AsianScientist (Oct. 16, 2020) – While it may seem like a distant memory at this point, dig deep and you should be able to recall scenes of panic buying across Singapore shortly after the DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) level was raised to Orange back in February. Though lines at the grocery have since returned to normal, there’s no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak has brought Singapore’s food security into sharper focus.
The country, after all, imports more than 90 percent of its food—making it potentially vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain. As borders intermittently open and close, it’s apparent that Singapore needs to lessen its reliance on imports and boost local food production. Accordingly, the city-state is planning to produce 30 percent of total food needs by 2030, up from 10 percent today. This “30 by 30” goal is incredibly ambitious, but not impossible.
“What Singapore lacks in space, it makes up for it with innovation and building the right expertise and partnerships,” shared Professor Ng Huck Hui, Assistant Chief Executive of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Biomedical Research Council.
True enough, the “30 by 30” goal is set to be a whole-of-nation effort, with the country’s best minds from the government, academe and industry working hand-in-hand to strengthen Singapore’s food security.
Innovation from lab to table
As Singapore’s lead government agency for scientific research, A*STAR plays a key role in helping the country achieve its “30 by 30” goals.
“In the last two decades, Singapore has invested in health and biomedical sciences,” explained Ng.
With Singapore’s bet on biomedicine paying off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, A*STAR is now looking to focus on food security and resilience. In partnership with the Singapore Food Agency, they’ve launched the Singapore Food Story R&D program with S$144 million to drive innovation in sustainable urban food production, future foods and food safety science.
To this end, A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) was established in April 2020 to drive food innovation and earn Singapore the title of Asia’s food innovation hub. Meant to be a one-stop shop for all things food, research at SIFBI covers everything from food process engineering and nutrition to waste valorization (the conversion of food waste to higher-value products).
According to Ng, food safety science is also particularly important, in light of COVID-19’s unprecedented shock to supply chains.
“Good regulatory practices and food standards can facilitate trade and minimize food supply chain disruptions,” he said.
Another area SIFBI is focusing on? Alternative proteins. After all, recent reports have pointed to an impending global shortage of protein-rich foods due to COVID-19 and other factors.
“There are many innovative ways to repair our food systems while increasing sustainability for our planet,” shared Ng. “These include cultured meat and fermentation using microbes to produce dairy alternatives.”
Also contributing to the cause is A*STAR’s Agritech and Aquaculture Horizontal Technology Center (A2HTC), which seeks to leverage frontier technologies like big data analytics and artificial intelligence to build capabilities in food security.
“For example, intelligent sensors and imaging systems can help farmers detect diseases and contaminants,” explained Ng. “Meanwhile, data analytics and Internet of Things can help farmers predict optimal conditions for planting, feeding or harvesting as well as monitor their inventory in real-time.”
Innovation, however, doesn’t just happen in-house.
“SIFBI actively works with SMEs across the Singapore ecosystem,” said Ng.
In doing so, the institute provides support to smaller business who may lack sufficient resources to perform research on their own. Ng shared that SIFBI is also collaborating with external partners to nurture the pipeline of talent in the food industry.
“Collectively, these efforts will beef up Singapore’s economy and create innovative jobs with food enterprises,” he concluded.
New tools for old agricultural practices
While genetic modification may seem like a modern concept, it’s an age-old practice that dates back around 10,000 years.
“Humans have selected crops throughout history with more desirable traits such as higher yield, better nutritional values and higher stress tolerance,” explained Professor Yu Hao, Head of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Biological Sciences.
With recent tools like CRISPR/Cas-9, the revolutionary “genetic scissors” that won its pioneers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, scientists have significantly sped up the process—developing everything from browning-resistant white button mushrooms to spicy tomatoes. Accordingly, Yu envisions that genetic modification, or genome editing, can contribute to Singapore’s food story by generating new crop varieties with enhanced or novel characteristics.
“CRISPR/Cas-9 allows researchers to generate heritable gene mutations for crop breeding, explained Yu. “From a scientific viewpoint, plants generated from this technology are indistinguishable from plants that acquired genetic mutations naturally through traditional selective breeding.”
As a start, Yu and his team are using CRISPR/Cas-9 on leafy vegetables commonly found in Singapore’s local markets, like cai xin (Chinese flowering cabbage) and xiao bai cai (bok choy). In 2018, the country consumed more than 92,000 tons of leafy vegetables, of which 87 percent were imported. Not only are leafy vegetables nutritious, but there’s also relatively scarce research surrounding them, noted Yu.
“Currently, we’re targeting genes related to growth rate and flowering time to increase the biomass of plants,” he shared. “By delaying flowering in leafy vegetables, the plant could redirect its energy into producing more leaves for biomass accumulation.”
In the future, Yu is hoping to improve the nutritional values of the aforementioned vegetables by increasing their antioxidant levels, and even working on other food crops like tomatoes and strawberries.
From shrimp allergies to seafood alternatives
This final part of Singapore’s food story begins with an allergy. After discovering his daughter’s sensitivity to shellfish, Sophie’s Bionutrients co-founder and CEO Mr. Eugene Wang felt compelled to search for alternative sources of aquatic protein. Eventually, he came across microalgae—tiny, photosynthetic organisms with a protein profile comparable to chicken eggs. Notably, unlike other plant-based protein sources, microalgae contain all the essential amino acids that humans cannot make and must obtain from food.
Typically, microalgae is cultivated in large artificial ponds found outdoors. Suffice to say, such an approach wouldn’t work in a country like Singapore, where space is hard to come by. To save space, Wang explained that they ferment and grow their microalgae in bioreactors.
“With a limited amount of space, water and energy, we can grow tons of protein in days,” he said. “This is perfect for Singapore as it requires very little resources.”
Working with a particularly nutritious strain of microalgae known as Chlorella, Wang and his team extracted a pure protein flour that can be used in a variety of applications.
“We can make milk, cheese, tofu and even turn it into burgers!” he shared.
The wide applicability of their microalgae product, combined with its relative ease of production, could one day prove crucial to enhancing Singapore’s food security, said Wang.
Non-profit organizations like the Temasek Foundation agree. Last year, Sophie’s Bionutrients won the Temasek Foundation-sponsored Liveability Challenge, walking away with S$1 million. The company has since funneled this money into scaling up production of their microalgae-based protein.
“Currently, we’re doing 10,000-liter fermentation—the smallest commercial-scale operation,” said Wang. “A minimum of 100,000 liters or even 600,000 could allow our unit cost to drop dramatically.”
Sophie’s Bionutrients is collaborating with A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovations (SIFBI) to scale operations, as well as to develop new flavors and potentially recreate familiar ones like chicken or beef. The company is set to open its first urban protein production facility in Singapore next year, though Wang hopes to someday expand to every major city across the world.
“That way, we’re not creating more problems in terms of shipping and logistics,” he shared. “We’re staying true to our mission to create a sustainable food production system.”
In hindsight, the country’s lack of arable land and agricultural resources may be a blessing in disguise.
“I believe that Singapore will be the world leader for the next-generation of food production, precisely because of the crisis we’re facing today,” said Wang.
With exciting developments all around, the future of food in Singapore looks bright.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Phuc Long/Unsplash.
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