Temasek Holdings is partnering German multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company Bayer AG to create a new vertical farming venture headquartered in California, as part of Singapore’s plans to boost the city-state’s supply of sustainable, locally grown produce. 

Unfold, the venture between Temasek and Leaps by Bayer, the impact investment arm of Bayer AG, will be a US entity with commercial and research and development operations in both California and Singapore. 

Unfold will focus on innovation in vegetable varieties with the goal of lifting the vertical farming space to the next level of quality, efficiency and sustainability.

Instead of focusing on external infrastructure to support plant growth, Unfold will look within the plant itself. 

“By utilising seed genetics (germplasm) from vegetable crops, Unfold will focus on developing new seed varieties coupled with agronomic advice tailored for the unique indoor environment of vertical farms,” says Bayer. 

Unfold has raised US$30 million (S$41.19 million) in its initial funding round and entered into an agreement for certain rights to germplasm from Bayer’s vegetable portfolio. 

Global food challenges are forcing countries to rethink traditional farming practices, says John Vaske, Head of Agribusiness at Temasek.

“We need to ensure secure farm-to-fork supply chains in urban settings while we also work to reduce the overall environmental impact of farming. Reducing food waste and improving the safety, traceability and nutritional value of food are all the more important as populations grow and demands for food expand. Investments in companies such as Unfold allow us and our partners to support innovative, sustainable solutions that will benefit all of us over the long term,” says Vaske. 

Back in 2018, Temasek acquired a 3.6% stake in Bayer for 3 billion euros (S$4.85 billlion), bringing its total stake to about 4% with 31 million new shares. The share sale to Temasek was part of Bayer's efforts to fund its planned US$62.5 billion takeover of seed maker Monsanto.
 
Unfold’s President and CEO Dr John Purcell will move from his role as Head of Vegetables R&D, Crop Science at Bayer. 

“As a company fully focused on the vertical farming industry, Unfold will combine leading seed genetics with the best agtech experts in order to dramatically advance productivity, flavour and other consumer preferences,” says Purcell.

“We look forward to serving the market through partnerships with vertical farming operators, technology providers and others across the produce supply chain.”

Prior to joining the food and agriculture industry, Purcell was a post-doctoral researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture from 1987 to 1989. He earned his PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Massachusetts. Purcell is also part owner of a family ranching operation in Montana.

Vertical farms, also known as indoor farms or plant facilities with artificial light (PFAL), help crops grow more quickly while using less space and fewer natural resources.

Investment in the vertical farming market has increased significantly in recent years mainly due to decreasing arable land, increasing market demand for local, sustainable produce and migration towards mega-cities.

Singapore’s "30 by 30" agriculture goal aims for 30% of our nutritional needs to be produced locally by 2030, though this figure is smaller than 10% currently. 

According to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the 77 leafy vegetable farms here accounted for 14% of total consumption in 2019. 

Image credit: Bayer stock photo