The pandemic has disrupted domestic and international supply chains, aggravating the food crisis in Asia. Climate change-related weather events and geopolitical instability are also contributing to the turmoil, weakening a food ecosystem already struggling with high costs that disproportionately affect smallholders.
As Asia emerges from the pandemic, food security is at the forefront of government and corporate agendas. Technology and knowledge sharing will play a critical role in building a food ecosystem that is more diverse and resilient, as well as sustainable for consumers, smallholders, and the environment.
To achieve this, collaboration between governments, public-private sectors and industry experts must be boosted. These organisations were present at the roundtable jointly organised by SGInnovate and Enterprise Singapore during the Singapore International Agri-Food Week in October 2022.
The discussion, moderated by Mr Hsien-Hui Tong, SGInnovate’s Executive Director of Venture Investing, and Mr Eugene Toh, Director of AgriTech at Enterprise Singapore, centred around several ways in which farming could be made more equitable for smallholders, as well as how governments can shape a more resilient food ecosystem.
Balancing affordability, inequity, and scalability
Panellists outlined that compared to smallholders, larger corporations are better able to meet consumers’ expectations of low-cost produce due to greater business resilience and economies of scale.
When climate change-related weather events destroy crops and equipment for example, corporations are able to bounce back, whereas smallholders often experience massive and irrecoverable losses.
Combined with increasing middleman fees, farming is becoming a less profitable endeavour for smallholders. This will have adverse impacts on the sustainability of the entire food ecosystem, considering that smallholders number up to 450 million in Asia and contribute substantially to the region’s food supply.
A possible solution to bridging the gap between smallholders and large corporations is technology, participants concurred. From smart farms that incorporate big data and cloud technology to novel farming methods such as vertical farming, technology can improve workflow, increase yield, and mitigate the effects of climate change.
However, nascent technologies in sustainable food production are challenging, as it involves the expensive and arduous process of research and development, before being able to scale up and become commercially viable. In order to be truly sustainable, such technologies must also look beyond the economy to promote regenerative outcomes for the environment.
Going beyond self-sufficiency
In Asia, there are clear signs that some governments are emphasising self-sufficiency as a critical pillar of national food resilience strategies. Singapore’s 30 by 30 plan aims to build up local food production to 30 per cent by 2030, and Malaysia’s National Food Security Policy Action Plan looks to secure the country’s food supply.
But participants noted that food resilience goes beyond self-sufficiency. It includes diversifying food supplies and sources, such as tech-based substitutes like alternative proteins.
The benefits of alternative, tech-based food solutions are clear. Some panellists raised the issue of cultivated meat versus traditional meat, where the former could have a much shorter production cycle than the latter and requires fewer resources to produce.
The physical trade of produce can help plug gaps in the food ecosystem, but it is critical that the industry conversation moves beyond the import and export of produce to knowledge sharing across borders, said participants.
They also agreed that governments can help to democratise technologies such as big data that offer detailed weather predictions, to it more accessible to smallholders. The data will help them gear production towards crops that are most profitable to plant.
Such technology will increase the resilience of food ecosystems by preventing market monopolies and pluralising food sources. Smallholders, in turn, benefit more equitably from the food ecosystem, and can maintain fair market prices for consumers.
These actions can translate into positive impacts for various industry players, for instance, increasing smallholder profits and reducing wastage across packaging, distribution, and consumption.
Government support plays an outsized role
Singapore was the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a cultivated meat product, opening doors and creating assurances for the alternative protein industry. But if such breakthroughs are not mirrored across the rest of Asia, it will be difficult to generate enough demand for the sector to achieve economic viability, participants noted.
Acknowledging that tech-based solutions often face regulatory hurdles across different countries, which may have different standards for food safety compliance, experts agreed that governments have a bigger role to play. They can help by cooperating to reduce friction for companies, acting as harmonisers across different regulatory regimes to facilitate compliance for companies.
Another area in which governments can help to even the playing field is by helping start-ups gain access to expensive equipment, such as bioreactors, which are essential to research and production processes. For instance, ScaleUp Bio, a joint venture between ADM and Temasek, recently partnered with A*STAR to establish a joint lab focused on precision fermentation.
Such a boost can help startups expand their capabilities and compete effectively in the market.
On the consumer front, participants recognised that government incentives to companies that adopt good agricultural practices, can then be passed on as cost savings to consumers. While this might not be a long-term solution, they agreed that incentives can cultivate consumer demand and over time, make sustainable solutions more affordable.
Ultimately, participants concluded that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building resilient and sustainable food ecosystems. Yet, it is clear that collaboration at all levels will be vital – enabling consumers, smallholders, and nations to facilitate sustainable, profitable, and equitable solutions for all.
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