The disruptions caused by COVID-19 on the global agricultural landscape and food supply chains have brought food security concerns to the forefront. In light of this, governments and businesses have had to rethink the food supply chain and agricultural value chain. This edition of Nanyang Business School (NBS) Knowledge Lab webinar saw our panellists discuss issues such as diversification, risk management, AI, and Singapore’s “30 by 30” aim to triple local food production by 2030.
Associate Professor Tan Joo Seng from the Division of Strategy, International Business & Entrepreneurship at NBs moderated the webinar, which was joined by Mr Cau Dong Ba, Head of Market Development, Southeast Asia and Pakistan, Bayer Crop Science; Mr John Eng, Head of Agri-Food Division at Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB); Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO and Founder of Shiok Meats; and Mr Alan Lai, CEO of ProfilePrint.
The many woes and challenges that farmers face
To kick off the session, Mr Cau reflected on how food shortage is increasingly worrying, particularly in less developed parts of the world where there are often exponential increases in population. Conversely, improvements in disposable incomes in other parts of the world have seen changes from consuming grains to a more protein heavy diet, thus increasing demands for meat produce. Rapid urbanisation, coupled with land, water and labour shortages add to the challenges of providing sufficient food for the world’s population. Furthermore, agricultural expansions need to be balanced with ecological concerns too.
Mr Cau pointed out that most farms in Asia Pacific are owned by small farm proprietors who are extremely vulnerable to disruptions in the market, and their predicament is worsened by limitations in insurance coverage for farmers in rural areas. However, Mr Cau suggested that there is room for food productivity improvement. For instance, by introducing the use of new seed varieties and crop protection chemicals that can help maximise yield potential, as well as educating farmers on how they can optimise their resources and mechanisation. This, admittedly, is an uphill task, as the aging farmer population has a relatively low educational level compared to other industries. With these concerns in mind, Mr Cau encouraged other industries such as the financial or logistical sectors to consider investing in or expanding their warehousing and distribution services to the food sector to maximise efficiency in food production and supply chain.
Singapore investing in Agi-Food Technology to achieve “30 by 30” goal
On a more local context, Mr Eng touched on EDB’s efforts to build up food resilience for Singapore and other urban cities. Explaining the reasons for Singapore’s interest in the Agri-food space, Mr Eng highlighted how the global food value chain has largely been structured for efficiency. The traditional food production model sought to expand food supply by finding land, water, labourers, etc. to grow more food. However, these assumptions on unlimited resources have clearly come into question in recent years. The world is facing insufficient food supply due to factors such as climate change, evolving consumption habits, and the emergence and continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, Singapore would have to rely heavily on technology to achieve its “30 by 30” aim. To be able to produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030, Singapore hopes to become the hub for Agri-food technology development and enable future generations to feed themselves. Some current efforts include the production of alternative proteins, alternative eggs and milk, and gene editing.
The three main challenges to this effort are that corporations own 50% or more of the global food chain and many may not yet be ready to invest in Agri-food technology. Second, start-ups are integral in driving innovation in this space, but the food sector requires patient capital, which start-ups may not possess. Thus, efforts have been made to create shared innovation infrastructure such as bringing players that can innovate into Singapore or having start-ups work with corporations so they can tap into others’ infrastructure rather than investing in their own. Third, the Agri-food sector requires more consumer awareness and an enabling regulatory environment. Singapore Food Agency, for instance, is a globally recognised regulatory body and has shown consistent thought leadership, most recently through their approval of cultured meat in December 2020.
The road ahead for food tech production in the digital age
Addressing the issue of accessibility and affordability with regards to food produced from the food tech sector, Dr Sriram contributed her perspective from working on cell-based seafood and meat (i.e., meat products made using stem cells). Dr Sriram admitted that it will take a while for these products to be affordable to meet the needs of the majority, but she pointed out that even in the traditional meat industry, prices often fluctuate, and affordability moves back and forth in different economies.
While food tech produce is a lot more expensive now, it should become more affordable as supply increases. After all, cell-based and plant-based meat need to be cheaper than conventional meat since these products are often made for under-developed areas where nutritious food is an issue. In terms of accessibility, Dr Sriram stressed the importance of making food regionalised and accessible to everyone. The pandemic has taught everyone that centralised manufacturing is unsustainable, especially during a crisis.
From an AI and digitalisation angle, Mr Lai suggested that technology can help to build resilience in the food supply chain, which is especially important during a pandemic. The poor responses seen in some segments of food supply chain are, according to Mr Lai, down to the fact that food grading is often reliant on the onerous process of “see, touch, and taste”. This leads to long sale cycles
and with suppliers often having to store expensive inventory in order to speed up the process. As advancements occur in AI and digitalisation, Mr Lai believes that fresh produce can be sourced through molecular signatures in the future, thus reducing the need for “see, touch, and taste”. More importantly, this process can go as far back along the supply chain as the farmers, thereby empowering them to secure fairer deals based on the quality of the products they have.
Q&A session addressing talent development in Food Science Technology
During the Q&A session, Dr Sriram addressed a question on talent in Singapore. Admittedly, talent is a problem, though Dr Sriram acknowledged that the country is open to getting talent from elsewhere. The pandemic has, unfortunately, made this a difficult process but Dr Sriram is hopeful that more local hires can be made in the coming years as students graduate from newly established courses such as NTU’s Food Science and Technology Programme. Also, while there is still the risk averse mind-set regarding joining a start-up, Dr Sriram sees that this is gradually improving amongst younger job seekers.
Having heard the different ways the four speakers have innovated and collaborated to strengthen food security in Singapore and other parts of the world, Associate Professor Tan concluded the session with a key takeaway – human ingenuity appears to be what will take us through the future of food and Singapore’s “30 by 30” aim.