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17 Aug 2020 Updated 20 Aug 2020

Alternative protein a boon for food security. What can Spore do to this end?

Today Johnny Teo, Executive Director for Food, Healthcare & Biomedical, Enterprise Singapore

The world’s population is growing and expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This will be accompanied by a rising global middle class, the majority of which will come from Asia. Correspondingly, the demand for food, particularly for meat, is also expected to increase rapidly.

It is predicted that the consumption of both meat and seafood in urbanising Asia will increase by another 78 per cent between 2017 and 2050.

But with a rising focus on environmental sustainability, there is immense pressure on the food industry to find ways to meet this spike in consumer demand without further straining the environment and the world’s resources.

In the last couple of years, alternative protein has emerged as a viable solution, as it gains traction as a less resource-intensive option for both producers and consumers.

A study by Barclays found that the market for alternative meat could reach US$140 billion over the next decade, capturing approximately 10 per cent of the trillion-dollar global meat industry.

Plant-based options are widely recognised as a sustainable non-meat alternative. As more companies tap new technologies to grab a slice of this growing pie, a more recent innovation is cultured meat, which is grown in laboratories. We are also increasingly seeing farmed insects touted as a more nutritional and cheaper source of protein.

While some may perceive this fast-expanding market as a threat to the traditional meat industry, we see the growing demand for alternative protein instead as an opportunity that would enhance the world’s food security, and address unmet consumer needs in a sustainable way.

Opportunities for growth in the new normal

Without question, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed the spotlight on food security globally, as supply chains for staple commodities come under huge stress during this period.

In particular, heightened concerns of disruptions in the meat supply chain have led to panic buying and stockpiling among consumers, which inevitably worsened food shortages.

The pandemic has served as a timely reminder to countries on the importance of source diversification as a protection against unexpected disruptions.

This presents an opportunity for the alternative protein sector, as countries become more receptive to the development of novel foods to complement traditional food sources.

Furthermore, with the rising focus on health and wellness, consumer demand for alternative protein is expected to grow.

This upward trend can already be seen in certain parts of Asia such as China, as activities resume following the reopening of economies, and consumers are showing a shift in their eating habits as they seek more sustainable and nutritional options.

Even before the pandemic, China’s alternative meat sector, which includes plant-based products, was predicted to be worth US$11.9 billion by 2023.

Driving the growth of the foodtech ecosystem

Globally, the alternative protein industry has grown significantly, but there is still a need for more investments and resources to bring novel food products mainstream.

Ecosystems with a strong focus on innovations as well as a vibrant start-up base will have an advantage, particularly those in Asia, due to their closer proximity to demand sources.

To this end, Singapore has intensified its efforts to grow the innovation and start-up ecosystem in recent years.

Notable developments in recent years include:

  • A US$50 million fund raised by Big Idea Ventures - backed by Temasek, Tyson Foods and Buhler - to invest in innovative startups working on alternative protein.
  • Launch of the “Singapore Food Bowl” programme by global agri-food tech accelerator GROW, to help agri-food tech startups commercialise novel technologies specifically relevant to Singapore’s food security needs, with support from Enterprise Singapore and Dole Packaged Foods.

The Government also took a major step to commit a total of S$144 million to catalyse and facilitate more investments in the agri-food space, which included priority areas such as urban agriculture and alternative proteins.

On the infrastructure front, the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) was also launched in April 2020 to bring together several national research institutes’ existing capabilities under one roof to facilitate research and development (R&D) collaborations for the development of novel food.

Beyond R&D, SIFBI will also support the enhancement of food safety to address the emerging risks that could be associated with novel food products including alternative proteins, which will be increasingly crucial as these products slowly become mainstream.

A related area which institutes such as SIFBI and the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre – both under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research – can look into is the nutrition aspects of alternative protein. This is one area which can also help to boost public acceptance of new products.

Standards and regulations will play a large part in driving acceptance, which Singapore is well placed to contribute. The work conducted by SIFBI in performing risk assessments and food safety tests of new food products will provide greater clarity to producers and assurance to consumers over the longer run.

Collaborations key for further growth

A common challenge that less established companies and especially startups face in this emerging field is accessing the right consumer insights and identifying the right product-market fit. While established firms are generally more equipped in this area to innovate new products, there is also potential to foster more collaborations between larger firms and the smaller players to drive more successful product innovations.

As an illustration, an alternative protein producer can work with traditional food manufacturers to test out new ingredients via familiar food products. For example, Lim Kee Food Manufacturing, a pau (steamed bun) manufacturer partnered Monde Nissin Corporation to incorporate the latter’s Quorn mycoprotein to provide meatless alternatives of its traditional Asian delicacies.

Overall, while developments in the alternative protein sector may still be considered nascent, there is confidence that it is set to redefine the future of foods. This is especially so given the food security challenges the world faces today.

Coupled with consumers’ gradual, but growing demand for more sustainable food sources, it is likely the food industry will need to consider embarking on a transformation journey into the alternative protein sector early.

Source: Today © Mediacorp Pte Limited. Reproduced with permission. This opinion piece was contributed by Johnny Teo, Executive Director for Food, Healthcare & Biomedical, Enterprise Singapore, for Today.