$1.1 trillion more needed in agri-food sector by 2030 for Asia to feed itself sustainably: Report

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaks at The Asia Food Challenge at the Fullerton Hotel on Nov 20, 2019. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - A massive US$800 billion (S$1.09 trillion) on top of existing investment levels will be needed for Asia to feed itself sustainably over the next 10 years, a study has found.

This comes as spending on food in the region is expected to double to US$8 trillion by 2030, with 250 million more mouths - equivalent to the size of Indonesia's population - to feed in the same time.

As Asia rapidly urbanises and becomes more affluent, governments, investors and firms will have to work together to create an environment that supports innovation in the agri-food sector, said the report by PwC, Temasek and Dutch multinational Rabobank.

Much of this innovation will need the use of new technology, such as vertical farming, developing alternative sources of protein, and even using artificial intelligence or drones to improve farming methods.

But challenges will need to be overcome. These include Asia's diversity - in terms of differences in regulation, wealth and culture - as well as the region's currently fragmented production and supply chains.

The report was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday (Nov 20) as part of the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week.

Mr Heng delivered a three-part speech that highlighted the growing demand for food, the need for technology, and how to translate innovation into solutions.

"Global demand for food is rising... but the growth of global food supply is not keeping up. In fact, it is slowing down," Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, told around 300 attendees at the Fullerton Hotel.

He pointed to how more than 800 million people live in hunger today, and the planet's growing population is set to increase by 2 billion people in 30 years.

On the other hand, crop yields may drop by 25 per cent over the same period and the world has lost a third of its arable land in the last 40 years due to unsustainable farming.

The report also highlighted how Asia has become increasingly dependent on other regions for food, with net imports of food tripling to around 220 million tonnes annually since the turn of the century.

Temasek managing director Anuj Maheshwari, a co-author of the report, said that there has long been an attitude that the West is better in the agri-food industry.

"Asia has its own unique challenges that can be best solved by those here who understand them. Governments and investors in the region need to take up the opportunities now, and if we don't, those from the United States and Europe certainly will."

Mr Richard Skinner, a partner at PwC Singapore and another co-author of the report, agreed.

Citing examples of crops like oil palm and rice, which are native to the region, he said, "The next stage is to further develop technology that will suit our crops and our needs."

Similarly, Mr Heng said that there are several ways technology can help address many challenges facing the agri-food sector.

Big data, sensors and biotech can help with crop yield and nutritional quality, cold chain technology can help keep food fresh, and tracking technology can provide assurance as to the origins of the food.

Highlighting Singapore as an example, Mr Heng said that land and resource constraints have created many opportunities for technology and innovation.

This includes growing new foods in unconventional places, at higher intensities and using less resources.

"Taken together, these efforts will take us a step closer to realising our '30 by 30' goal - to produce 30 per cent of our nutritional needs locally by 2030."

Singapore was one of eight Asian agri-food innovation hubs highlighted by the report for their good regulatory environment, technical expertise, talent and a strong pool of investors. The other cities were Mumbai, Bangalore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Mr Skinner told The Straits Times that Singapore "perfectly describes" what it means to be an innovation hub for agri-food.

"There is a fantastic academic base that is already putting its mind to the sector, strong government support, lots of research and development, and attractiveness to investors," said Mr Skinner, who leads PwC's strategy team for the Asia-Pacific.

Singapore can become an agri-food node for Asia and the world, affirmed Mr Heng.

"For this menu to translate into dinner on the table, we will need to work together - from farmers and industry players, to researchers, venture capitalists and governments."

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