SINGAPORE: Would you eat a burger that doesn’t use meat?
Not only are plant-based alternatives sprouting in restaurant menus in Singapore, there seems to be more demand for them.
Local burger chain, Fatboy, for example recently launched an “Impossible” menu made with Impossible Food’s plant-based meat to long queues and rave reviews online.
California-based Impossible Foods is just one of the many companies producing plant-based meats.
New forms of food, which also include “clean” or “cellular”, are increasingly popular, driven by concerns around the sustainability of current meat production systems, both in terms of animal ethics and environmental impact.
As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, these trends present huge opportunities for businesses keen to venture into the food industry.
Singapore is already seeing a home-grown company Shiok Meats using similar technologies to make “clean shrimp”- one of the world’s first lab-grown shrimp. It recently raised S$4.6 million in funding giving their ambitions to feed the world an extra boost.
Singapore’s recent push in farming could see many other ideas bubble to the surface and be given greater support. In March, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon announced that Singapore will develop a new 18 hectare Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) in Sungei Kadut, to be opened in stages after the second quarter of 2021.
The park, which will bring together high-tech farming and research and development activities, is a huge effort geared at helping Singapore produce its own food and raise its self-sufficiency levels.
We don’t know what the Singapore new agri-tech park will look like, but given its scale, it surely presents the country a chance to push for bold ideas and develop its agricultural sector in a way that reflects its position as a city-state with little traditional agricultural land but is able to lead in the development of new food technologies and systems.
OPPORTUNITIES IN AGRI- AND AQUA-CULTURE TECHNOLOGY
So how can Singapore’s new agri-tech park do this?
Singapore has demonstrated good progress in technology-enabled farming, such as in indoor and vertical farming for vegetables, large scale commercial fish farms and technology-enabled egg farms. These areas can be further developed as core activities in the AFIP.
But it’s the use of innovative technologies for farming can be further given a boost to tap on ongoing research and development work in Singapore’s tertiary institutions on food science. An export sub-sector for urban farming technologies and integrated production systems could be created for these purposes.
Aquaculture is another area of opportunity. There is renewed interest in this around the region due to concerns over the sustainability of ocean caught fish, the increasing impact of micro-plastics, and questions over the suitability of offshore cage systems in some areas due to currents and pollution.
The AFIP could encourage the development of land-based farming based on advanced water filtration, sustainable feeding systems and adapted fish species to be more suitable to such production systems.
It could do so by tapping on Temasek Polytechnic’s Centre of Innovation in Aquaculture, taking their technologies and piloting them, with the view to roll out to mass production-scaled farms.
Additionally, as the AFIP is envisaged to have capabilities to produce food that can be exported to the region, Singapore could produce fingerlings (young fishes) to be sold for fish farming both domestically and in the region. These fingerlings could be certified and traced throughout its production and growing phase in external farms.
This tight control of the production cycle would allow a “Singapore Certification” on the quality of the produce and address the consumer’s desire for food safety assurance.
This certification initiative could be further strengthened by the development within the AFIP of technologies that support traceability, product integrity, and food safety, such as advanced RFID systems, blockchain, and genetic fingerprinting or tagging.
BEYOND URBAN AGRICULTURE SYSTEMS
While the demand for lab-grown meat seems to be growing, little work has yet been done on the economics of production or on any potential nutrition effects of such food.
Start-ups, and those interested to take advantage of the AFIP should actively aim to develop original technology to bridge this gap.
One need is technology for quick identification of food items to prevent false claims of expensive meat items like wagyu beef or cod fish. Much research and development is still needed to develop mobile tools to accurately identify authentic or fake produce.
Untapped markets for new technologies exist on Singapore’s door step in the approximately 350 million small holder farmers in Asia, and 100 million in ASEAN. Technologies that improve productivity, increase water and energy efficiency, ensure sustainability and reduce drudgery have huge potential.
ENSURING THE SUSTAINABILITY OF THE INNOVATION PARK
The Singapore AFIP must have focus and relevance to Singapore’s agri-food industry, and additionally, be able to capitalise on the food and farming needs of the region.
This can best be achieved by forming a not-for-profit entity, built with public and private sector support that can serve to coordinate, catalyse and guide efforts to achieve synergies across the agrifood sector. This independently operating entity could “connect the dots” among the many sector players and accelerate progress in delivering tangible outcomes.
China’s Ping Tung Agricultural Biotechnology Park has an apex entity providing this kind of coordinating function as does the Netherlands Food Valley through its Food Valley Organisation (FVO).
Building human resource capacity and capability, and a vibrant culture of innovation and entrepreneurship directed to raising Singapore’s exports of food technology and products, is key to a long-term sustainability of the AFIP.
The biggest challenge for this new push into agriculture is people with knowledge of the whole value chain.
Local tertiary institutions such as Republic and Temasek Polytechnic have responded by developing courses in plant agriculture and aquaculture respectively, but specific course modules focused on relevant key industry verticals such as indoor farming and aquaculture systems, or cellular meat, could be developed in conjunction with global education partners as part of broader biology programmes.
But the application of other technologies to farming systems must not be neglected. Opportunities for technology applications in agriculture could be highlighted in other university programs such as engineering, electronics and computer science.
All of these will help sustain Singapore’s agriculture businesses in the long run.
Singapore is right to move quickly on this initiative as many countries and cities around the world see similar opportunities in urban and smallholder farming.
With its intellectual capital, strong innovative culture and protection of intellectual property, not to mention its geographical position in the middle of growing urban populations and untapped markets, Singapore is well positioned to play a role in the development of new global farming systems.
Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow (Food Security) in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Andrew Powell is CEO of Singapore company Asia BioBusiness, and Rob Hulme is Head of Asia for Beanstalk Agtech.
Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated to reflect clarifications from Impossible Foods.