SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Temasek Holdings chief executive Dilhan Pillay runs a $403 billion state-owned investment empire. But every quarter he spends up to two hours chatting to a man in Indonesia about fish.
Those lengthy calls with Bandung-based eFishery, a start-up so small it only accounts for 0.01 per cent of Temasek's portfolio, are emblematic of its quiet zeal for the business of food. The precarious state of the world's food supply, highlighted by sizzling heatwaves that are wilting crops in Europe, China and the United States, has found an unlikely crusader in Singapore, a small island with hardly any agriculture at all.
Under its relatively new CEO Mr Pillay and head of agri-food Anuj Maheshwari, Temasek has doubled down on an agriculture strategy involving ambitious investments - including efforts that take control of some businesses - to try and reap profits from solving some of the biggest problems in food production. Since 2015 it has quietly grown its life science and agriculture holdings from about US$5.7 billion (S$7.9 billion) to US$26.7 billion as at March this year, spanning everything from plant-based meat maker Impossible Foods and Bayer to Israeli irrigation firms.
"When we started looking at this, most of our peers were not focused on this industry because it tends to have government influence, it's volatile and it involves land, which can be capital intensive," Mr Maheshwari said in an interview.
But if we do not create a system that is more efficient and resilient to climate change the food security of the planet is at risk, he added.
Almost half of the earth's habitable land, 70 per cent of its fresh water and 30 per cent of the workforce is used for agriculture, said Mr Maheshwari.
"Despite such massive resources, this industry produces a third of greenhouse gases, and a third of what it produces actually just goes to waste," Mr Maheshwari said. "These are massive challenges that are very ripe for the kind of capital that we bring in."
Singapore produces only about 10 per cent of its food, and while it is trying to lift that to 30 per cent by investing in technologies such as offshore fish farms and vertical farming, the only way to guarantee long-term supply in the face of climate change and disruptions such as the war in Ukraine is to build complex and redundant supply chains.
When Malaysia - supplier of a third of Singapore's chicken - banned most exports in June to keep domestic prices down, Singapore added suppliers of frozen chicken from Indonesia to supplement imports from Brazil, Thailand and Australia to soften the blow.
"Who knew the Ukraine war would happen and we would not have any chicken?" Mr Maheshwari said. "The reality is it's not just a long-term thing but also a short-term thing."
Temasek started systematically backing agriculture ventures in 2015, putting it well ahead of many other state-owned investors, according to Global SWF managing director Diego Lopez.
Venture capital firm AgFunder's 2022 AgriFoodTech Investment Report named Temasek as the world's fifth most-active venture capital fund manager in the sector.
"The entry of Temasek and big financiers has been incredibly important, with new efforts and technologies being enabled as part of the drive," Mr Lopez said. "Commodities and food security have traditionally been a big concern for small nations that do not have enough farmland. Geopolitical crises and deglobalisation trends only make it worse."
Temasek's strategy has been to blend financial clout with extensive market and climate analysis and to provide entrepreneurs with one of Asia's most potent networking rolodexes.
When US-based Impossible Foods was trying to expand abroad in 2019 for example, Temasek served up its plant-based burgers at the sovereign fund's plush corporate box at the city's Formula 1 street race. As Ferrari and Red Bull racecars shot past, Impossible's first employee Nick Halla and his team faced a rapid-fire night of networking with up to a dozen Temasek executives introducing A-list contacts from across the region.
"We were able to have weeks' worth of follow-up meetings" with food companies, supply chain contacts and customers, said Mr Halla, who left the company recently to work on climate change-related ventures. "Things like that are really high value."
Mr Maheshwari had tasted a prototype Impossible burger and Temasek was an early investor, supplying growth capital.
By 2017 Temasek was leading the start-up's Series E funding round.
At other times, Temasek's sheer financial heft has come to the rescue.
When Singapore-based Olam Group was attacked by short-seller Carson Block in 2012, its shares slumped 20 per cent. Temasek and other investors stepped in, underwriting and purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds and warrants. And when other activist investors started separate attacks, it spent billions to buy control of the business.
"Temasek's support at that critical juncture was very important," said Olam CEO Sunny Verghese.
Today Olam is one of the world's largest traders of food staples, shipping more than 45 million tonnes coffee, palm oil, rice and other food staples each year. Extreme weather and the war in Ukraine have pushed up commodity prices, helping revenue surge 31 per cent last year.
Temasek started life managing government assets, including Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications. But it has tended to avoid acquiring companies outright and for years Olam was an exception.
Under Mr Pillay, though, the strategy is being used more often. One example is the 2020 purchase of an 85 per cent stake in Rivulis, a US-Israeli micro-irrigation vendor.
Temasek's analysis of long-term climate change identified water scarcity as a key issue. Crop irrigation accounts for 72 per cent of all freshwater withdrawals and water demand is increasing at more than twice the rate of population growth.
Rivulis sells drip line systems that run along the ground - a more efficient but also more costly strategy than spraying crops with water. Temasek, halfway round the globe, may not have seemed the obvious choice as a buyer, but Rivulis' CEO Richard Klapholz had spent decades working in Asia and knew the firm well.
"When the private equity decided to sell and Temasek was one of the potential buyers, I did all I could to channel the acquisition to them," Mr Klapholz said from his office in Israel.
This year Temasek upped its stake to around 100 per cent and Mr Klapholz is buying rivals and building factories around the world to consolidate the industry. In June, Rivulis merged with India's Jain Irrigation Systems' international operation, creating a combined business worth an estimated US$1 billion.
"Rivulis is a good example of what the company is doing differently under Dilhan," said Mr Maheshwari, adding that Temasek had been a long-term investor in Jain.
The merger creates a business that "is really making a difference in how water is used by agriculture", he added.
Temasek's deals in agriculture have not all worked so well. In 2018 Temasek spent €3 billion euros (S$4.25 billion) helping Bayer finance its takeover of Monsanto.
But the acquisition went sour after claims that Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller causes cancer led to billions of dollars in compensation claims, causing Bayer's share price to plunge.
The setback did not dampen Temasek's appetite for agricultural start-ups that had the potential to change an industry.
Take eFishery, which aims to revolutionise the centuries-old business of aquaculture.
For a monthly fee, it provides fish farmers in Indonesia with a dispenser that scatters pellets based on data from thousands of users. Customers buy feed and sell stock via a smartphone app that offers higher prices than most distributors. eFishery sells the fish on in bulk to larger buyers.
The model is profitable and expanding - eFishery's US$90 million Series C funding round in January valued it at more than US$400 million. If all goes well, the fish-feeding firm could become a unicorn by next year.
One of several co-lead investors in the latest round, Temasek is helping the company expand, including suggesting potential executives and vital partners in India.
Temasek is "the best and most aggressive agri-tech investor in the world right now", said eFishery's co-founder and CEO Gibran Huzaifah.
Mr Maheshwari says Temasek is not trying to take control of food supply, nor directly bolster Singapore's food security.
"It just happens to be that we have taken stakes in positions which are pretty important for the food system," he said.
As climate change disrupts weather patterns and agriculture around the world, "we need more and more solutions thrown at the problem", Mr Maheshwari said.
"We're just seeing the trailer of what can happen."