: Singapore startups embrace diverse methods to dish out more sustainable food
SINGAPORE - Singapore start-ups are embracing diverse methods to drive sustainability and bolster long-term food security, even as the food technology sector faces high costs and mixed funding.
Prefer creates “bean-free” coffee with fermentation using by-products from beer, bread and tofu manufacturing. It is preparing to launch its products later in 2023, after raising US$105,000 (S$140,000) in pre-seed funding in December.
Cultivated meat firm Meatiply raised an undisclosed sum in a pre-seed funding round in early 2022 and subsequently unveiled three offerings made from different cell types such as fat and muscle: kampung chicken yakitori, chicken katsu bites, and Asia’s first cultivated smoked duck breast meat.
Investments in alternative proteins, a subset of food technology, grew exponentially to US$169.8 million in Singapore in 2022, from just US$5.9 million in 2019, according to Singapore-based think-tank Good Food Institute Asia Pacific.
But the overall industry is facing challenges, including high production costs, slower demand for alternative foods compared with conventional ones, and macroeconomic headwinds.
A study by personal finance platform Seedly found that alternative proteins such as plant-based meats that are sold in local supermarket chain Cold Storage can cost 50 per cent more than their animal counterparts.
Data from PitchBook revealed that the global food technology industry experienced a 39.6 per cent decline in deal count in the first quarter of 2023 compared with the previous quarter. This led to a total of 197 deals worth US$2.3 billion, a significant drop from the US$2.8 billion recorded in the previous quarter.
Dr Elwin Tan, chief executive and co-founder of Meatiply, is undaunted, as he is looking beyond the short term.
Currently, demand for novel food products such as alternative proteins has been largely driven by early adopters and enthusiasts, he said.
But he highlighted that demand for meat from animals and for dairy is projected to outpace the current rate of production, which means that conventional agricultural practices are expected to reach a bottleneck.
“While demand for novel food is comparatively low right now, such innovations are looking at multiple decades into the future to diversify our food production methods,” he said.
Dr Mark Richards, lead specialist in aquaculture technology at the Nanyang Polytechnic School of Applied Science, said that technological advances can hopefully reduce the production costs of novel food like cultivated meat.
He also noted that Singapore has minimal land for conventional agriculture, and since cultivated meat facilities have a very small footprint, they augur well for the country.
“This approach to protein production would therefore be a smart strategy to improve food security and boost domestic food supply production and redundancy in supply,” he said.
Singapore is the first country in the world to green-light the sale of cultivated meat, which is made by growing animal cells in a bioreactor.
Companies producing cultivated meat products must conduct and submit safety assessments of their products for the Singapore Food Agency’s review before they are allowed for sale.
Apart from cultivated proteins, another vertical within food technology known as “upcycling” may also drive food sustainability in Singapore.
Upcycling is the process where edible surplus from food production that would have ended up as waste is transformed into conventional food products.
Founded in early 2022, the locally based food upcycling start-up Mycosortia is focused on converting okara – a by-product of tofu and soya milk manufacturing – into a ready-to-eat, functional protein known as FibProtTM. It raised an undisclosed sum in pre-seed funding from venture capital firm Big Idea Ventures in August 2022.
Dr Anli Geng, co-founder and director of Mycosortia, said that alternative proteins can reduce the impact of global warming. However, upcycled foods take it one step further by also reducing food wastage and costs.
“Biomass fermentation-based products and upcycled food products via fermentation will enter the market rapidly as they are more economically feasible because the yield is higher,” she said.
Her company’s products are expected to hit the market “within this year”.
Mr Jake Berber, co-founder and chief executive of Prefer, said innovative products such as upcycled foods can offer other advantages, such as reduced waste.
The next trend in food technology revolves around the creation of “sustainable flavours”, he said.
More importantly, food technology is key to sustainability and food security.
Mr Berber cited a study conducted in Switzerland that found that climate change could erase 50 per cent of the land needed to cultivate coffee by 2050, while demand for coffee is expected to triple within the same period.
“We believe that creating more affordable and sustainable alternatives to crops that are threatened by climate change will be a trend that lasts the test of time,” he said.
In October 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the Government would commit an additional $165 million in funding to the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme – an initiative focusing on areas such as sustainable urban food production, future foods, and food safety science and innovation.
The programme will support the Republic’s “30 by 30” goal, which aims to build the agri-food industry’s capability and capacity to sustainably produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.
Mr Tan Ding Jie, co-founder and chief technology officer of Prefer, said that there is a significant opportunity for Singapore’s food tech start-ups to make an impact, as the Republic currently imports 90 per cent of its food.
“By embracing and supporting food tech start-ups, Singapore can foster an ecosystem of innovation that not only meets its food demands sustainably but also positions the country as a global leader in food technology and innovation,” he said.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.