The coronavirus crisis has magnified Singapore‘s food security concerns — an issue made worse by climate change — and the city-state is looking to ramp up its local food production.
Tech entrepreneurs say they want to help. To boost national self-sufficiency, more local start-ups are creating edible products from natural ingredients and cell culture technology.
Some examples include lab-grown milk from TurtleTree Labs, Shiok Meats’ cultured shrimp and Life3 Biotech’s plant-based proteins. Such ventures could benefit Singapore, as they can reduce the island-nation’s import bill as well as its carbon footprint.
Singapore, a tiny country that imports 90% of its food due to land scarcity, is vulnerable to food shortages and price volatility. The situation was exacerbated when Covid-19 first struck and people rushed to stockpile items.
But even before the pandemic, Singapore’s food supply was vulnerable to extreme weather patterns. Its neighbors face a similar predicament.
“Asia is unable to feed itself, relying on imports flowing through long supply chains from the Americas, Europe and Africa,” audit firm PwC, Rabobank, and Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek warned in a report released late last year, before any of the coronavirus cases were reported.
As the outbreak wreaked havoc on global agricultural supply chains, Singapore also faced the additional risk of disruptions to its food supplies, like many other countries. Delivery times for shipments of vegetables and other perishable goods from farms to supermarkets are now longer as new hygiene rules slow down logistics.
In the longer term, labor crunches could also hit planting and harvesting in neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, which are among Singapore’s top food sources.
Most of the current innovations in Singapore’s food tech sector are centered on alternatives to animal products — a major cause of global warming.
“Singapore needs food sources that aren’t environmentally damaging,” Ricky Lin, founder of Life3 Biotech, told CNBC. The company’s plant-based formulas — which contain fungi, lentils, grains and soybeans — mimic the taste of chicken and seafood. Its offerings are expected to hit markets later this year when customer trials with fast food chains, restaurants and hotels are done, Lin said.
His team also cultivates edible microalgae, tiny plant-like organisms found in rivers and oceans, that act as a healthy substitute to fish and help minimize overfishing.
Reduced meat consumption in human diets can curb worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by up to eight billion tonnes per year and free up several million square kilometres of land, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found in a 2019 report.
Another start-up making waves is Shiok Meats, which grows minced crab, lobster and shrimp meat in a lab by extracting cells from the real creature. The firm has received over $7 million in funding to-date from investors such as London-listed Agronomics and American seed accelerator Y Combinator and is continuing to raise more capital with the goal of setting up its first manufacturing plant by 2022.
“Singaporean consumers are open and interested to learn more about cell-based seafood and want to try it,” said its CEO and co-founder Sandhya Sriram, citing surveys that her team had conducted. She said Singapore was no stranger to lab-grown food, being the first Southeast Asian nation to carry Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger and JUST’s mung-bean based eggs.
However, it remains to be seen if consumer demand will make up for the high manufacturing expenses that a company like Shiok Meats incurs.
The cost of making lab-grown food compared to traditional farming is the biggest hurdle for biotech companies, said Leong Lai Peng, a senior lecturer in food science and technology at the National University of Singapore. “What is the most expensive food in the market or what food is the consumer willing to empty their pocket for? That will probably be the most practical thing to make in the lab,” she said.
Perfect breeding ground
Widespread government support makes Singapore an ideal market for alternative protein companies, industry players say.
The government is set to allocate over $100 million to food research programs such as urban agriculture, cultured meat and microbial protein production under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan.
Two other government-owned entities — the Singapore Food Agency, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research — also announced a grant in late 2019 for start-ups in the sector. The Southeast Asian nation has pledged to produce more than 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030 and is currently working on a regulatory framework for novel food items, such as alternative proteins.
Plant and cell-based foods are currently more expensive than animal-based food products, but there’s potential for massive scale in the near future, according to venture capitalists.
“As consumers choose more of these options, the volumes and scale will increase, which allows manufacturers to reduce their prices while maintaining quality,” explained Andrew Ive, founder and managing general partner at Big Idea Ventures.
His company, located in New York and Singapore, launched a $50 million fund and an accelerator program last year for alternative protein companies. It’s since backed various Singapore companies such as Shiok Meats, plant-based start-up Karana which focuses on jackfruit, Confetti Fine Foods that makes vegan chips with real vegetables, as well as Gaia Foods, another cultured meat player.
“We invest in companies that have the potential to be global platforms i.e. products which can meet demand in multiple geographies,” said Ive.
Going forward, he anticipates greater investment toward plant-based start-ups and hopes more animal protein companies will collaborate with them.