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Is Singapore poised to become Asia’s hub for alternative protein?

Singapore is the first country in the world to approve cell-based meat, but that’s just one of the five reasons why the city-state is well-positioned to provide an enabling environment for food tech innovators to thrive.

Covid-19 and the African swine fever, which wiped out millions of pigs and created a shortage of meat protein in Asia in 2018, have exposed the vulnerability of the food system in the region which is responsible for the highest consumption of meat in the world.

Countries with limited local agriculture such as Hong Kong or Singapore, which currently imports 90 per cent of its food, have been especially vulnerable to the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic. 

Alternative protein, derived from plants, insects, fungi or cell cultures, could offer a more reliable and sustainable source of protein compared to conventional animal-based products.

It could help the region combat the adverse impact of climate change on food security such as declining crop yields, mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions caused by animal agriculture, and address the ethical and health concerns associated with meat consumption

“Hong Kong has one of the highest meat consumption per capita in the world, there is not a moment to lose to advocate for a plant-based diet. This became the inspiration for Green Common, the one-stop-shop where you can grab a plant-based meal, then shop for plant-based ingredients to cook or eat at home,” shared David Yeung, founder of Green Monday.

Hong Kong is undoubtedly a strong contender for the title of Asia’s centre for alternative protein, especially with organisations headquartered there such as Green Monday. In addition to the Green Common stores, the social venture produces plant-based meat and seafood substitutes OmniFoods and runs educational campaigns on sustainable diets via the Green Monday Foundation.

That said, here are five reasons why I believe Singapore has the potential to become Asia’s – and the world’s – hub for alternative protein.

1. Rising government and consumer support

To reduce its overt reliance on food imports, Singapore set out to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, with S$140 million (US$ 101 million) dedicated in funding to achieve the ’30 by 30’ target.

Investing in alternative protein which requires far less space and resources compared to conventional livestock farming will be key to creating a more sustainable and localised food ecosystem in the island-state, which currently dedicates less than 1 per cent of its land to agriculture.  

Singapore also has a relatively affluent population with sufficient purchasing power to pay the premium price often attached to alternative protein products, coupled with growing public awareness of the health and environmental benefits of alt protein.

Retail sales of frozen meat substitutes in Singapore grew by 26.7 per cent between 2019 and 2020 compared to just 7.4 per cent for traditional meat products, based on Euromonitor data referenced by Enterprise Singapore.

Consumer interest in plant-based pork and chicken also grew by seven-fold, while demand for plant-based beef tripled between the end of 2019 and 2020, according to a survey conducted by vegan food app abillion.

2. First country to approve cell-based meat

In December 2020, Singapore became the first and only country in the world to approve the commercial sale of cultivated meat—meat that’s produced using animal cells instead of slaughtered livestock.

Following the regulatory nod, US start-up Eat Just launched its lab-grown chicken bites GOOD Meat in the city-state. which are currently available for delivery at Cantonese restaurant Madame Fan.

The food tech company, known previously for its plant-based egg JUST Egg, has also partnered with investment firm Proterra to build a plant protein factory in Singapore, which will be its first production facility in Asia and key to its plans to expand across the region, including China, South Korea and Japan.

“Singapore is going to be a critical hub of manufacturing for our cultured meat and plant-based egg divisions for years to come”, said Andrew Noyes, Head of Global Communications at Eat Just.

“In addition to creating a robust ecosystem for food innovation, Singapore has strong IP rights protection and a highly-skilled talent pool, and it is positioned as a critical node in the network of greater Asia, which consumes more animal protein than anywhere else in the world”, he added.

3. Asia’s first university course on alternative protein

Singapore is also home to Asia’s first university course focusing on alternative protein, with the inaugural cohort of students having begun their study of more sustainable sources of protein in August this year.

In collaboration with the non-profit The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific, the course by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will cover the science behind three of the key alt protein technologies – plant protein, cultivated meat and fermentation – and explore the current commercial and regulatory environment.

“Talent development is key to sustainable food security in Singapore and beyond”, said Professor William Chen, Director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology Programme and lead coordinator for the course. “NTU’s new course in partnership with The Good Food Institute APAC will play an important role in ensuring the successful growth of the emerging food industry on alternative proteins.”

4. Wealth of funding and accelerator opportunities

Singapore offers a wealth of funding, mentorship and training opportunities to aspiring food techpreneurs, and is home to three of Asia’s six alt protein accelerators including Big Idea Ventures (BIV), Grow and Innovate 360.

BIV runs a bi-annual, five-month long accelerator programme in Singapore, New York and in Paris for its New Protein Fund which focuses on pre-seed and early-stage investments in alternative protein companies in the plant-, fermentation and cell-based industries. 

The venture capital firm, which is backed by sovereign wealth fund Temasek, provides extensive support in product development, scale-up and distribution, market entry, channel development and fundraising. 

BIV invests US$200,000 in each company - US$125,000 in cash and US$75,000 through in-kind benefits in return for equity. Following the programme, BIV has the ability to provide follow-on funding of up to US$3 million. The fund has raised US$50 million in total since its inception in 2019.

Grow offers up to $120,000 in cash support and $80,000 in services or in-kind benefits in exchange for equity, while Innovate 360’s financial assistance ranges from $50,000 to $250,000 in addition to other forms of support such as office space, according to an industry report by Green Queen Media.

FoodInnovate, an initiative run by government agencies Enterprise Singapore, the Economic Development Board, the Singapore Food Agency, A*STAR, Innovation Partner for Impact and JTC Corporation, provides additional access to resources and partnership opportunities for Singaporean food manufacturers including alt protein entrepreneurs.

5. Home to Asia’s leading alt protein start-ups

Promising start-ups developing mostly plant- and cell-based meat alternatives are now dotted across Asia, such as Phuture Foods in Malaysia, GoodDot in India, Zhenmeat in China, Unlimeat in South Korea or IntegriCulture Japan, among others.

From Karana’s whole food meat substitute made from jackfruit to Next Gen’s plant-based chicken TiNDLE, there is also no shortage of home-grown food tech innovation in Singapore.  

Shiok Meats was the first in ASEAN to produce cultivated shellfish by extracting a sample of shrimp cells which would then be fed with nutrients in a lab environment to help the stem cells multiply and develop into seafood, similarly to how vegetables and fruits are grown in greenhouses.

Cell-based seafood could address the many vices associated with the fishing and farmed seafood industries, including overfishing, plastic pollution and opaque supply chains fraught with unethical working conditions akin to slavery.

With its recent acquisition of a 90% stake in Gaia Foods, the first company in Southeast Asia to create a cell-based red meat prototype – thin slices of beef –, Shiok Meats is on course to become one of the region’s leading cell-based meat and seafood tech start-ups with plans to commercialise in 2022.

TurtleTree aims to tackle the unsustainable nature of dairy production through cell-based milk . Cells are extracted from freshly pressed milk, nourished with micronutrients and immersed in an environment which mimics that of a cow udder or a human breast, which eventually converts this lactation solution into milk.  

The biotech firm has recently launched its first commercial product, cultured human lactoferrin which had traditionally been extracted from cow milk. Lactoferrin is known for its immunity-boosting qualities, its ability to fight bad bacteria in the gut and its positive impact on brain development, making it a vital ingredient in infant formula and sports nutrition products.  

“We don’t have to lose out on the benefits of animal-patterned proteins as cell-based technologies now enable us to recreate them without relying on the whole animal,” said Fengru Lin, co-founder of TurtleTree.

As with all emerging technologies, financing the costly research and development as well as commercialisation of alt protein products will be a key hurdle to overcome in order for the industry to scale. But alternative protein is no doubt here to stay and early movers in Singapore will undoubtedly have a competitive edge.

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