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High-tech Farming in Singapore Offers Alternative Solutions

Singapore, an island nation just about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., cannot feed the entire world.

But the technology some U.S.-based tech companies develop on Singapore’s shores might eventually, according to Jacqueline Poh, managing director of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

“The reason Singapore is interested in agri-food is resilience,” Poh says. “We were importing more than 90% of our food, and that created” a potential vulnerability. “A few years ago we started “30 by ’30”, a program where we need to get 30% of our nutritional needs [from the island] by 2030—which is quite a challenge.”

There are only so many places to farm on an island nation with a population of over 5 million, after all.

Part of Poh’s job is to make Singapore an attractive environment for companies to base their operations.

The EDB is a multi-faceted operation, she explains. Its job is to make Singapore an attractive location for companies to base their operations, and in doing so, create jobs and grow the country’s economy.

As an economy, we are not keen on attracting just any kind of company,” said Poh. “We look for things that best suit the resource profile of our island: We’re a small place, but we have a lot of technology and human capital, so we’re looking for companies that are very high value” to concentrate as much potential as possible into the physical space provided.

Of course, in the past, Singapore has been known to make space when needed: Poh points out that the country’s chemicals industry is largely based on a large offshore artificial island created in the ‘90s specifically to house those companies.

But you can’t build an island for everything. Poh touts Singapore’s corporate acquisitions in fields including financial tech and semiconductor manufacturing. She also mentions tech-friendly policies like Singapore’s Tech.Pass. The program provides quick and easy two-year visas entrepreneurs who found companies in Singapore or serve as consultants or operatives for existing ones. These are the kinds of policies EDB crafts to draw in ambitious Silicon Valley types.

“Companies don’t think of Singapore as their end market, because we have at most 5 or 6 million consumers,” said Poh. “They put their hubs in Singapore simply because they believe we’re a good base” for global and regional markets, especially compared to other destinations.

Producing food is a little bit different, because a country like Singapore not only has an interest in the business side of resilient new foodstuffs, but also an eye on its own agricultural production in a transforming world.

It’s Not Meat

“Climate change has already changed the environment, and very frankly, in the last few months with food inflation, with grain constraints, with [the war in] Ukraine affecting farmland all over the world, I’m not sure places will be able to exist based purely on traditional farming methods”, Poh said.

“We have an opportunity to use high tech to see if some of our needs could be achieved by growing more in Singapore, and we are [now] able to grow vegetables intensively in small greenhouses—we’ve even experimented with vegetables with no roots, for example—roots are actually very inefficient” compared to new growing methods.

In the U.S., consumers currently treat meat substitutes as a novelty, an alternative for those who are cutting meat out of their diet for personal reasons. In some cases the products even become a flashpoint of social conflict.

But Poh predicts that in the next 10 years, practicality will push people to normalize plant-based proteins like the ones companies are producing in Singapore. Singapore is also now one of the leading hot spots in the creation of cell-culture protein—meat grown not from a live animal but in a lab.

In fact, starting in 2020, Singapore is the only place in the world where you can buy and consume such meats commercially, with the U.S.-based company Eat Just offering its experimental chicken to hungry and curious diners.

While the technology to create slaughter-free meats has existed for years, the race is on to create a process that makes such novel proteins cheap and accessible—to, in effect, manufacture chicken protein that’s as cheap as conventionally raised chickens.

Eat Just brags that in just the past few years it has brought the cost of one of its chicken nuggets down from about $1,000 apiece to just $50.

“Novel foods and virtual clinics where novel food companies are able to get their requirements are [in] early stages of their research,” Poh said, but the need is not going anywhere.

People in countries like Singapore are already ready to integrate high tech foods into their diet if cost makes sense, she guesses; in places like the U.S., where some may not yet trust such technologies, she predicts they will still catch on faster than we think.

“The cost of a plant burger or not-really pork is going to come down to the point that” most people will have to confront the fact that food is food. Meat substitutes “may be novel, but they’re not alien.”

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