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New Champion for Singapore’s Food Industry

1192_1Following a reorganisation, a new statutory board called the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) will be formed on 1 April 2019, to oversee food safety and security. It will take over the food-related functions presently carried out by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Health Sciences Authority (HSA).

Headed by the AVA’s current chief executive officer, Lim Kok Thai, the SFA will come under the Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR). With this revamp, the AVA will be dissolved and its animal-related functions transferred to the National Parks Board under the Ministry of National Development (MND).

The formation of a dedicated food agency will benefit consumers and businesses alike. In the event of a food-borne disease outbreak, response will be more efficient and there will be better co-ordination when products have to be traced and recalled. “This enables the SFA to address lapses more quickly and more holistically, and streamline public feedback to one point of contact,” said the MEWR and MND in a joint statement.

The new agency will also mean more business-friendly regulations, as existing licences for food businesses will be approved by a single authority. Businesses which had to apply for multiple operating licences from the NEA and AVA previously, now only need to deal with the SFA.

“By harmonising licensing standards and combining existing licences for food businesses, including for farmers, food manufacturers, food retailers and food service operators, businesses will be able to adapt and transform their business models seamlessly and look at new ways to grow their operations,” the MEWR and MND said.

As the lead agency for food-related matters, the SFA will partner food businesses to strengthen capabilities, tap on technologies to raise productivity, undertake research to develop new lines of business, and catalyse industry transformation. This will be done in collaboration with economic agencies such as the Economic Development Board, Enterprise Singapore and A*STAR.

“Our local producers can provide vegetables and fish supplies that are protected from adverse environmental conditions by tapping into innovative technologies in high-tech farming and aquaculture that enable intensified production via controlled processes,” the statement noted.

A National Centre for Food Science will be set up under the SFA to consolidate the food laboratory capabilities of the three agencies. It will run food diagnostics, and conduct research and development in food safety to ensure that food continues to be safe for consumption and standards are benchmarked internationally.

“Safeguarding Singapore’s food supply is increasingly challenging due to the complexities of global food supply chains as well as the impacts of climate change,” said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli. “We are already seeing the effects of climate change, such as plankton blooms from warmer sea waters and increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. The formation of the SFA is timely as Singapore aims to turn our food challenges into strategic advantages. The SFA will work closely with industry and R&D partners to develop new solutions and products, and seize global opportunities in the food industry. Doing this will help make our food supply future-ready and provide good jobs for Singaporeans in the food industry.”

Boosting Singapore’s Food Security
With population growth, explosive expansion of the middle class and climate change, concern over food security is high on the agenda of many countries. A small nation with little arable land, this issue is even more critical for Singapore. But by developing three national food baskets – diversification of food import sources, internationalisation and local production – Singapore has been to ensure ample supply of food for the growing demand of its population.

In the latest survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore came up tops in the international global index for food security, with Ireland in second place, and Britain and the United States in joint third. In total, 113 countries were assessed on four categories – affordability, availability, quality and safety, and natural resources and resilience.

Singapore’s strength is in its affordability. A high income country with low tariff on agriculture imports – the lowest of the countries surveyed – safe and nutritious food is accessible to citizens at affordable prices.

However, Singapore’s high dependence on imports for over 90% of its food has made it vulnerable to natural resource risks and climate change.

An AVA spokesman told The Straits Times that Singapore’s food security is vulnerable to global driving forces and trends, such as population growth, rising urbanisation and incomes, climate change, disease outbreaks and scarcity of resources. “These trends are intensifying, and their interplay is heightening food security challenges more than ever.”

When these risks are taken into account, Singapore’s position in the index drops to the16th position.

Domestic Production Provides Buffer
To build resilience, Singapore is redoubling efforts to help farmers adopt technology and new-age farming techniques to ensure that local farms are as productive as they can possibly be. While local produce accounts for less than 10% of the nation’s needs, it serves as a buffer to forestall supply disruption.

Financially, the government is enhancing the existing Agriculture Productivity Fund to make it easier for farmers to employ technology, by raising the co-funding cap from S$700,000 to S$2 million for food farms that produce eggs, fish, leafy vegetables and bean sprouts.

As Senior Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon told Parliament in March 2018, “Many farmers have told us that they are happy to adopt more productive technology. However, new farming systems require heavy capital investments. Advanced greenhouse systems with environmental controls and automation, which can double production, can cost around S$4 million.”

Technology-sourcing trips have been organised to allow farmers to learn best practices from other countries while technology-matching sessions link farmers with solution providers and technology developers. For instance, during a technology-sourcing trip to Norway, local aquaculture farmers were introduced to advanced automated fish-feeding systems and net cleaners.

As not all systems are suitable for local farms, neither can the systems be adopted wholesale, the Agriculture Productivity Fund has a new test-bedding component which co-funds food farms up to S$500,000 to test-bed new solutions prior to large-scale deployment.

Change in Awarding of Tenders
In keeping with this new thrust, the AVA has altered the way it is awarding tenders – not on the basis of price but on concept proposals, with a focus on productivity gains.

In February 2018, 10 vegetable farming land parcels in Lim Chu Kang, measuring two hectares each, were awarded to eight companies. The winning proposals featured greenhouses with automation and smart controls, multi-tier hydroponic systems using LED lights and data analytics to optimise growing conditions, and multi-storey farms that use automated soil-less cultivation system and robotics.

Meod, which won tender for three plots, plans to grow only leafy greens using its proprietary hydroponics system, which features modular plant beds that can be stacked to heights of three to four metres. It aims to produce about 500 to 550 kg a day using a science-based approach, where everything is tracked, including the temperature, humidity and light within the greenhouses, as well as the rate of growth of seedlings and crops using different methods.

“We have to look at how to implement large and tangible improvements in harvest and yield with the help of technology, while still keeping costs realistic in the regional context,” Meod director Jeremy Chua told the Today newspaper.

The company currently operates a one-hectare farm at the D’Kranji Farm Resort, where it plants a mix of lettuce, Asian greens, herbs and Swiss chards.

Eden PurelyFresh Farm is introducing a multi-tier system where seedlings are stacked in tiers and watered by an automatic recirculating water system. Grown indoors under controlled lighting and temperature, the crops are more resilient to weather elements.

As chief executive officer of Eden PurelyFresh Farm Desmond Khoo noted, “Resources such as manpower and water can be better utilised and reduced. The period of time needed for the seedlings to grow will also be reduced due to a consistent lighting and growing environment.”

The vegetable farming land parcels are among 36 new plots in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah being tendered out in tranches.

Melvin Chow, AVA’s group director for food supply resilience, said: “These proposals have the potential to optimise scarce land, reduce reliance on unskilled labour and bolster Singapore’s food security.”

Farming Coalitions Advance Industry Interests
Farmers are coming together to address industry challenges and improve standards. In October 2017, 20 farms from the livestock, food fish and vegetable sectors formed the Singapore Agro-Food Enterprises Federation (SAFEF), the second coalition to be established within the industry.

Frank Tan, founding member of the federation and managing director of Marine Life Aquaculture, said the federation’s immediate priorities include developing safety standards and guidelines for sustainable farming practices. It will also work on raising productivity, as well as building farming and manpower capabilities.

The SAFEF also plans to work with the AVA, research institutions and institutes of higher learning in four main areas: standard-setting; boosting productivity and lowering costs; building capacity and developing manpower; and promoting local produce.

Membership to the federation is opened to all licensed food farmers. Community farmers and individuals from institutes of higher learning can also join as associate members.

“I’m very happy to see the farmers themselves are taking this step to come together to work together to push for more advancements and transformation within the industry,” said Senior Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon, who serves as patron for the federation. “It takes the whole ecosystem – not just farmers but also the entire value chain, such as the institutes of higher learning as well as people in the marketing and retail space.”

Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), which was founded in 2005 to bring together farmers in the Kranji area, is reaping the benefits of collaboration. Rebranded as Kranji Farms in 2016, the 400-hectare cluster, with over 100 farrns straddling Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang with over a dozen open to the public, has become a popular ‘agri-tainment’ destination for city slickers.

At Jurong Frog Farm, visitors can feed frogs, sample frog legs and hashima, a delicacy made from fatty tissue found in a frog’s fallopian tube. Bollywood Veggies offers a free, 30-minute guided tour of the farm on weekends. Over at Hay Dairies, Singapore’s only goat farm, visitors can see goats being milked every morning. There are also restaurants and cafes, and even villas for a staycation with a difference, in the only countryside left on mainland Singapore.

Kranji Express is a dedicated bus service which runs daily, including public holidays between Kranji MRT and Kranji Farms for S$3 a head. Operational since 2005, it allows visitors to hop on and off in the course of the day on the same ticket. Quail egg farmer and Kranji Farms’ only licensed tour guide, William Ho, offers a guided tour for those interested.

KCA also organises a quarterly farmers’ market to promote local farm produce, including vegetables, fruit, herbs, eggs, fish and milk, and, locally made artisanal food and products.

Spurring Innovation in Food Manufacturing
Ranked fifth in the 2018 Global Innovation Index and the top in Asia, innovation has been the heartbeat of the Singapore economy. Singapore is harnessing this capability to increase its slice of the global food pie.

A recent study of the Singapore food manufacturing landscape commissioned by Enterprise Singapore, Ipsos Business Consulting found that at least one-third of the food manufacturers are already innovating, either through the use of new ingredients or the development of food products catering to niche sectors.

The government has rolled out a string of initiatives to encourage many more to come on board.
In April 2018, a multi-agency initiative led by Enterprise Singapore was launched to equip companies with the knowledge and resources to create food for the future. Speaking at the launch, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat said, “FoodInnovate will seek to address the challenges companies face in pursuing innovation through a four-pronged approach.”

Developed as part of the Food Manufacturing Industry Transformation Map, FoodInnovate seeks to:
• Provide physical infrastructure to facilitate access to technologies and commercialisation;
• Equip companies with food science knowledge and market insights;
• Create platforms to incubate ideas and drive co-innovation; and
• Promote the adoption of disruptive technologies by building a base for agri-food tech startups in Singapore.

Since then, it has unveiled a couple of shared facilities. First on the list is the High Pressure Processing (HPP) Resource Sharing Facility. Jointly set up by the Food Innovation Resource Centre and Warehouse Logistics Net Asia, with support from Enterprise Singapore, it allows companies to access HPP technology under a pay-per-use model without having to stump up hefty upfront investment in equipment. By using high pressure instead of heat or chemicals to preserve food, it allows the nutritional qualities and taste to be retained while extending shelf-life by up to four times longer.

At the new JTC Food Hub @ Senoko, the first multi-tenanted food development in Singapore with an integrated cold room and warehouse, a small batch production facility is in the works. The first of its kind in Singapore, it will allow companies to rent advanced equipment also on a pay-per-use basis to experiment new kinds of products.

Slated for completion in end 2019, the facility will be especially useful for small and medium-sized enterprises, which may not have the scale or in-house capabilities to test new ideas. They will have access to a range of equipment, from standard ones like spray dryers to advanced equipment such as microwave-assisted thermal sterilisers and pulsed electric fields.

“More than ever, consumers today look for ease of preparation and enhanced nutritional value in their food choices. Food manufacturers need to innovate their product offerings to meet these new consumer requirements. However, companies often face a lack of scale and in-house capabilities. SMEs in particular, may find it difficult to do small batch production to test their new ideas, as the equipment is expensive and outsourcing to a contract manufacturer requires a larger minimum order size than what they need. This increases the cost of experimentation and has resulted in a low commercialisation rate,” said Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry, at the opening of the food hub.

Building Talent Pool in Food Manufacturing
To support industry development and foster growth, a skills framework has been unveiled to build and maintain a strong talent pool for the industry. Jointly developed by SkillsFuture Singapore, Workforce Singapore and Enterprise Singapore, together with employers, industry associations, and education and training providers, as well as the unions, the Skills Framework for Food Manufacturing outlines job roles, career pathways, as well as existing and emerging skills and relevant training programmes required for the industry.

Employers will be able to recognise these skills and invest in training their employees for career development and skills upgrading. Education and training providers can gain insights on sector trends and existing and emerging skills that are in demand, and design programmes to meet the sector needs accordingly. At the same time, the government, unions and professional bodies can analyse the skills gap and offer appropriate SkillsFuture initiatives to upgrade talent and professionalise the sector.

Speaking at the launch in July 2018, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said, “We believe that food manufacturing can be a competitive advantage for Singapore. This may not be obvious to others who see us as a land-scarce and labour-tight market. But it is because we are land scarce and labour tight that we no longer want to compete on the basis of price. We want to compete on the quality of our workers.”