Transforming Asia's food system to tackle our food and climate crises

The climate emergency could trigger a global food crisis. To prevent this, investors and companies are accelerating innovations to improve food security and sustainability while meeting changing consumer needs

Farmer using smartphone for agriculture
Technology could help the agri-food sector transform by bolstering climate resiliency and sustainable food production. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

If you want more of what you like to eat, it's time to think and treat the planet better.

Experts add that those who can help in a more impactful way, such as companies and investors, can do more to advance sustainability and resilience across the supply chain.

The Fears

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its starkest warning yet: As adverse weather wreaks havoc due to increased temperatures and carbon emissions, the world's already-stretched natural resources will come under further strain.

Indirect climate stressors - including population and income growth, as well as demand for animal-sourced products - also continue to strain the environment.

"Observed climate change is already affecting food security through increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme (weather) events… Food security will be increasingly affected by projected future climate change," said the IPCC.

The climate crisis demands immediate attention, not just to secure the future of our planet, but also the resilience of the food supply systems.

The Paris Agreement - a legally binding international treaty on climate change - says that the goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C, compared to pre-industrial levels. However, it is clear that this can only be achieved if concerted efforts are made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all industries.

About 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food production. The IPCC has warned that without intervention, these are likely to increase by about 30 to 40 per cent by 2050.

IPCC data also shows that Asia - especially countries like India, China, and Indonesia - account for roughly 50 per cent of global emissions from croplands.

Despite this looming crisis, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year globally. That's about a third of the food produced for consumption.

The Fix

It is critical for the agri-food sector to rapidly transform by bolstering climate resiliency and sustainable food production, and in turn contribute to global efforts to achieve net-zero goals by 2050. Net zero refers to the state in which the total amount of man-made emissions equals the amount removed.

"Agriculture and the food system are key to global climate change responses," said the IPCC. It noted that a combination of supply-side actions (such as efficient food production and transport) and demand-side interventions (including the reduction of food loss and waste) will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance food system resilience.

There is hope. Major innovations are already taking place through agri-tech companies like Apeel Sciences. The US-based start-up develops edible coating products that can extend the shelf-life of fresh produce.

Using materials that exist in the peels, seeds and pulp of all fruits and vegetables, Apeel Sciences creates a natural protective layer that seals in moisture and keeps oxygen out. The result is produce that stays fresh twice as long, which means less food goes to waste throughout the food supply chain.

Another innovator is Israel-based Rivulis, a company providing water-saving technology solutions to farmers worldwide. In the face of rising uncertainty from climate change and increasing pressure on scarce water resources, Rivulis helps farmers achieve higher yields, quality, and profitability through smart micro and drip irrigation solutions.

Temasek, which invests globally in trend-aligned opportunities, is an investor in both Apeel Sciences and Rivulis.

Over the last decade, it has invested over US$8 billion (S$10 billion) in the global farm-to-fork value chain. Indeed, a proportion of Temasek's total investments has been in startups and highly innovative, technology-focused companies - especially those driving resilience and greater efficiency in supply chains.

The Future

Food production and supply chains aside, there is also the pressing need to transform the agri-food sector to advance sustainability and resilience across the global food system.

According to the 2021 edition of the Asia Food Challenge report, published jointly by PwC, Rabobank and Temasek, Asian consumers have shifted their priorities when it comes to food.

Instead of spending their growing disposable income solely on tastier foods, their behaviours are becoming more sophisticated, with a move towards value-seeking through healthier, sustainable, and convenient food options. Consumers are also becoming more aware of wastage.

The shifting preferences of Asian consumers will account for US$2.4 trillion (S$3.2 trillion) in incremental food spending over the next decade, says the Asia Food Challenge report. This leads to new opportunities for entrepreneurs, businesses and investors in the agri-food space.

Already, the report found that companies that focused on health-based products have achieved average valuation premiums of 12 per cent between 2015 and 2020, compared to non-adopters.

To ride the wave of shifting consumer patterns and demand in Asia, companies such as plant-based protein maker Impossible Foods, and Eat Just, which develops plant and cell-based alternatives to conventional animal proteins, have established a presence in Singapore to drive Asia-Pacific growth plans.

Temasek, which aims to deliver positive social and environmental impact alongside financial returns, invests in both firms.

Temasek and its partners also launched the inaugural Singapore International Agri-Food Week (SIAW) last month, to inspire a renewed focus on innovative solutions that can bolster food security and strengthen supply chains.

The SIAW is a series of events that gather global stakeholders from the agri-food industry to share best practices, showcase latest technologies, and pioneer innovative solutions for sustainable food production in Asia.

Said Mr Yeoh Keat Chuan, Temasek's Deputy Head, Enterprise Development Group: "Climate change, environmental degradation, and growing urbanisation all pose challenges to Asia's food and agricultural industry."

He added that Asia will need around US$1.55 trillion (S$2.12 trillion) of investment over the next decade to satisfy growing consumer demands for healthier and more sustainable food options.

"We need to evolve our current capabilities to bolster food security and strengthen supply chains. Beyond investment, the sector requires regulators, businesses, and the wider industry to work closely together to develop innovative solutions," Mr Yeoh said.

"Temasek's involvement in the SIAW is our way of playing a role in the transformation and bringing important stakeholders together to share perspectives."

The investment company is helping to address global challenges in the agri-food space by being a provider of catalytic capital - different forms of capital that can power up innovative solutions to today's problems.

It fosters growth across the entire food ecosystem by providing:

  • Financial capital to stimulate innovation and growth;

  • Human capital to uplift capabilities and enhance potential within the global food system;

  • Natural capital to find sustainable agri-food solutions; and

  • Social capital to inspire and transform lives.

Through its use of catalytic capital, Temasek aims to deliver positive social and environmental impact on top of financial returns, thereby helping global efforts to achieve net-zero goals by 2050.

All of these come together for a better planet, healthier people, and more sustainable prosperity.

A platform for start-ups to scale up

Temasek recently established the Asia Sustainable Foods Platform to help scale up the production of alternative proteins, and accelerate the commercialisation of sustainable foods in Asia.

The platform will provide bespoke solutions, as an enabler, operator and investor, to food-tech companies as they go through their life cycle from product development to commercialisation.

Food-tech start-ups moving to commercial scale manufacturing often face challenges as these facilities can be very capital-intensive, says Temasek. The platform is exploring two joint ventures with global industry experts in plant-based and microbial proteins to help solve these challenges.

Its partnership with CREMER, a German agri-food multinational company, will augment the platform's manufacturing capabilities for plant-based protein products. The partnership is anchored on high moisture extrusion (HME), a technology for producing texturised proteins that more closely resemble real meat.

The platform also has an agreement with agri-business firm ADM for a joint venture. It will enable contract development and manufacturing services for microbial proteins produced via precision fermentation.

This is the second of a four-part series brought to you by Temasek.

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.