What we can learn from the Singapore Food Story

Posted: 21 February 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott shares how Singapore, while facing food security challenges, is embracing innovation – from global collaborations to cutting-edge technology – in its quest for sustainable, diverse, and local food solutions

chris' corner

The Singapore Food Agency estimates that currently the island imports more than 90 percent of its food. Over the years farming has been replaced by high tech industry and there’s virtually no space left to produce food, at least in a conventional sense.  

Despite the island’s wealth and enormous amount of trade with the rest of the world (and it being ranked highly in the Global Food Security Index), the Government realised that the potential for future food insecurity was large, due to global issues of population growth, our changing climate and geopolitics. Therefore, to strengthen the island’s food security for the future, the Singapore Food Agency is pursuing three broad strategies:  

  1. Diversify import sources to reduce risk of reliance on any single food supply source 
  2. Grow local to provide buffer supply in event of overseas supply disruptions 
  3. Grow overseas to help local companies expand abroad 

This enormous programme of work is now referred to as the Singapore Food Story and I was delighted to be invited by the Prime Minster’s Office on the island to help support some of the very large scale research programmes in terms of growing food locally. Singapore is blessed with some of the world’s top universities, but food science was not a priority until recently. I can see they are now building the knowledge capacity in this area.  

Yet the island has wisely enlisted some of the very top global universities such as MIT, the University of Illinois, ETH in Zurich and the University of Cambridge to work in partnership with local universities to develop highly innovative, high risk and potentially massively impactful research programmes.   

I am not a big supporter of cell-based meat for a wide variety of reasons, but there are some large scale projects on-going in Singapore that they think will be part of the overall aim of growing more food locally. The strategy is to utilise materials such as sugar cane and soya which are grown in countries close to Singapore and convert them using a variety of bacterial, yeast and fungal ‘factories’ to a range of proteins and lipids that can be exploited in food manufacturing.  

What struck me about these projects were the highly multidisciplinary teams that have been put together to deliver the groundbreaking research. Process engineers working with molecular biologists, sensor technologists and food scientists among many others to come up with new ways of producing food on a mass scale. I found myself as one of the food scientists challenging some of the concepts and hopefully helping to guide the projects, ensuring that what produced was as safe and nutritionally sound as conventional foods. What was very refreshing was that all who I talked with and discussed these aspects with were very much in ‘listening mode’.  

There are also a number of incredible projects on vertical farming ongoing on the island. This is not a completely new concept of course, but what I observed the embrace of advances in engineering, digitisation and AI to generate large scale production. Too often have vertical farms been forced into the business model of producing a few leafy green vegetables and herbs in the rest of the world due to issues of energy costs and inability to scale up.  

I’m really looking forward to following as many of the food security research projects ongoing in Singapore as possible to see how they develop and of course input my own thoughts when I think necessary.  

I think much can be learned from the Singapore approach to tacking potential food insecurity. It’s dynamic, high risk and truly multidisciplinary. Their ambition is not to replace livestock based foods (which are enjoyed so much in this region) but to produce complementary proteins and lipids and fresh produce which will augment conventional foods. As the Singapore Food Story unfolds I will keep New Food Magazine readers up to speed with developments.  

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