even under low light, they can still make big leaves which is what people eat … If the plants can grow nicely at low-light intensity, then we can reduce cost,” added Dr Urano.
“The plants for indoor farming will have to be different so we need to modify some traits and breed new vegetables that have these unique traits.”
SINGAPORE RAMPS UP AGRI-FOOD R&D BUDGET
Such research and development (R&D) projects are what Singapore is looking to pump in more money as it beefs up its agriculture and food production sector.
In line with the newly announced target to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs by 2030, the Government will invest S$144 million from its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan to ramp up R&D in the agri-food industry.
The National Research Foundation (NRF), in a press release on Wednesday (Mar 27), said factors like climate change, rising sea levels and temperatures are risks to world food production. Given Singapore’s space and resource constraints, the country is vulnerable to these global trends that impact food supply and safety.
Citing how the country has previously tapped on science and technology to tackle its water constraints, it needs to do the same for its food challenges.
The new funds will go to R&D efforts in three areas, namely sustainable urban food production with focus on tropical aquaculture and urban agriculture, development of “future foods” in the form of alternative proteins, as well as building new food safety standards and local capabilities to drive innovation in food production and manufacturing.
“With the investments we are putting in place, it will help to raise productivity of some of the locally produced food sources," National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said at a press conference held after the 11th Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) meeting on Wednesday.
“We can also invest in the strengths we have in biotechnology and advanced manufacturing (to) help us look at new food sources emerging now.
"This will also help us improve our understanding in how these food sources are evolving, strengthen our capabilities in regulating food and ensuring food safety for the future," he added.
To complement this, two Centres of Innovation focusing on aquaculture and energy will be set up in Temasek Polytechnic and the Nanyang Technological University by June and April, respectively.
USING TECH TO PRODUCE MORE
TLL’s chief executive Peter Chia welcomes the increasing attention on the local agri-tech sector. More than just funds, he said he is excited about the growing awareness that has been created about the industry.
“Rather than just approaching it from a biology point of view, which gives you only one side of the equation, we can now bring together people from multiple backgrounds, agencies to meet the ’30 by 30’ goal in a much more considered way.”
Since founded in 2002, TLL has focused primarily on understanding the cellular mechanisms underpinning the development and physiology of plants, fungi and animals. Its selective breeding programme on fish genetics, for one, has successfully yielded a premium breed of sea bass that is less susceptible to disease and can be bred in 30 per cent less time.
Its ongoing research on salt-tolerant tilapia and the climate-proofing of vegetables are other ways it hopes technology can help to bolster Singapore’s food security.
“As aquaculture becomes more knowledge-intensive, the idea is for us to contribute with technology and knowledge to improve productivity overall,” said Mr Chia.
“To produce more with less, and in a lower risk manner so that in general, we will have better-quality food and more affordable food, which is the definition of food security.”
For the tilapia selection project, outdoor trials will be the next step to take and researchers are currently looking to supply fingerlings to farmers in Singapore for a start.
“We have transformed the tilapia to be able to grow in sea water so what’s next is to have farmers to be aware of this and get them to take our fish for trials in the real environment,” said Dr Liew.