Food innovation and high-tech farming

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What do you do when strong demand for seafood leads to dwindling supplies from overfished oceans? You can grow fish inside buildings.

Aquaculture, the science of farming fish in indoor tanks, is just one of the new techniques and technologies that Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) is pursuing to safeguard the country’s nutritional requirements.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

Yee Ting Wong, acting director for A*Star’s food, nutrition and consumer care cluster, spoke with Teymoor Nabili about steering high-tech food production into the mainstream, to feed Asia’s growing population in a sustainable way.

Stream or download the full podcast episode at the link below. Tech For Impact has also published an edited version of this discussion as a 10-minute video. Watch this here.

Podcast transcript

Teymoor Nabili   0:01
Let me begin with SDGs. Now, UN ESCAP produced a report earlier this year, summarizing where we are in the path to progress on SDGs. And, in particular, I was interested that the food component – the zero hunger component of the SDGs – was way behind target. And one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was, what is happening in that regard and whether there is better progress to be had ahead. So, give me your sense of what the UN ESCAP document said, and how you feel about progress in that particular SDG.

Yee Ting Wong   0:48
It’s a real issue these days about food security and food resilience, especially after the post-Covid world, post-Covid era, right now. We see that there’s a lot of aggregated interests into growing more sustainable food resources, especially in Asean. And leadership that is needed really is taking the sustainability lens as well as the nutritional leadership of certain countries that need to press on in order to meet some of these SDG goals. But as you know from the report, it highlighted that none of these SDG goals may be realized in the next 10 years or so. So that is the real phenomenon that we’re facing, a real crisis. I think we need to really have an overhaul of the overall food systems around us.

Teymoor Nabili   1:34
And the reason why we’re having this conversation is because Singapore is doing some really interesting work in helping, in terms of nutrition, in terms of production, in terms of using technology, for making or solving some of these problems. But the problem is regional, isn’t it? The problem is, in fact, in many ways, global, but regional particularly because Asia in terms of the amount of food produced per head per hectare of arable land is actually quite low, surprisingly, and it’s shrinking. So the challenge for us is to actually be able to deal with the increases in population, given this reality.

Yee Ting Wong   3:01
I think, firstly, we must tackle the sustainability issue and climate change, understanding what are the challenges at the ground level. For example, if we talk about arable land, I mean, talk about pollution, is there a way for us to find more sustainable intensified agriculture? That’s what Singapore is talking about right now – how do we have our urban cities more resilient in tackling some of these issues? Because more people are moving to cities, called the massive urbanization movement right now. So we need to be able to address the food availability issues, as well as food accessibility. So the food security is no longer a single equation, but it’s a multi complex ecosystem that needs to be tackled from end to end solution across the whole innovation value chain.

Teymoor Nabili   3:49
How do you see these technologies and these urban solutions contributing to the broader nutrition and food issue? Is it possible in the long run for us to be producing all of our food in urban contexts?

Yee Ting Wong   4:03
Well, I think we have to be very targeted, what is possible in Asia, especially in Singapore with the restraints or constraints in land and energy and natural resources. I think you’d be very targeted in what we try to achieve first in our own targets. Having said that, I think it’s not about production in volumes, but also the nutritional density, the nutritional quality of our fresh produce, whether it is from crops or from our protein production or aquaculture, for example. So it’s no longer in terms of quantity, but the quality and the nutritional benefit it gets to our Asian population

Teymoor Nabili   4:41
And that plays into the urban question really well as well, doesn’t it because nutritional value is not, as you say to do with volume, per se, it’s about the quality of the food being grown. But back to the question I asked, I mean, is it possible at some point to be able to gain quantity and quality from only urban environments? I’m assuming that Singapore and your department has got a sense of exactly how much can be done in this regard. Singapore’s own policy is to produce 30% of its requirements by 2030, so 30% is that the maximum figure that you see, or is that just an interim goal?

Yee Ting Wong   5:18
I think it’s an interim goal. We have to start somewhere about, you know, realizing our ambition for the future. I think this is something that all stakeholders in Singapore are really working closely together, be it academia, the industry, the farmers themselves. And we’re taking a whole government approach to this. And I would say that it’s not only R&D or innovation that impacts this food security agenda, but the whole ecosystem of partnerships, about building resilience in our own people, about creating jobs. I think this is part and parcel of how we can achieve this not only by only R&D and technology.

Teymoor Nabili   5:56
I think it’s interesting for governments around the region, who are probably looking at Singapore, I’m sure, and I’m sure you’ve had conversations with many of them, who are looking at Singapore and going actually, there is value in this experiment for us too. Because, as you say, urbanization is a major trend in Asia, and being able to at least fill part of their supply chain with produce from urban locations is probably something that would help all of them. What elements of the Singapore experiment do you think are valuable guidelines for other countries to look at and go, actually, this is a model we could replicate?

Yee Ting Wong   6:30
I think a few things. It’s about intensification of farming in terms of production in a cost-efficient manner. We use a lot of new data analytics technology, for example, how we can incorporate more automation on IoT that is part and parcel of how we can drive innovation to the next level. Instead of depending on a very labor-intensive sector, we can use a lot of robotics and AI and machine learning models. I think this could set the stage for urban city agriculture

Teymoor Nabili   7:01
Those are the elements of actually doing urban city agriculture, but the elements of actually putting in place, the government-led infrastructure, if you like, of enablement, that allows these technologies to come together and the entrepreneurs to engage with each other and develop products. What about that part of it?

Yee Ting Wong   7:20
I think that’s very important. I think we can talk about hardware and building facilities and tools and equipment, I think, the missing equation that we always face, the challenge is really the talent and building the right expertise. And Singapore is open to attracting the best in class and anchoring them here to contribute to society and improving lives. I think building talent, the right talent pool is very, very important to try this further. And the issue that we are facing, of course, is the aging population, how do we actually motivate the younger generation and the millennials to take up jobs in the agri-food sector that attracts them to contribute and to see this as part of their future?

Teymoor Nabili   7:58
Let me just ask one final question on this whole broader policy side. Are you seeing within Asean and maybe even the broader Asian region, governments looking at this sort of approach and thinking that there is value for them in this?

Yee Ting Wong   8:11
Definitely, I would say, governments are working very closely together to understand what are the needs of the local ecosystem, and I would say that no one size fits all. I mean, previously, they can adopt certain agricultural practices and standards from the western population. But I think nowadays, we have to look at the local context, as well as understanding what are the local needs.

Teymoor Nabili   8:33
Okay, let’s talk about specifics. One of the interesting things that I’ve discovered in learning more about Singapore’s urban approach is how strange some of these solutions seem. So much of it is about changing your mindset about what agriculture actually is. And let me bring up one specific element that I only learned from you actually, one of the things Singapore is doing, growing fish indoors, aquaculture. One of the things that you’re involved in is the idea of promoting aquaculture. So just give me a sense of what you’re doing in the aquaculture side, and how it fits into this bigger picture.

Yee Ting Wong   9:12
I think it starts with understanding about the problems and issues around aquaculture in this tropical climate in Singapore, issues such as algae bloom, pollution and also the restriction of use of energy, which is energy costs and things like that prompts us to really understand what are the technological solutions that can actually help some of these local farmers. So for example, the case study that you have mentioned just now about having a land base aquaculture using the, what you call the RAS system…

Teymoor Nabili   9:48
RAS – recirculating aquaculture system.

Yee Ting Wong   9:52
Yes, that’s right. So you’re growing fish in a containment system on land. And that’s where you need to understand the kind of nutrients the fish needs and the kind of high stocking density of your fish. And that creates a certain different ecosystem compared to ocean farming. And by understanding that kind of different system through science and observation and things like using sensors to detect the stress in the condition of the RAS system is very important. This talks about even understanding the behavior of a fish, and the health condition. All these are part and parcel of how we can transform the aquaculture industry.

Teymoor Nabili   10:32
I don’t want to trivialize this, but basically what you’re saying is, you’ve got very large fish tanks in buildings, and you just put in the nutrients into the water, and you manage the fish. I mean, not none of this seems particularly technologically driven, or are there tech parts to this?

Yee Ting Wong   10:48
Oh, there’s surely a technology component in this. Besides just giving the nutrients and feeding it, it’s understanding when to feed the fish at the right time. Or when do you do vaccination for example, when do you need to recycle some of the water, and how do you optimize certain conditions for growth. All this requires a lot of science behind it. And we have a scientist in A*Star who understands fish behavior, you know, by looking at the imaging of fish in water.

Teymoor Nabili   11:18
How do we scale something like that? I mean, in Singapore, obviously, given the land constraints, there’s going to be a limited number of these things going on. But is it scalable? And is it the technology that is available to other countries to be able to adopt?

Yee Ting Wong   11:35
I think it’s already scalable right now. Companies are looking at a good business model to scale. And the issue that they’re facing is really about costs, how to optimize costs. The thing is how we can use some of this technology in a way that is justifiable for the capex investment for some of these local farms. The other thing is how do we encourage our companies to have export market potential. The market in Singapore is still small. So, if they have the higher volume to scale, they must have the market to absorb the demands of their produce. So that’s important about using the right technology at a good cost that is sustainable, as well as having a regional market.

Teymoor Nabili   12:14
Tell me some some other of your exciting projects that you’re working on at A*Star.

Yee Ting Wong   12:18
Besides the fish farm and the food tech, now, I think I’d like to talk about future food. I think you’ve heard about the stories about alternative protein. So this is coming up as an emerging new exciting area for Singapore, talking about cultured meat, for example, plant-based proteins, having things like microbial protein growing in a bioreactor. So, you don’t need to grow things on land, per se, but in a bioreactor. So this is another exciting thing that A*Star is actually looking at.

Teymoor Nabili   12:50
So there’s a couple of things in that realm, isn’t it? There’s protein from plant-based materials that replicates meat, and then there’s actual growing of real meat in a lab. Which ones are you looking at? And where are you in the development of that?

Yee Ting Wong   13:06
We are looking at several of these concurrently, and we want to nurture the best in class to actually take a look at some of these sub domain areas, whether it’s cultured meat, plant-based protein, or even microbial protein like algae for example. And we’ve been working with startups quite rapidly in this area, helping them to see the potential. As you say, scaling is important, but also injecting the kind of unique IP, intellectual property, because for a startup I think it is very important for them to be able to get further investment to grow. So for example, we’ve been working with this company called Eatobe. It’s a local startup and their mission is simple, but a complex one, they would like to increase the nutrient bio-availability of plant-based and microbial protein. So what we do is we incubate the the scientists of Eatobe together with our A*Star scientists and they begin to work together to understand the properties that are needed and the nutrients required, and how we develop certain extraction technologies for them to do this at a scalable approach.

Teymoor Nabili   14:13
Where do you think this is in terms of market readiness?

Yee Ting Wong   14:15
It’s a good question actually. Some of these novel proteins will need, of course, the regulatory side of things. And that’s when we work very closely with the regulators, for example. Singapore Food Agency is one of our close partners in novel foods.

Teymoor Nabili   14:32
I was thinking more from a consumer perspective, actually, but I didn’t realize that the regulatory side of it was your first point of contact. What are the regulatory considerations?

Yee Ting Wong   14:40
I think it’s really getting the right standards in food safety levels being accredited, and then the other equation that you mentioned was, it’s important to understand consumer acceptance of some of these novel food items.

Teymoor Nabili   15:00
Just to finish off that regulatory side of things. So where is it? I mean, these lab-grown meats, are they market ready? Or are you still thinking about their safety and their place in the regulatory system?

Yee Ting Wong   15:11
Oh, it’s still under discussion. Right now I’m looking at the different safety aspects of cultured meat, for example. It’s not only that the tissue culture, the material, but also the surrounding media, the growth condition and the whole process itself. I will say that it is not in the market, as you can see today. But I mean, locally in Singapore, we’ve been talking to companies bringing them to talk to SFA. And that is a very positive sign of how people develop the solution at an early stage, and then looking into the future what is needed in order for them to commercialize.

Teymoor Nabili   15:46
In terms of the consumer side of things. We’re already seeing Impossible Meats and Beyond Meat available, increasingly available, in Singapore. I’ve seen it sprouting everywhere. And I’ve tried them and they’re very good. But are you seeing this as being a big part of the consumer market or just an addition?

Yee Ting Wong   16:04
I think consumers are now more accepting towards more sustainable food sources. Instead of turning to your conventional steak and meat, I think they’re willing, especially Asian consumers are very adventurous eaters, thinking about new menu, new palette, you know, from plant-based protein seems to be healthier for them and more sustainable. I think what we need to really diversify our palate is understanding that, like eating Impossible Foods, and all these new ingredients, in terms of having it as a burger may not be something that is appealing to us on a day to day basis. And suddenly companies are very innovative, they think about the Asian way and Asian cuisine of how they can localize some of this plant-based material, you can see this is been made into a bao or a dim sum and soft shell crab and kind of things, you know, it’s a lot of variety and options to choose from. So people just see the burger, but it’s more than that burger.

Teymoor Nabili   17:08
So we talked about aquaculture, we’ve talked about synthetic meats. What about vegetables and hydroponic technologies? I know there’s a lot of experiments in Singapore going on around that kind of agriculture. Tell us a few examples of what you’re working on and what seems to be the most promising?

Yee Ting Wong   17:27
We’ll give you an example about a company that we’ve been working in, it’s totally growing their vegetables in an entirely controlled environment. They are called Archisen. And we are working for them for a few years now to actually understand about the crop cycle, crop signs, about growing it in an indoor environment, which is something new. And this is how we can use data science and having an integrated software platform to capture data on the real time mode. And to see where the things that can optimize the potential of growth of plants, having them to extend to more growth cycles, for example, using less nutrients, less energy and less water. So all this requires a lot of patience, but a lot of intuitive signs and where bio and engineering come together.

Teymoor Nabili   18:19
So again, in terms of market readiness, where are technologies like this? Can we just flip the switch on this multiple times and replicate this kind of technology? And if so, which ones actually work? Again, I’m thinking in terms of, if there’s a growing city, somewhere in China or in Myanmar, where they’re thinking we have supply chain issues with getting food in there, maybe we should begin to think about domestic production. Are these technologies ready to be flipped out into environments like that?

Yee Ting Wong   18:47
Yes, there are actually ready systems like this, for example, crop recipes that are being sold together with a bit of an indoor container system, they have a plug and play model sometimes in different parts of the city. And these are the things that need to be optimized, need to be very modular in a sense, because each environment is different. And each crop and its variety is also different, depending on the kind of even taste of the crops that we want to derive, the kind of nutrient profiles we want to get from them. So this all needs optimization, but I was saying that the technology and innovation is out there, it’s having people to adopt them, customize them and re-optimize certain parameters so that the cost can be palatable to the business operators.

Teymoor Nabili   19:37
You talked about the capex earlier on. Are these things really capital intensive? Or can small cities, small enterprises, small entrepreneurs think about being able to deploy this?

Yee Ting Wong   19:48
It’s a good question. I think in Singapore, many of our farms are heading towards the container indoor farm system, and they think that they are even going to break even. The issue is really how to optimize energy usage and the operating costs. The capex investment is one time, but there’s subsequent costs in relation to the operation itself. So I think that we need to use innovation and talent in a way that it is affordable for some of these local enterprises, especially the startups who are just beginning to test some of these models and systems. And that’s when we need to work hand in hand together, understanding the issues on a day to day basis.

Teymoor Nabili   20:28
Let me ask you a very general question. Of all the technologies and the projects and the businesses that you’ve seen and you’ve worked with, which one would you say, in terms of the tech involved and the science involved, has the potential to make the most impact in the broader context of the Asian requirement for more nutritious food?

Yee Ting Wong   20:51
Well, this is the one million dollar question. That’s why we are involved in all of them in Singapore, we are being very ambitious. But I will say that in terms of understanding the protein requirements, as we can read in the recent FAO report just released in June, there will be some protein deficiency in some of these Asian regions. And I think that in order to make it, you know, solvable, for example, I think aquaculture could be one that we should invest our efforts in, in terms of building the right capabilities, in meeting the local consumption as well as the export potential as mentioned earlier. That is important because I think in Asia, a lot of people like seafood, and it’s been seen as, you know, a status symbol on their plate. And that is something that is very acceptable to the consumers and making this available on a day to day basis I think is important.

Teymoor Nabili   21:48
So large fish tanks full of crabs is the way forward! You mentioned, also, another point about the broader environment. So the infrastructure if you like, and the elements around it, as opposed to simply the growing of the fish or the food. You talked about gathering data about the IoT element. I just want to consider the infrastructure elements around these ideas, because there needs to be an enabling system to have these things going on. Tell me a little bit about the difficulties and the challenges involved in building that system, and making sure that we can get the food from that tank in the building to the plate, which I guess would include supply chain issues and things like that.

Yee Ting Wong   22:30
Yeah, that’s right. And I think data is just one part of the equation of sharing knowledge to all the different stakeholders coming together to tackle common solutions. I think a data platform aggregating the knowledge and expertise is important in Singapore and as well as thinking how we can do this for the Asian region as well. So things like bringing fresh produce to market, what is the consumer demand supply chain management? That is very, very important, understanding the logistical issues surrounding that – things like warehousing, how do we derive certain cooling measures for example to not break the cold chain logistics for example. That’s very important. It’s not just growing your fish, harvesting it, but there’s a lot of last mile distribution that needs to be taken care of, from the fish to the supermarket to the table.

Teymoor Nabili   23:27
And what sort of industries and initiatives are underway to fill in those other gaps? So we’ve got the producers, we’ve got the technologies for growing food and fish – who’s doing what to fill in those gaps? And is there some sort of regulatory amendments that have been necessary to try and encourage that to happen?

Yee Ting Wong   23:44
I think currently, it’s very much of the industry initiative, for growers to work with distributors who can offer the kind of solutions in terms of cold chain logistics, for example. It’s very much driven by the businesses themselves and what the consumers want from fresh produce, whether it is better frozen or better as a chilled kind of produce?

Teymoor Nabili   24:12
So these issues are things for the market to identify?

Yee Ting Wong   24:14
That’s right. So I think the market demands such quality, and terms of convenience of giving it to the consumers, we can have, even like, you know, RedMart and some of these ecommerce platforms, you know, shopping for fresh produce and frozen fish. So this is already available at our fingertips.

Teymoor Nabili   24:33
Just to pursue the idea here of how Singapore has evolved its practice in this front – were there any aspects of existing regulation or simply good business practice that you had to look at and ask, maybe we need to amend how we see this particular situation in order to encourage and make it easier for this kind of entrepreneurism and innovation to take place?

Yee Ting Wong   24:58
I think, well, nutritional labeling is one of them. I mean, having produce that are nutritionally well in terms of the ingredients and composition. For example, you have the Health Promotion Board coming up to encourage, you know, produce with certain criteria in terms of health claims, and things like that. I think that will probably be amenable to some of these local companies, looking at how to add the extra nutrients or extra value to consumers. It’s not really a strict regulation, but it’s more of a voluntary initiative by the companies.

Teymoor Nabili   25:35
And finally, let me take it back to the macro level and the regional level, if I could. Tell me about what is what is happening in terms of a regional approach – if there is one – towards answering these questions about nutritional deficits, about arable land shortages, about the demand going forward for better food. Are these conversations taking place on a regional level in a really meaningful sense? And where do you think that regional cooperation fits into the bigger picture?

Yee Ting Wong   26:11
I think that in the Asean platform, they are already discussing such issues, and that’s where we learn the different good practices of different countries coming together and tackle common challenges together, and these are taken care of at the Asean level. And these will continue as we dialogue with each other. And for Singapore, we continue to work with companies understanding not only their local needs, but the regional ambition as well, tackling what the consumers out there really want in terms of delivering the kind of nutrients, the safety quality, as well as the tastes and texture that everybody’s looking for.

Teymoor Nabili   26:51
Thanks very much.

Yee Ting Wong   26:52
Thank you.

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Teymoor Nabili

Publisher & CEO, Tech For Impact

Yee Ting Wong

Yee Ting Wong

Acting Director, A*Star

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