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Singapore Sets Sights on New Growth Sector - Food and Agri-Technology

AGRI2122_ED01_Pix-01The current COVID-19 pandemic has driven home a salient point of how fragile food security can be. Amidst the disruptions in the global supply chains of all imported food, Singapore’s reputation as one of the most food-secure countries in the world was put to test.

In the Economic Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Global Food Security Index, Singapore was ranked top in food security, ahead of Ireland (2), United States (3) and Switzerland (4); and other major food producing countries – Australia (12), Malaysia (28) and Brazil (39). The index is based on three factors – affordability, availability and quality and safety.

This impressive global standing however belies how vulnerable small island states like Singapore are to disruptions in the supply chains of imported food.

To fight the COVID-19 crisis and protect domestic supplies, various countries around the world have limited or banned exports of certain food commodities. For example, Vietnam, one of the top three world rice exporters, temporarily suspended rice export contracts.

Thailand extended its ban on chicken egg exports to address local shortages. Cambodia also banned all rice and fish exports. Some air routes were also closed.

Singapore, which imported over 90 percent of its food needs in 2019 from over 170 countries, assured the public that it can weather any disruption thanks to diversified sources and a national stockpile of essentials. For instance, people in Singapore consume 1.97 billion chicken eggs every year. Since 2016, Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has worked to increase the number of approved countries for eggs from 7 to 14 today.

Even though there was some panic buying when COVID-19 first struck Singapore, supply of food remained stable. In an article “Food security: it’s not just about the eggs” (source; gov.sg), it was reported that many agencies are collectively working together to ensure that Singapore does not run out of food. SFA works with Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to monitor the food supply situation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) keeps in close touch with regional and international partners, as well as the Customs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to ensure that food supplies move smoothly across the borders to Singapore. Many other agencies play a role in safeguarding Singapore’s food supply, including Singapore Airlines flying in food.

Climate change, global population growth and geopolitical changes could affect supplies from some countries in future. In Singapore, even though local farmers produce less than 10 percent of the nation’s nutritional needs at the moment, SFA is aiming to increase this to 30 percent by 2030.

On this “30 by 30” goal, Mr Goh Wee Hou, Director of SFA’s Food Supply Resilience Division said, “Although import source diversification has served us well, COVID-19 underscores the importance of having a buffer in case of global supply disruptions.”

In every crisis, there are opportunities waiting to be reaped. To build resilience and minimise the impacts of such crisis on food supply chains in the future, Singapore offers solutions to future-proof food production locally and regionally. Food and agri-technology is a new growth sector and potential export industry that Singapore has set its sights on.

Harvesting the Future
In November 2019, PwC, Rabobank and Temasek launched the Asia Food Challenge Report: Harvesting the Future, highlighting a US$800 billion investment opportunity in Asia’s agri-food sector over the next decade.

The report, which was launched in conjunction with Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week in Singapore, delved into Asia’s food and agricultural landscape. The report highlighted three main points:
• Asia’s current expenditure on food is projected to more than double to US$8 trillion by 2030, driven by population growth, rising affluence and changing consumer demands.
• Key areas with great potential to address Asia’s agri-food challenges: high-tech inputs; sustainable proteins; modern aquaculture; controlled environment farming; and efficient marketplaces, digital adoption and greater traceability.
• Collaboration across Asia’s agri-food sector will be needed to fully unlock its US$800 billion investment potential. Government-coordinated ecosystems and agri-food tech hubs will offer critical support.

Singapore has already set in motion a range of government policies and initiatives to tackle food insecurity and develop itself into an agri-food innovation hub.

“The future of food in Asia is therefore challenging but also exciting because of the growing potential and opportunities,” said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat.

“You may ask though, why is a small country like Singapore interested in agri-food technology? We are interested not only because they can provide Singapore and other urban centres in Asia, an alternative way to feed themselves; but also because they are natural additions to Singapore’s established industries – advanced manufacturing, specialty chemicals, biopharmaceuticals and of course, food manufacturing.” - Dr Koh Boon Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry.

Leveraging Agri-Food Technologies
“In agri-food innovation and technology, Singapore can become a global leader for developing and commercialising solutions that can sustainably feed the world,” said Dr Koh Boon Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry.

To kickstart Singapore’s ecosystem, Dr Koh leads a multi-agency team comprising the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), ESG, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), JTC Corporation, and SFA to identify ways to provide better support in growing the industry and enterprise development, research and development (R&D), manpower, and regulations. This includes working closely with industry partners to navigate, and where possible, streamline the regulatory requirements to help companies adopt new technology and new business innovations.

Agri-Food Innovation Park
The Ministry of Trade and Industry is working with local and overseas industry players to develop the first phase of the Agri-Food Innovation Park at Sungei Kadut which will be ready from the second quarter of 2021 with potential for future expansion.

The new 18-hectare park will bring together high-tech farming and research and R&D activities, such as indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities. The plan is to grow the park into a “dedicated nexus for innovation”; a home to companies and R&D centres across the entire agri-tech value chain, as well as high-tech production segments such as indoor farming, aquaculture hatcheries and alternative protein manufacturers.

Mr Chan Chun Sing, Trade and Industry Minister said this will bring in higher value, knowledge-based jobs for Singaporeans such as systems engineers, plant scientists and aquaculture nutritionists. “These are a new generation of jobs that can excite another generation to go into manufacturing once again,” he commented.

Enterprise Singapore’s S$55m Fund
Singapore’s strong innovation climate and supporting infrastructure make it a conducive place for agri-food technologies to take root. ESG set aside over S$55 million to help local agriculture and aquaculture companies build new capabilities and innovate to grow more with less.

ESG’s six accelerators under the Startup SG Accelerator programme are expected to groom over 150 agri-food tech startups over the next three years, the agency said.

The accelerators - Big Idea Ventures, GROW, Hatch Blue, The Yield Lab, Trendlines Agrifood Innovation Centre and Temasek Life Sciences Accelerator – nurture and mentor startups in fundraising, product development, commercialisation and internationalisation.

In January last year, ESG’s investment arm, SEEDS Capital, appointed seven co-investment partners to catalyse over S$90 million worth of investments into early-stage agri-food tech startups.

Homegrown startup, Singrow, is one of many startups that have benefitted from these accelerator programmes. The startup also has plans to establish a larger facility for commercial crop production by early 2022 and expand to markets including China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Said Mr Ted Tan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, ESG, “There is an urgency for our agriculture and aquaculture companies to leverage agri-food technologies to address the growing demand locally, as well as globally. We will also continue to support agri-food tech startups and the use of disruptive innovation to future-proof food production in Asia.”

Ramping up Food Production
The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled SFA to accelerate “30 by 30” by awarding S$39.4 million to nine companies to quickly ramp up the production of eggs, leafy vegetables and fish.

Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said: “While we continue to plan to tackle our long-term challenges, we also need to respond swiftly to the immediate global food supply challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ‘30x30 Express’ grant call was announced by SFA in April this year and awarded within months. Our aim is to ramp up local food production in the next 6 to 24 months. Supporting our agri-food industry and augmenting their production capabilities remains a key strategy in strengthening Singapore’s food supply resilience.”

Farms are also able to tap on SFA’s existing Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF), which aims to support farms to modernise and harness innovative, sustainable technologies and advanced farming systems as well as co-fund test-bedding of technologies.

High-tech agri-food cluster at Lim Chu Kang
In October 2020, SFA announced that it would be embarking on a holistic exercise to master plan the Lim Chu Kang (LCK) area to create a high-tech, highly productive and resource-efficient agri-food cluster. The master plan, spanning about 390 hectares of land, will be undertaken in consultation with stakeholders and completed over the next 2 to 3 years. Development works are expected to commence in 2024 and will be carried out in phases.

Currently, an average vegetable farm in Singapore occupies around 2 hectares of land and produces about 130 tonnes/hectare/year. In contrast, a high-tech, high productivity vegetable farm has the potential to produce over 1,000 tonnes/hectare/year with less than one hectare of land. The redeveloped LCK agri-food cluster can potentially produce more than 3 times its current food production.

“We aim to create a vibrant and attractive agri-food cluster where global best-in-class agri-food companies, the next generation of agri-tech workers, and visitors will be excited to work in and visit. To do so, SFA will work with farmers and other stakeholders to co-create an exciting vision for Lim Chu Kang,” said Mr Lim Kok Thai, SFA’s Chief Executive Officer.

A*STAR sets up new Research Institute
In an effort to make Singapore a leading food and nutrition hub, A*STAR sets up a new research institute (RI), the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) in the first half of 2020. The SIFBI brings together A*STAR’s research capabilities in areas such as food, nutrition, public health, biotechnology, manufacturing, agri-food technology, and safety research under one roof.

The new RI also facilitates greater partnerships between the public sector, institutes of higher learning (IHLs), and the industry. For instance, it will collaborate with the SFA, NUS, and NTU Singapore in research areas such as alternative proteins, food structure engineering, fermentation technology and more.

“These capabilities will support the development of solutions for the needs of the Asian market, such as the discovery and production of healthy and sustainable foods,” said Senior Minister of State Koh Poh Koon. He also highlighted two new investments that will enhance Singapore’s capabilities and networks to develop solutions that will improve feed conversion ratio, improve sustainability, and reduce production mortality for aquaculture in Asia and beyond.

AgriProtein, one of the world’s leading insect protein companies, has set up its operations and global R&D facility in Singapore. Adisseo, one of the world’s leading feed additive companies, is also setting up its first-in-Asia global aquaculture R&D facility on St John’s Island where the Marine Aquaculture Centre (MAC) is housed.

Singapore – the agri-food node for Asia and the world
DPM Heng pointed out that Singapore is now growing food it has never grown before (strawberries grown all year round), in unconventional places (vacant carpark rooftops and under viaducts), and at a much higher intensity. All these are done by using less energy and water, while generating less waste.

“Taken together, these efforts will take us a step closer to realising our 30 by 30 goal – to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally by 2030… As we continue to build our food resilience, we can also turn our experience and expertise into an economic strength,” DPM Heng said.

“Singapore offers a good base for regional companies going global, and global companies coming into the region. By working together, Singapore can grow from a food paradise, into an agri-food node for Asia and the world.”