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03 Apr 2019 Updated 29 Jun 2020

Creepy-crawlies could be tomorrow's chow

The Business Times Annabeth Leow

Enterprise Singapore names 'alternative proteins' an agri-tech leg worth growing

FANCY a bug burger, anyone?

While indoor or rooftop farms for greens and marine fish farms are not that new, "alternative proteins" like insects and lab-grown meat could be a novel addition to diners' plates.

Government agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG) has named urban farming, aquaculture and alternative proteins as key growth segments in agri-food technology, a sector where the Republic is making a grand push.

Kee Ai Nah, executive director for ESG's lifestyle and consumer cluster, told The Business Times in an e-mail that, "as with most other emerging sectors, it is critical that we start right by having a long-term view of creating a robust agri-tech ecosystem".

"In a nascent sector like agri-tech, access to capital, expertise and talent is an oft-cited challenge," she said, pointing to her agency's business assistance schemes, such as intellectual property development, networking and venture capital co-investments.

Two home-grown alternative-protein startups that have snagged ESG's attention are insect farmers Protenga and Asia Insect Farm Solutions (AIFS).

Protenga won S$50,000 in grants at trade event Indoor Ag-Con Asia 2018, which is supported by the agency, while AIFS worked with ESG to brainstorm how to go to market with insect-based food products.

ESG also helped to introduce the startups, which are in the pre-commercialisation stage, to investors and business development partners in Singapore and elsewhere in the region.

Singapore-based Protenga, which has an insect farm in Johor Baru, plans to monetise both the hardware for its modular farming system and black soldier fly larvae as an ingredient in animal feed and pet food.

Leonard "Leo" Wein, co-founder and managing director, told BT that he wants to start commercial operations this year with a monthly production target of 40 tonnes of larvae.

Noting that finding feed-manufacturing partners has been a barrier, Mr Wein acknowledged: "There are some challenges in the feed value chain, where we have to bridge the gap (involving) the output of our core process - a feed ingredient, and not a compound feed or a complete diet."

Still, he is optimistic about the eventual growth of the market.

"An industrial broiler farm, which is selling its chickens for $1.50 or $2 a kilogram, might not have a case to use our product at all or might not have a case to use it in the roll-out phase of the chicken," said Mr Wein.

"But it might be sensible to include our product at the early growth stage of the chicks, because that's when it has the highest benefit, in terms of immune boost that could later help to reduce mortality."

While Protenga has played with prototypes of insect-based sambal, the human consumer is not its focus. But it's quite the opposite for AIFS, where founders Raavee Shanker and Yuvanesh Tamil Selvan hope to bring crushed crickets to the masses.

"Because of its nutritional profile, (edible insects) can be used in many ways as a protein powder, to enhance products like pasta and bread," said Mr Yuvanesh.

Still, AIFS is starting with the low-hanging fruit of animal feed too, pending clear rules on whether insects can go into food products sold here.

Mr Raavee said it has spoken with the former Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and "we expect things to be regulated hopefully by year-end".

He added: "We will be looking to get some market perception studies, and that should give us better insight on whether people... would be willing to try insect-based products or snacks, and what would be a suitable price they would be willing to pay."

AIFS has production tie-ups with three farms in Malaysia and Thailand, and wants to add four by mid-2019, including in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Other alternative-protein developers ESG has supported include Life3Biotech, which uses plant-based material, and Shiok Meats, which is working on lab-cultured shrimp.

As ESG takes a long view on a Singapore agri-tech ecosystem, Ms Kee said that - more than just setting hard targets - its priority is to build necessary infrastructure so that "research, technology and innovation capabilities can help turn ideas into reality, ensuring the access and availability of capital for growth and establishing a strong network of industry partners".

Meanwhile, Mr Yuvanesh told BT: "With a lot of governments now looking at this as a source of food - potentially even a solution to food security, because it requires a lot less land and resources to produce - we believe that this could start to show market growth in the next three to five years."

Mr Wein also noted that insects as animal feed can improve food chain security: "Being able to provide an alternative at scale to these ingredients is, I think, really powerful for food safety, for food health, for sustainability - raising more awareness about the food system and the various ways that can be tackled and addressed."

He added: "It's about closing the increasing gap between demand and supply, and the role that insects can play in it - not the only solution, but one across many different solutions."

Paul Teng, adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told BT: "I think there is certainly huge potential for these new foods that are being produced without agriculture."

A lack of regulations on unconventional foods is not cause for concern, because other countries are already adopting guidelines, and Singapore is no stranger to safety protocols such as hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) systems, he said.

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.