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Singapore on path to becoming innovation factory for global food system

Marc Schmidt and Andrey Berdichevskiy
Marc Schmidt and Andrey Berdichevskiy • 6 min read
Singapore on path to becoming innovation factory for global food system
An indoor farm in Singapore run by GKE Corp. Singapore, which is fully urbanised, is particularly vulnerable to global food system disruptions
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The global food system is at a critical juncture. The disruption of global supply chains, reduced access to critical food staples, and sky-high fuel prices due to Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war have created a worldwide food crisis. Added to these challenges are the sector’s contribution to environmental risks, as well as its vulnerability to them, which is estimated to account for 25% of total climate-related damage and losses.

As a 100% urbanised country importing more than 90% of their food supply from 180 countries and regions, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to global food system disruptions. Although its local production capability has grown by 13% from 2020 to 2021, totalling $185.2 million, its produce remains highly concentrated on hen shell eggs, selected local vegetables, and seafood. These contributed 30%, 4% and 8% of the country’s total food consumption, respectively, in 2021.

Although now lifted, Malaysia’s recent chicken export ban has underscored the need for Singapore to diversify from industrially farmed animal protein towards a higher share of plantbased and cell-culture based alternatives — a route already being explored, with more than 36 alternative protein start-ups based in Singapore as of November 2022 and the largest cultivated-meat factory in Asia, a positive indication of the nation’s potential to scale at a more rapid pace, which will subsequently translate to lower prices for consumers.

Additionally, the country faces the dilemma of limited agricultural space, with only 1% of the 50km by 27km area set aside for traditional farming. Adding to Singapore’s food woes is a growing food waste trend due to oversupply and overstocking, which puts added pressure on the country’s sourcing requirements, while passing on the additional supply chain costs to consumers through higher food prices.

Despite these issues, at the local level, the food import diversification strategy by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has the legs to strengthen the country’s food system resilience. At the global level, Singapore is wellplaced to help mitigate the global food crisis by driving agri-food innovation.

Four futures that could dictate Singapore’s path towards food system resilience

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We examined four very different futures (scenarios), and looked at their implications for public and private stakeholders in Singapore. The scenarios are: “Uneven progress”, “The rise of Africa”, “Every country for itself” and “Coordinated step forward”. Each offers a distinct vision of the middle-term future for the nation, developed based upon overarching factors that will impact global food systems over the next five years, namely the state of the world’s agriculture; the success of climate action outcomes; and global economics and geopolitics.

Uneven progress

In this scenario, global coordination stalls but a few high-income countries in the Global North lead a policy-driven development agenda, promoting the uptake of existing climate-smart technologies. Inequity worsens in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs), including Southeast Asian countries plagued by high debt and extreme weather events that impact land productivity and agricultural output. With agricultural technology focused on industrial and contract farming, smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia become displaced.

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Here, SFA’s food import diversification strategy can be enhanced to help mitigate supply chain risks in key exporting countries by deploying predictive analytics and revisiting trade agreements. Climate resilience and adaptation technology that include smallholders in key exporting LMICs will become crucial to minimise supply fallout risks. The private sector will need to invest in decarbonising their supply chains and developing healthier processed foods to better participate in global supply chains.

The rise of Africa

In scenario two, the African continent accelerates its agriculture potential through unprecedented South-South cooperation. Food availability and productivity increase, while prices and hunger fall. But continued unequal distribution leads to backsliding on climate goals. As global trade reduces, Asean becomes stronger.

The Singapore government will benefit from leveraging trading blocs such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the African Continental Free Trade Area. Private-sector companies will benefit from investing in climate-smart technologies to increase production yields and better leverage the country’s “grow overseas” approach, while taking advantage of blockchain and advanced analytics technology trends to increase food safety, improve supply chains and reduce waste.

Every country for itself

If this transpires, global agricultural trade will fall by 20%. Food costs will rise further as availability declines. Limited climate action will lead to extreme weather events, perpetuating the cycle of inequality.

As Singapore is a net importer, governmental action will be critical in reducing food price volatility. Early investments in strengthening strategic grain and crop reserves such as rice, corn and wheat will be needed. In the private sector, investments in advanced technologies including hydroponics, aeroponics and vertical and micro-farming, as well as in self-reliant production of alternative proteins such as cell-based meats and mycoproteins, will be instrumental in the country’s food security goals while being economically viable.

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Coordinated step forward

As greater global coordination in climate policy and agriculture gains momentum in the fourth scenario, climate-friendly innovations will spur global trade, strengthen resilience in food supply chains, and increase demand for sustainable agricultural practices.

Countries like Singapore that have an edge in technology can help drive food science innovation and collective climate action. In the private sector, companies that innovate to simplify and secure supply chains for staple crops and that invest in alternative nutritious grains such as oats, millet and buckwheat, as well as alternative proteins, will thrive.

Future-proofing Singapore’s food sovereignty with no-regret moves

Regardless of how these scenarios play out in the near to mid-term, Singapore’s public and private sectors, academia and financial institutions must collaborate to accelerate the nation’s transformation to becoming a global agri-food tech innovation factory.

Singapore’s “3 Food Baskets” strategy provides strong foundations, focusing on diversifying import sources; growing locally to ensure sufficient buffers against supply disruptions; and growing overseas to help local companies expand abroad and export food back. The government’s Green Plan 2030 aims to strengthen the country’s agri-food capabilities by producing 30% of its nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030. A $60 million Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund has been established to provide funding to farms to grow their production capabilities and capacities.

More focus is needed to strengthen R&D capabilities and infrastructure to pilot and scale agri-food technologies such as cell-culture-based products and process innovation, and microbiome editing and advanced formulation. These need to be complemented by building a stronger local agri-tech talent pool. Besides biotechnology, expertise to make the most of digital tech like blockchain, predictive analytics and AI-based tools is needed.

By leveraging its evolving technological expertise, Singapore can both strengthen its local production and help the nations it imports from raise their agricultural yields, increase safety and traceability, and reduce waste and operational costs. This will increase Singapore’s resilience in uncertain futures and support a more equitable global food system.

Marc Schmidt is managing director and partner, at Boston Consulting Group; Andrey Berdichevskiy is partner and associate director at Boston Consulting Group

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