Veego, a vegetable protein developed by Life3 Biotech that tastes like chicken.
Courtesy of Life3 Biotech
Tech entrepreneurs say they want to help. To promote national self-sufficiency, more and more local start-ups are making edible products from natural ingredients and cell culture technologies.
Some examples include milk from TurtleTree Labs ‘laboratory, Shiok Meats’ farmed shrimp, and vegetable proteins from Life3 Biotech. Such ventures could benefit Singapore as they can reduce the island nation’s import bill and its carbon footprint.
Singapore, a tiny country that imports 90% of its food due to land scarcity, is prone to food shortages and price volatility. The situation got worse when Covid-19 struck for the first time and people rushed to store items.
But even before the pandemic, Singapore’s food supply was exposed to extreme weather conditions. Its neighbors face a similar situation.
“Asia is unable to feed itself as it relies on imports that flow through long supply chains from America, Europe and Africa,” warned accounting firm PwC, Rabobank and the Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek late last year published report coronavirus cases have been reported.
As the outbreak devastated global agricultural supply chains, Singapore, like many other countries, was exposed to the added risk of food disruption. Delivery times for deliveries of vegetables and other perishable goods from farms to supermarkets are now longer as new hygiene regulations slow down logistics.
In the long term, labor crises could also affect planting and harvesting in neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, which are among Singapore’s most important sources of food.
Most of the current innovations in Singapore’s food technology focus on alternatives to animal products – a major cause of global warming.
“Singapore needs food sources that are not harmful to the environment,” Ricky Lin, founder of Life3 Biotech, told CNBC. The company’s plant-based formulas, which contain mushrooms, lentils, cereals and soybeans, mimic the taste of chicken and seafood. The deals are expected to hit the market later this year when customer trials with fast food chains, restaurants and hotels are conducted, Lin said.
His team also cultivates edible microalgae, tiny plant-like organisms found in rivers and oceans that serve as healthy substitutes for fish and help minimize overfishing.
Reduced meat consumption in the human diet can cut global carbon dioxide emissions by up to eight billion tons per year and free up several million square kilometers of land, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found in a 2019 report.
Siu Mai, a traditional steamed Chinese dumpling made from Shiok Meats’ farmed shrimp.
Courtesy Shiok Meats
Another start-up making waves is Shiok Meats, which uses a laboratory to grow minced crab, lobster, and shrimp meat by extracting cells from the real-life creature. The company has raised more than $ 7 million to date from investors such as London-listed Agronomics and American seed accelerator Y Combinator and continues to raise more capital with the aim of building its first manufacturing facility by 2022.
“Consumers in Singapore are open and interested in learning more about cell-based seafood and want to try it,” said CEO and co-founder Sandhya Sriram, quoting surveys her team conducted. She said Singapore is no stranger to laboratory-grown foods as it is the first Southeast Asian nation to wear Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger and JUST’s mung bean-based eggs.
However, it remains to be seen whether consumer demand will offset the high manufacturing costs of a company like Shiok Meats.
The cost of making laboratory-grown food versus traditional farming is the biggest hurdle facing biotech companies, said Leong Lai Peng, a lecturer in food science and technology at the National University of Singapore. “What is the most expensive food on the market or what food is the consumer willing to empty their pocket for? That will probably be the most practical thing in the lab,” she said.
Perfect breeding ground
Widespread government support makes Singapore an ideal market for alternative protein companies, industry players say.
The government will allocate more than $ 100 million to food research programs such as urban agriculture, cultured meat and microbial protein production as part of the 2020 Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan.
Two other state-owned companies – the Singapore Food Agency and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research – also announced a grant for startups in this sector in late 2019. The Southeast Asian nation has pledged to meet more than 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030 and is currently working on a regulatory framework for novel foods such as alternative proteins.
Plant-based and cell-based foods are currently more expensive than animal-based foods, but according to venture capitalists, there is potential for massive scale-up in the near future.
“As consumers choose more of these options, volume and scope will increase, allowing manufacturers to lower prices while maintaining quality,” said Andrew Ive, founder and managing partner of Big Idea Ventures.
Shiok meat researcher in the laboratory
Courtesy Shiok Meats
His New York and Singapore-based company launched a $ 50 million fund and accelerator program for alternative protein companies last year. Since then, it has supported various companies in Singapore such as Shiok Meats, the plant-based start-up Karana, which focuses on jackfruit, Confetti Fine Foods, which makes vegan chips with real vegetables, and Gaia Foods, another producer of cultured meat.
“We are investing in companies that have the potential to be global platforms, i.e. products that can meet demand in multiple regions,” Ive said.
Going forward, he expects larger investments in plant-based startups and hopes more animal protein companies will work with them.