By SGN | 27 Apr 2022
When Singapore became the first nation on Earth to grant regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product—chicken grown directly from cells, rather than farming birds—the move prompted some top-tier food technology startups, like Hong Kong’s Avant Meats, to pack their bags and start a new chapter in the city-state.
This chain of events perfectly illustrates Singapore’s strategic vision to leverage innovation as a means of increasing supply chain resilience, including strengthening food safety and promoting economic growth.
But Singapore’s forward-thinking moves on alternative proteins have also had another, perhaps unintended, effect: they guaranteed that The Lion City would serve as the de facto model for how other countries accelerate and regulate novel foods—not only cultivated meat, but also plant-based and fermentation-enabled proteins.
Top climate experts now agree that food tech innovation is an essential part of stemming global climate change, so given the stakes, the question must be asked: How is Singapore’s new model working out so far?
What The Lion City is Doing Right
An independent assessment by The Good Food Institute APAC (GFI APAC)—Asia’s leading alternative protein think tank—has concluded that Singapore now possesses the most technologically advanced network for plant-based protein production anywhere in Southeast Asia.
As GFI APAC has outlined in its new alternative protein ecosystem database, an astonishing 61 business-to-business (B2B) entities currently service Singapore’s plant-based meat industry, ranging from pilot production facilities and co-manufacturers, to local ingredient sourcing, consultants, and many other essential services.
To address these challenges head on, many of Singapore’s top public research institutions and initiatives have been mobilized, including the Future Ready Food Safety Hub, Singapore Food Story R&D Programme, Bioprocessing Technology Institute, and the recently launched Centre of Innovation for Sustainable Banking and Production of Cultivated Meats—which goes by the cheeky name “CRISP Meats.” Together, these influential entities are significantly expanding novel ingredient discoveries, enhancing food process engineering, assessing the public health benefits of alternative proteins, and offering hands-on technical expertise to food enterprises.
Even the city-state’s two most prestigious universities have gotten in on the action by working with GFI APAC to develop semester-long modules specifically focused on the science of alternative proteins—a regional first and critical element of widening the food technology talent pipeline.
Global Brands Getting Bullish on Singapore’s Future Foods
Sensing an opportunity to scale up operations in a place where the public sector solidly stands behind technological innovation, major international food brands have gone all in on Singapore.
Everybody from Swedish plant-based milk maker Oatly and California-based fermentation startup Perfect Day, to US agribusiness giant ADM and Swiss food-industry powerhouses Bühler, Givaudan, and Firmenich, have decided that they want to play a starring role in the city-state’s bold new food ecosystem.
Add to that list a healthy crop of homegrown companies like Next Gen Foods, Growthwell, and Shiok Meats, along with more recent additions like SGProtein—Southeast Asia’s first large-scale high-moisture extrusion contract manufacturing facility for plant-based meat—and you’ve got the ingredients for a recipe greater than the sum of its parts.
The Challenging Road Ahead
For all of the technological progress that Singapore has made, GFI APAC research shows that plant-based meat market penetration within the city-state—measured as a percentage of total meat sales—is vanishingly small (0.056 percent, as of 2020). For comparison, according to The Good Food Institute’s State of the Industry report, plant-based meat accounted for 1.4 percent of total meat sales in the US during the same period, which is 25 times higher than Singapore on a percentage basis. In other words, for one reason or another, consumers in Singapore—and APAC more broadly—have been hesitant to pivot from the conventional meat they know.
Educational programmes aimed at highlighting the public health and climate benefits of a shift away from industrial animal agriculture could go a long way towards closing this gap. Similarly, collaborative partnerships with local restaurants and chains could be enacted to encourage more widespread inclusion of alternative protein menu options. The most effective efforts will reflect an understanding of Singapore’s diverse and multicultural landscape.
Accessibility and cost are also key hurdles for consumers who want to incorporate more alternative proteins into their diet, but worry they can’t afford to. By allocating resources aimed at accelerating technological advancements that drive down production costs, innovation can help alternative proteins achieve price parity with their conventional meat counterparts, thereby creating a glidepath to widespread adoption. If such efforts are successful, the result could be a virtuous cycle in which more consumer dollars flow into local businesses, thus fueling further innovation and economic growth.
Of course, in a global context, the Singapore consumer market remains relatively small, so securing regional consumer buy-in from across Asia is also necessary to have a significant economic and climate impact. That makes it all the more important that even as Singapore positions itself as Asia’s capital of intellectual property and R&D, and builds up its own plant-based and cultivated meat infrastructure domestically, that it also keeps one eye on the horizon by looking for opportunities to invest in similar infrastructure regionally. A rising tide of Asian alternative protein infrastructure lifts all boats.
Perhaps most importantly of all, regulatory approvals are an essential element of opening up new markets, so Singapore would be well-advised to continue building out the world’s most advanced novel food regulatory framework to offer even more clarity and transparency on safety assessment steps. Then, leveraging the city-state’s status as a vibrant hub for experts, researchers, and innovators, persistently work to knowledge-share with other countries (especially its regional neighbors) to invite them to learn from Singapore’s experience and build up their own forward-looking novel food regulations.
An Unprecedented Economic Opportunity
The technological advancements and new methods of protein cultivation taking shape in Singapore have brought humanity to the threshold of a new food production era and cracked open the door to an economic opportunity of historic proportions.
In a world besieged by skyrocketing protein demand, increased ecological disruption, and threats of viral outbreaks, Singapore’s progressive approach to novel foods provides a promising new template for deflating global pressures, if the nation fully embodies its role as the tip of the spear.
This article was first published by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), a government agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry that is responsible for strategies that enhance Singapore’s position as a global centre for business, innovation and talent. More information on EDB can be found here.
Ryan Huling is the senior communications manager for The Good Food Institute APAC—Asia’s leading alternative protein think tank. He previously served as an international expert on nutrition and sustainable food systems at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.