Read the Full Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore International Agri-Food Week Gala Dinner on 26 October 2022
Mr Cheng Wai Keong, Deputy Chairman of Temasek,
Mr Sunny Verghese, Group CEO of Olam,
Ms Beth Bechdol, Deputy Director General, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations,
Ladies and gentlemen,
A very warm welcome to the Singapore International Agri-Food Week!
I am glad that the event has grown this year, with two additions: The Global Agri-Food Scientific Symposium and The Agri-Food Tech Expo.
It is most apt that we are discussing agri-food in Singapore as food is a quintessential part of Singapore culture. In fact, hawker food currently is our one and only UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
As a global city, situated in the heart of Asia, we are fortunate to have access to a wide range of cuisines from around the world. At the same time, the global food challenge has become more pressing since we last met. Global inflation and supply chain disruptions have driven food prices up. The ongoing war in Ukraine has disrupted wheat production from the “breadbasket” of Europe.
The UN FAO estimates that the number of people facing severe food insecurity this year doubled from before COVID-19 and Ukraine war. This is prompting policy makers around the world to focus more sharply on food resilience.
The demand for food has risen sharply and will continue to rise. The world’s population has tripled since the 1950s – to 8 billion and is projected to reach 10 billion before the end of the millennium.
The earlier Malthusian concern that the growth of global food production will fall behind population growth has not come true. But as food productivity rose sharply, there are concerns about the huge toll that the production of food is imposing on our environment.
We must put our minds together to produce more food at a much lower carbon footprint, improve food nutrition and quality, and reduce food waste. We have many large agrifood companies based here, including homegrown ones like Wilmar and Olam, which are promoting sustainable and innovative farming practices, and helping to improve the lot of smallholder farmers in the region. We also have a vibrant agri- and food-tech eco-system in Singapore that continues to make new breakthroughs in tackling the food challenge.
I covered tackling the three Zeros of the global food challenge in my speech at this event last year – Zero Hunger, Zero Waste, and Net Carbon Zero. So, this year, I would like to focus on how we are strengthening food security in Singapore snd how we are doing our part for the region.
Singapore Food Story
Let me start with what we are doing in Singapore.
Much as we love food, Singapore only produces a fraction of what we eat – less than 10%. So, as part of our food security plan, we embarked on the 30 x 30 goal to produce 30% of our food nutritional needs by 2030.
This is not easy as we are a small island, with less than 1% of our land currently used for farming and more than 6 million people to feed. We need to innovate and scale new urban food production solutions, and work with partners from around the world.
As part of our innovation movement, we started our national R&D programme for food – the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme – in 2019. The initial focus was on aquaculture and urban agriculture as well as future foods and food safety. We made an initial investment of $144 million, and have made good progress in the past 3 years.
To stretch the ambition of the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme, we will be investing an additional $165 million in the coming years. This brings our total commitment for the Programme to over $300 million. The significant step-up in investment is an expression of our commitment to food security, and our belief in the value and potential of the agri-food sector.
Let me now briefly highlight key elements of the Singapore Food Story R&D 2.0.
First, we will build new capabilities to expand the range of foods that our farms produce. Currently, our farms produce mainly leafy vegetables, eggs, and fish. We will expand the foods produced to include more fruited vegetables and crustaceans. Soon, I hope prawn mee with mostly Singapore produced ingredients could be a common sight in our hawker stalls.
Second, through genetics and breeding of agri-inputs, such as fish fry and seeds, we can improve productivity and nutritional qualities, and increase resistance to disease and climate change. Take fish for example. We are looking to develop superior fingerlings suited for tropical aquaculture that can contribute to a 30% increase in farming productivity. We are also seeking to reduce fish mortality from common fish diseases from the present 70 to 100%, to between 20 to 50%.
Third, we are deepening capabilities to be an innovation node for future foods. Alternative protein is a promising area to meet Singapore’s food and nutrition needs in an urban environment.
The Singapore Food Agency has taken the lead to establish regulations. Singapore is the world’s first jurisdiction to grant regulatory approval for the sale of cultured meat in 2020.
We will be developing new analytical methods for food safety assessment, which can better deal with unexpected hazards in food innovation without requiring lengthy testing. This will provide an important foundation for the innovation of future foods in Singapore.
I have spoken about the Singapore Food Story in the local context. But our scientists and innovators do go beyond improving food production in a highly urban tropical environment. R&D efforts here also contribute to the food needs of the region and the world, through strong partnerships.
Let me illustrate using three food products: (i) Rice, the traditional staple, (ii) Dairy, a modern addition to our diet, and (iii) Alternative proteins, a future food for the region. Traditional, modern, future – I will say a few words on each.
First, rice – a traditional staple in our region. It is a ubiquitous part of Southeast Asian cuisine. From nasi tumpeng, nasi katok, and chicken rice to rice noodles found in Pad Thai and Vietnamese Pho.
In fact, 3.5 billion people in the world depend on rice as their primary source of carbohydrates, including in China and India. But rice is one of the most pollutive crops in the world. This is due to methane emissions from rice cultivation. The total greenhouse gas emissions from rice farming equals that of global aviation.
There are many regional and global collaborations to improve the farming of rice. This includes the International Rice Research Institute, which is based in the Philippines. Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory is also looking into making rice farming more sustainable.
I am glad to hear that there are plans for a new partnership to decarbonise the rice industry. This agritech start-up brings together different expertise – (i) Agritech expertise from Temasek, (ii) Nature-based solutions and carbon markets by GenZero, (iii) Climate tech by Breakthrough Energy Ventures and (iv) venture building by Wavemaker Impact.
This new set up will identify ways to incentivise farmers to adopt sustainable rice cultivation that will reduce methane emissions while achieving current or higher yields. This is a first venture of its kind to deploy large-scale commercial solutions to improve the livelihoods of farmers and help transition rice production towards net zero. If we succeed with these efforts, the rice industry can fully make the green transition into a net-zero industry.
The next food illustration is dairy. Milk and dairy products did not feature prominently in earlier Southeast Asian cuisine. Dairy was largely brought in by the Europeans during the colonial years, and has, over time, become a mainstay in our diets.
Asia is now the world’s highest dairy-consuming region, accounting for almost 40% of global consumption. But 80% of Asian consumers are lactose intolerant, compared to about a quarter of Europeans. Hence, there is a big demand for dairy-free products.
While the diary-free market in Asia is still nascent, the range of products is growing quickly. For example, soy – including soy milk and soya beancurd – is common in Southeast Asian cuisine. But we have so far not as actively used soy as a dairy substitute.
Oat, almond, and other alternatives are also emerging. We have several Singapore-based firms in the dairy-free space. These include oat milk company Oatside and milk from Bambara groundnuts by WhatIF Foods.
I am happy to hear from Wai Keong that the Asia Sustainable Foods Platform, which I launched last year, has transitioned to its new name – Nurasa. Nurasa is working with partners to bring more dairy-free products to Asia.
May this herald a fresh new flavour in how we accelerate food tech, as we seek to grow the fast-moving food tech eco-system, and contribute to better lives in the region.
The third food illustration is alternative proteins. I have talked about it in the Singapore context. But alternative protein also has strong potential to form a more sizeable part of protein consumption in the region.
Alternative proteins are potentially more sustainable compared to traditional cattle and poultry farming, consuming much less water and arable land, with a smaller carbon footprint.
Singapore is anchoring key global players for alternative proteins here. We are also developing our own local players, such as Shiok Meats, Esco Aster and Next Gen Foods. Over time, we can develop more products for the region. But food taste differs across countries and even within regions in the same country.
To expand the growth of alternative proteins in the region, we need to improve on their taste and colour, and adapt them to different geographies.
One such partnership is with Swiss fragrance company Givaudan. Givaudan will be setting up a Taste and Colour Lab within Food Tech Innovation Centre, which itself is a partnership between A*STAR and Nurasa.
The Taste and Colour Lab will help Foodtech companies here co-create better taste and colour for their products, so that they more closely resemble traditional meats and cater to different taste buds in the region.
Through such partnerships, we can create a more vibrant Foodtech ecosystem with many more exciting alternative protein products for consumers.
Let me conclude.
The global food challenge has become more pressing. But continued investment in agri- and food-tech remains a bright spot. Singapore is keen to do our part, for ourselves and the region. We are doubling down on the Singapore Food Story to strengthen our food resilience goals.
We are also committed to improving lives in the region working in collaboration with partners from around the world to shape how food is developed and produced ranging from traditional, to modern, to future foods.
The potential to create positive change is tremendous. May this week yield a fruitful harvest for all of you as you create food that is bountiful, nourishing, and sustainable.
The Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit is an anchor event of Singapore International Agri-Food Week (SIAW). Find out more here.