ingapore, being land-scarce, relies heavily on imports for its food. From neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia to the far-flung reaches of Argentina and Uruguay, 90 percent of the food that is consumed by the nation’s population of 5.9 million, is flown from 170 countries and regions worldwide.
As the world’s population grows, the global demand for food is projected to be 60 percent higher by 2050, compared to 2016.
In the face of challenges such as climate change, resource depletion, outbreaks in plant and animal diseases that may impact food supply and safety, and disruptions to the global food system, as experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of food security has become of great concern.
Among the strategies to enhance food security, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) is working closely with many other public agencies, industry partners and foreign authorities to transform Singapore’s agri-food industry into one that is highly productive, innovative and sustainable.
With only 1 percent of Singapore’s land being used for conventional farming, SFA’s vision to produce 30 percent of the nation’s nutritional needs with locally produced food by 2030 is a tall order. The government is putting its hopes in technology, stating that multi-story LED vegetable farms and recirculating aquaculture systems can produce 10 to 15 times more vegetables and fish than conventional farms.
Supporting Local Production
To support the transformation of Singapore’s agri-food industry, the $60 million Agri-Food Cluster Transformation (ACT) Fund was launched in April 2021 to support local farmers in their efforts to expand production capability, boost yield, raise productivity and sustainability, and improve circularity of resource use. The ACT Fund is available until December 2025 and since its launch, SFA, who administers the funds has received a total of 23 applications as of 31 December 2021. Eight applications have been approved with grant amounts ranging between $10,000 to $700,000.
On 26 April 2021, SFA announced that a total of $23 million is being pumped into research and development (R&D) projects to boost Singapore’s food security. The 12 projects in ‘Sustainable Urban Food Production’ will look into innovative solutions to increase productivity, taking into consideration factors such as cost-effectiveness, resource use efficiency, sustainability and climate resilience. Among the 12 awarded proposals, eight are in the domain of aquaculture and four in urban agriculture, with projects spanning research areas such as genetics, disease & health management, systems & conditions optimisation as well as nutrition. The proposals were awarded to projects that demonstrate potential for scalability in Singapore and abroad.
To name some examples: one proposal by researchers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Panasonic Factory Solutions aims to find out how the real-time monitoring of crop health and nutrient analysis can help to reduce waste and boost productivity in hydroponic cultivation; scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) are working with UVAXX, a vaccine producer company that develops vaccines for aquaculture, to develop one against a virus that causes scale drops in Asian sea bass; Tropical Futures Institute, Republic Polytechnic (RP) and Wageningen University are working with Barramundi Asia and UVAXX to supercharge barramundi production through advanced selective breeding.
Mr Lim Kok Thai, SFA Chief Executive Officer said, “With challenges that impact global food security such as climate change, rising population and decreasing land for agricultural use, R&D holds the key to the future of food.”
With the big push to enhance food security via technology and R&D, it has become imperative to ensure that our food is safe, including food derived from new food technologies. Food safety is a necessary component of food security. This is even more critical for future foods that do not have a history of consumption. An emerging growth is in the development of novel foods such as cultured meat. SFA started engaging the scientific community and industry on the possible approaches to regulate the safety of novel foods and its ingredients. In 2019, SFA introduced a novel food regulatory framework, which required companies to go through pre-market safety assessment for novel food that do not have a history of being consumed as food. SFA established a Novel Food Safety Expert Working Group that comprises experts in relevant fields such as food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology, public health policy and food science and technology, to provide scientific advice. An example of a novel food that has gone through a rigorous safety assessment framework is Eat Just Inc’s cultured chicken. The novel food regulatory framework paved the way for Singapore to become the first in the world to allow cultured chicken to be sold as an ingredient in Eat Just’s nugget product in 2021.
Furthering efforts in food safety, NTU, in partnership with SFA and A*STAR, officially launched the Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH) to drive food safety research for ‘Food Safety Science & Innovation’ under the Singapore Food Story (SFS) R&D Programme on 27 April 2021. FRESH is also tasked with helping build local food safety science capabilities in support of Singapore’s growing food innovation ecosystem.
FRESH will work towards boosting food safety related R&D capabilities, developing talent and enhancing food safety risk communications. One of FRESH’s key functions is to enhance R&D capabilities for food safety risk assessment and protocols for novel foods, functional ingredients, and new food processing techniques. FRESH also supports the food innovation ecosystem to allow “first-in-market” food products to be safely launched in Singapore. The agri-food industry can tap on FRESH for R&D and preparation for regulatory assessments for novel foods. FRESH will provide useful perspectives on food safety to support efforts in urban farming and alternative proteins.
Transforming an Industry with Agri Tech 4.0
At the Global Food Security & Sustainability Virtual Summit 2021, food security experts highlighted the need for the agri-food industry to shift to Agri Tech 4.0.
Associate Professor Matthew Tan, a Singapore representative for the private sector to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) policy partnership on food security, described Agri Tech 4.0 as a “sunrise industry”.
He shared how today’s commercial farms have a large carbon footprint, negatively impact the environment, use chemicals and pesticides that could be harmful, and are no longer sustainable. During the pandemic lockdowns, many farms suffered when there were no workers to harvest vegetables and fish were left to die. Therefore, there is a need globally for more farms to shift to agri-tech, where urban farms set within cities use a smaller land space, fewer workers, more technology, and intensive production to raise yield in a shorter time span.
An Agri Tech 4.0 farm applies big data, uses Internet of Things, and switches to highly disruptive and sustainable farming technologies. On the use of disruptive technology, selective genetic breeding was cited to produce high-quality seafood that are fast-growing and disease-free. To prove a point on raising fast-growing yield/crop, Prof Tan showed his own reared jumbo-sized tiger shrimp that uses genetic technology. The jumbo-sized tiger shrimp, the length of a person’s hand, took just over three months to reach this fully-grown size. Fifteen years ago, a shrimp of that size would have taken nine months to mature.
Another example in aquaculture is Apollo Aquaculture Group, a local innovator that is using technology to maximise its production with eight floors of vertical fish farms. Slated to be completed by 2023, its vertical farm plans to produce up to 2,700 tonnes of fish a year, using cutting-edge technology. A Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) allows Apollo to control humidity and temperature, to monitor, purify and recirculate water within a tank system. The system can produce up to 150 kilograms of grouper per tonne of water, as compared to sea cage farming, which produces 25 to 75 kilograms. That’s two to sixfold of production.
Singapore-headquartered Barramundi Group uses world-class aquaculture technology and sustainable fish farming practices and has strategically invested in two innovative companies to help advance its farms in Australia, Singapore and Brunei. To ensure it has control over novel viruses and pathogens endemic in the farming environment, Barramundi Group started its own animal health and vaccines company, UVAXX. The leading autogenous vaccine producer has produced seven proprietary vaccines for barramundi as well as for other fish species. Beyond UVAXX, Barramundi acquired a deep tech start-up, Allegro Aqua that focuses on developing quality barramundi through natural genetic selection. Through selective breeding over generations of fish, the company has managed to breed barramundi broodstock with fast growth, disease resilience and high yield characteristics. This will see an emergence of supply of genetically superior breed of barramundi in the market.
Local farms should turn to technology to increase food production. Agri Tech 4.0 plays a crucial role in helping Singapore improve its farming efficiency. In an interview with GovInsider, Melvin Chow, Senior Director, Food Infrastructure Development & Management Division at SFA, talked about the use of technology. Sensors can be used in produce fields to measure soil and weather conditions, and be deployed on farming equipment to measure the yield and standard of crops. Such data will give farmers a better idea of their produce quality. Camera-equipped satellites and drones can also help in these assessments. These technologies have become more accurate and affordable, capable of amazing detail when collecting images of fields from above. Drones can even help distribute bugs into fields as a form of natural pest control. Robots could soon be used to automate farming processes such as weeding, fertilising, seeding, and pruning plants.
The Singapore government has earmarked Lim Chu Kang region to be transformed into a high-tech agricultural land to produce three times as much food as it does now. The region will be equipped with improved electricity, water and transport infrastructure to support high-tech farming over the next three years.
In an effort to drive innovation and collaboration among companies in the agri-food sector and to bring more developments from the lab to market, a new platform called Singapore Agri-Food Innovation Lab (Sail) was launched on 24 November 2021. Jointly set up by NTU in collaboration with Enterprise Singapore (ESG), the Innovation Lab will seed partnerships between corporate partners, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), start-ups, research institutes and institutes of higher learning. Speaking at the launch, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong announced that Sail has onboarded 22 industry partners including Bunge, a global agri-commodities merchant which has sought to leverage Singapore’s “robust R&D ecosystem” to develop plant-based protein solutions for Asian consumers.
Sail engages with corporate partners to understand and analyse the key problems faced by companies. It then explores a range of possible solutions, and helps to link up potential partners.
Besides working with corporations, Sail could potentially bring more research innovations to the market. Sail aims to commercialise research innovations such as a plant-based mayonnaise created by NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) programme, where the egg ingredient is replaced with plant-based protein powder that has high nutritional value. Through the Sail platform, it is hoped that the production of plant-based mayonnaise can be scaled up and marketed. Another innovation is a probiotic ice cube that can be added to drinks to improve one’s gut health. It was jointly developed with ice supplier Uni-Tat Ice and Marketing and commercialised earlier this year.
The agri-food ecosystem in Singapore has been developing rapidly, with more innovative companies being established here and developing technologies that contribute to better production yield and more sustainable food solutions.
This sector was one of those in which Singapore drew new fixed asset investments last year, according to the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) in its annual year-in-review 26 January 2022. The review showed that Singapore attracted a total of $11.8 billion investment commitments in 2021, which would generate $16.8 billion in value-add a year when implemented.
Among the growth in the agri-food business is the increased interest in plant-based meat alternatives. The market for this new kind of meat is expected to reach US$290 billion by 2035, according to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Blue Horizon Corporation (BHC).
Many people are now increasingly health-conscious about the food they eat. Due to the pandemic, people are also more aware of the impact of food supply disruptions on food security in the country. Alternative proteins not only provide another food source but also create a positive impact on the environment. Experts are expecting a greater proliferation of meat substitutes to flood the market in Singapore.
Among firms driving Singapore’s agri-food sector growth is plant-based food manufacturer Next Gen Foods, which launched its chicken alternative TiNDLE in Singapore in March 2021. TiNDLE is available in around 200 restaurants across Asia and the Middle East. The Singapore-based start-up will be opening a new research centre to focus on R&D and product innovation, in partnership with the Food Tech Innovation Centre in Singapore later in the year. The research centre will serve as a launchpad for the development and trial of new plant-based foods.
Another company, German multinational Cremer, which has set up a joint venture with Temasek’s Asia Sustainable Foods Platform, hopes to grow contract manufacturing capabilities for plant-based protein products in Asia. Cremer Sustainable Foods is currently constructing a plant-based food manufacturing facility in Tuas West Drive which will be able to produce around 1,000 tonnes of vegan and vegetarian products a year.
Transforming Singapore’s agri-food industry into one that is highly productive, innovative and sustainable will also see the creation of about 4,700 jobs by 2030. SFA is working with local farms and institutes of higher learning to roll out internship programmes and diploma courses. SFA reported that 20 students studying aquaculture at local polytechnics have been placed in internships at ten local fish farms. Existing workers in the sector, or workers looking to make a switch can take the SkillsFuture Continuing Education and Training courses which include part-time diplomas in aquaculture and agriculture technology.
When it comes to the future of food security, harnessing innovation and technology is the way forward, ensured by a robust framework on food safety and preparing a future-ready workforce.