SINGAPORE currently imports about 90% for its food supply from over 170 countries. This puts it at the mercy of external forces in the exporting countries, most of which are beyond the
country’s control. Recent threats of reduced exports by some of its food sources have prompted the government to take action to reduce the country’s vulnerability and achieve greater stability in its supply of food as part of food security. This is a laudable and indeed even overdue move.
On Thursday (March 7) Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli announced in Parliament that the country will aim to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030 and laid out the strategy to get there, through the employment of technology, unlocking of physical spaces, developing local talent and getting consumers to support local produce.
This announcement in Parliament to raise Singapore’s food self-production level from the current 10% to 30% of total food needs by 2030, has come to be called the “30 by 30” strategy, and has raised many questions on capacity, investment and exportability.
But this is by no means the only food-related initiative that has been announced in the past year.
Earlier in the same month, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon announced that the government intended to develop a new 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) in Sungei Kadut, which will be ready in phases from the second quarter of 2021. This AFIP which is the size of about 33 football fields, will bring together high-tech farming and research and development activities, including indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities. Dr Koh said the vision is for Singapore to be a leader in urban agriculture and aquaculture technology, with a food production model that can be exported to the region. This goes beyond the vision of Singapore achieving a higher level of food security, and pushes for a new paradigm for the country to develop a new economic sub-sector of new technologies which have export value and applicability in other countries!
Some other noteworthy areas for investment in the AFIP that would add to its leadership role could be:
- Internet-of-Things (IOT) systems for new food systems that incorporate latest sensing and predictive algorithms to optimise production efficiency;
- R&D to develop new technologies for animal, fish and plant breeds using modern genomics;
- Diagnostics, detection and disease prevention systems in animals, fish and crops;
- Protection of food identity to assure integrity of the food delivery system;
- Novel (sustainable) food packaging material and systems;
- Novel grow-out systems for intensive urban animal, fish and vegetable farming (Land-based Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), feed/fertilisation, waste disposal, space efficient systems, etc.);
- Shared facilities for collaborative research initiatives; and
- Waste valorisation/repurposing produce waste under aseptic conditions.
In addition to the above, new initiatives include the following:
- Formation of an Aquaculture Innovation Centre based in Temasek Polytechnic to derive synergies from some ten institutions in a consortium; and
- Announcement of a new R&D program called the “Singapore Food Story” funded through the the Singapore Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC), chaired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at Singapore $144 Million — https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapore-to-invest-more-in-digital-food-tech-cell-therapy-rd
The Singapore Food Story would aim to develop collaborative efforts aimed at accelerating progress to commercialise in three areas deemed to be of special comparative advantage to Singapore, namely:
- Sustainable Urban Food Production;
- Future Foods: Advanced Biotech-based Protein Production; and
- Food Safety Science & Innovation.
In these three Singapore Food Story R&D themes, there exist numerous potential research areas that could involve public-private collaborations, explicated below:
1. Sustainable Urban Food Production – to strengthen Singapore’s food security via developing smart farming solutions with a focus on urban agriculture and tropical aquaculture, to:
- Increase productivity of local food producers
- Lower resources and operation costs with resource optimisation
- Improve disease and health management of agri- and aquaculture
- Improve nutritional quality of produce.
2. Future Foods: Advanced Biotech-based Protein Production – to position Singapore as a comprehensive R&D hub for alternative proteins, focusing on plant proteins, microbial proteins, and cultured meat:
- Develop novel biotech-based methods for high-value, sustainable and nutritious protein production
- Discovery, process development and scale up of alternative proteins
- Develop technologies that enable circular bio-economy and improve sustainability of natural resources.
3. Food Safety Science & Innovation – to increase Singapore’s food safety branding using evidence-based science:
- Ascertain emerging safety risks of novel foods
- Develop early warning and predictive modelling systems for emerging pathogens, food frauds, and other food safety risks
- Understand consumer perception and social considerations of food innovations to improve their acceptability.
The Australian agribusiness sector is well positioned to meet the increased demands for a sustainable food supply across Asia Pacific. The solid base of good agricultural practice and extension, innovative solution-based technologies and a strong reputation for safe and sustainable supply of food present unique opportunities for Australian businesses looking to scale their product or service offer into Asia. And as an emerging agrifood technology hub for the ASEAN region, Singapore offers a compelling advantage for companies considering a base for operations.
Singapore is a ready gateway for Australian businesses wanting to access markets across South East Asia, and a jump off platform for North Asia. What is unique about Singapore, aside from its central geographic position, is what also drives its current focus around addressing food through the “30 by 30” initiative. Domestic food production is currently limited, and so Singapore arguably presents less of a direct competitive and biosecurity threat to its ASEAN neighbours and rather a hub for value adding food supply channels.
The Singapore Government provides a number of incentives for new business wishing to expand operations, led by the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG), as well as a host of agencies who provide support for immigration, business registration, coworking spaces and financial management. And the Australian expatriate community is well supported through the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AUSTCHAM), which provides both private and professional network support for those living and working in Singapore, as well as representing Australian businesses. Austrade Singapore is also able to assist with market information and tailored services, or make a referral to specialist service providers as required.
The ambitious programme to increase Singapore’s food security and to position itself as a source of new urban agricultural technologies relies on the continued development of investment to improve production efficiency and sustainability. This is reinforced by the Asia Pacific base of almost all the key multinational players involved in animal health, crop production (digital farming, crop protection, seed and fertiliser), food processing and distribution. These are broadly represented across Asia Pacific by the major industry peak bodies CropLife International, Food Industry Asia and the Singapore Food Manufacturers Association, all based in Singapore.
Asian farming systems are facing increasing threats to sustainable food production, impacted by climate change, market dynamics, lack of infrastructure and lags in innovation adoption. Scaling of well-established extension practices through digital platforms, service providers and disruptive technology is required. Australia has a significant opportunity using well-established good agricultural practice and knowledge transfer in regenerative farming, genetics, nutrition, crop protection, harvest and post-harvest storage technologies to support resilient food production systems.
Grow Asia is a multi-stakeholder partnership platform that engages Southeast Asia’s farmers, governments, companies, NGOs and other stakeholders to develop inclusive, scalable, and market-based value chains that benefit smallholder farmers. Based in Singapore, Grow Asia was established by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat. Grow Asia is an excellent conduit for extension of good agricultural practice, and a natural collaboration partner for agribusinesses wishing to gain insights and scale in South East Asia.
Recent moves by the Singapore Government to lift investment in and around Agrifood Technology development has produced several new initiatives. The Seeds Capital investment of SGD$90 million has seen a number of new agrifood tech Accelerators form in Singapore that will support the startup ecosystem, including GROW (a JV between Agfunder and Rocket Seeder), Trendlines Agrifood Fund, VisVires New Protein, ID Capital, Hatch, The Yield and Open Space Ventures. Temasek Holdings, US food giant Tyson Foods, and Enterprise Singapore have backed Big Idea Ventures, a new fund looking to raise US$100 million to invest in startups focused on plant-based food, alternative protein and related food technologies. And it was recently announced that 500 Startups is the latest partner to join ESG’s Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), a joint initiative between ESG and Singapore’s Economic Development Board that supports a network of Singapore and overseas partners in major global innovation hubs.
For Australian businesses looking to Singapore, the 2016 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) provides a unique framework to facilitate the exchange of professionals, technology and trade in food and agriculture between Australia and Singapore. The CSP provides for a deeper collaboration in science research and innovation between both countries, led by CSIRO and A*STAR, the national science agencies of Australia and Singapore respectively, who have ongoing initiatives unlocking innovative solutions in agrifood technology covering aquaculture, vertical farming and sustainable protein production. The CSP also provides for the Singapore-Northern Australia Agribusiness Development Partnership, encouraging joint development in securing reliable food and agribusiness supply chains through investment-led development of northern Australia.
Despite the legacy of agricultural innovation in Australia, according to AgFunder less than 0.2% of ~AUD$17B in international agrifood tech investment is made in Australia. What is required to attract further investment is a combination of patient capital and access to deal flow. If Australia promotes a collaborative, regional approach to developing the agrifood tech ecosystem along with Singapore this will provide a more attractive proposition to the global investor network. The CSP clearly provides this framework.
There are several great examples of agrifood ecosystem development across both Singapore and Australia. The 2019, Melbourne hosted evokeAG (February) and Global Table – Seeds&Chips (September) conferences while Singapore will again host Rethink AgriFood Innovation Week (November) after launching in 2018. All were enormously successful, bringing together thousands of delegates from across and Australia, Asia Pacific and global regions to focus on food and agriculture. A common theme was the increasing part that entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and agribusiness play in addressing challenges and capturing opportunities that exist across Asia Pacific food supply systems.
In addition to playing a significant role in supporting Singapore’s 30 by 30 initiative in domestic food production and food security, Australia also has increasing opportunities in the supply of safe, sustainably produced food that has a strong provenance storyline. The current value of Australian farm-gate production is approaching AUD$60B, with aspiration to grow to AUD$100B. New developments in production areas across Northern Australia also bring opportunities to link export transfer hubs that provide access to new markets, and this is a current investment focus in a number of areas.
The key message – there are an increasing number of new startups and commercial enterprises engaged in food supply in Singapore, from importers to farming and food processing, including
indoor plant factories growing a range of fruit and vegetables and land-based fish
farms. Australian agribusinesses can look north to Asia and use Singapore as a base to scale products, services and technologies!