Insights on Food Security

By Shania Sukamto

The Discover+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about career paths they aspire to take. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is determined to support students experiencing challenges in this time of disruption, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on Food Security, held on 15 September 2020, was Advisory’s 18th online panel of the Discovery+ Series. It was helmed by Faridah Mohd Saad, Deputy Director (AgriTech) at Enterprise Singapore (Moderator), Dr. Dalal AlGhawas, Program Director at Big Idea Ventures, Dr. Joanna Khoo, Director Planning & Organisation Division, Singapore Food Agency, Dr. Vinayaka Srinivas, CEO & Co-Founder at Gaia Foods, XinYi Lim, Executive Director, Sustainability and Agricultural Impact at Pinduoduo.

Food security means having a safe and constant supply of food. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how reliant Singapore is on other countries for food and the urgent need to secure our supplies. Recently, Singapore has set the ambitious 30 by 30 Goal of producing 30% of our food locally by 2030. Today, we only produce less than 10% of our nutritional needs locally so we still have a long way to go!

Singapore Food Agency (SFA)’s strategies include diversifying Singapore’s food imports to reduce overreliance on any one source and growing local which serves as a critical buffer in the event of a disruption. Another strategy the SFA takes is to encourage local companies to expand their businesses overseas, hence allowing them to overcome the land and manpower constraints faced in Singapore. This also allows them to gain access to a larger market, thus achieving economies of scale while exporting food back to Singapore.

Ensuring food security in the meat industry is also another issue. Billions of animals are slaughtered each year to feed the population and there are three times as many farm animals as humans living at any one time. The world meat industry is worth $1.5 billion, and it is growing at an average of 10% per year. Raising this livestock requires a massive amount of land area, which is not sustainable in supporting our growing population. Furthermore, as the middle class population in Southeast Asia rises rapidly, the demand for meat will likely exceed the existing supply. Hence, countries need to find new ways to meet the animal protein needs of their growing populations while reducing the risk of supply chain disruption which the traditional meat industry is vulnerable to.

The reliance on animal protein is not only unsustainable for the environment but for human health. The consumption of meat raises concerns on Zoonosis (diseases that pass from animals to humans) and antibiotic resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming. As a result, the nascent industry of sourcing for alternative protein also provides overwhelming opportunities for producers to enter the market and provide variations of flavour or texture for the products.

However, the development of alternative protein sources comes with complex technological challenges. Hence, venture capitalists like Big Idea Ventures come into the picture by investing in engineering companies that develop appropriate machinery to support their portfolio alternative meat companies — both plant-based and cell-cultured, such as Gaia Foods.

Besides the quantity of food, the quality of food and a lack of public trust towards food safety is another issue. In some countries, the check for food’s quality, such as it’s freshness and pesticide contamination levels, may not be as rigourous. This is especially apparent when food is purchased through eCommerce platforms and sold directly to consumers without any quality checks in place. Nonetheless, companies are working to mitigate this problem. For instance, Pinduoduo, a China-based company, is working to lower the cost of testing by developing machine learning and a hand-held device for the entire food supply chain so as to provide greater assurance for consumers in China.

Beyond checking for the quality of the food, eCommerce platforms have its merits too. For instance, in situations like the pandemic where distribution is disrupted, the demand for eCommerce platforms has become more apparent. Furthermore, eCommerce platforms help to connect farmers to the wider market too. The increased access and visibility in the market ensure higher food security.

To compete with the traditional meat market, alternative meat companies are adopting various forms of technology to bring down the cost while accelerating its production process to reap economies of scale. As the market grows, players across the supply chain, such as food packers, will gain access to a dedicated line of alternative meat, which will eliminate the current premium costs in production.

Besides Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, traditional meat companies like Tyson Foods are also eager to develop a specialised range of alternative meat. Collaborations among different stakeholders in the industry are needed to scale production and eventually bring down cost.

Food security is closely linked to sustainability. The Singapore government has channeled $144 million worth of funding to the Singapore Food Story R&D Program which aims to meet our 30 by 30 Goal through sustainable food production methods guided by circular economy principles.

Currently, food waste is one of the largest waste streams in Singapore. Mitigating food waste ensures that we do not waste our precious resources. A prime example of this is an egg farm in Singapore which uses an anaerobic digester able to convert its poultry waste into biogas that is used to power the farm. The solid byproduct is then used as compost for growing the vegetables. Such low-energy consuming, closed-looped farms are models for sustainable production that help to secure our food supply.

There are many opportunities in STEM, in areas such as innovation in smart farming, automation robotics and IoT. The 30 by 30 Goal will create demand for specialists in aquaculture and agriculture, such as feed nutritionists, plant scientists and aquaculturists. Such multidisciplinary skills are needed as farming is no longer the very manual industry it once was.

There will also be relevant opportunities for people working in government agencies as they are required to facilitate various activities, such policy formulation, corporate planning and development, industry and community engagement, inspection and enforcement.

Generally, the industry needs a very diverse range of skill sets. This can range from PR, legal counsel, design, go-to-market to financial expertise. The qualifications hiring managers are looking out for are mostly in the science fields, such as toxicology, biochemistry, aquaculture and food science. However, other fields, such as economics, urban planning and horticulture, are also highly sought after. Individuals are welcomed to share how they can contribute to the organisation based on their unique backgrounds and experiences.

Startups, on the other hand, often look for different skill sets depending on their stage of growth. For instance, seed startups that are more research focused will often look for those with backgrounds in STEM. Subsequently, as they mature, many of the startups will then look for more diverse hires skilled in other fields, such as business development.

A key trait to nurture is adaptability. You need to be flexible and ready to wear many hats in the company — be it in startups or big conglomerates — in order to remain relevant in the ever changing industry.

Tenacity. One must not be afraid to fail but have the strength to keep trying as success can take years to realise. Venture capitals do not expect the portfolio companies to check all the boxes, but they are looking for founders with vision, leadership, charisma and the ability to communicate their ideas. It is also extremely important for founders to be coachable, receptive to feedback and able to pivot when they identify challenges.

Founders also need to find the right people to create a dynamic team with diverse skill sets. Through the process, founders must be able to acknowledge their limitations and have the courage to ask for help.