Enabling a successful AgriFood Innovation Park in Singapore: What should it focus on?

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BY PAUL TENG, ANDREW POWELL AND ROB HULME

Background
The success in growing an agrifood sector is considerably improved when supported by one or more agrifood innovation parks (AFIPs) judging from experience in countries such as Taiwan and The Netherlands.

Singapore has announced that it intends to develop a new 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park
in Sungei Kadut, which will be ready in phases from the second quarter of 2021. Announcing this on 4 March 2019, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said the park, which is the size of about 33 football fields, will bring together high-tech farming and research and development activities, including indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities.

“We are working with local and overseas industry players to develop this first phase of the park, which will be ready from the second quarter of 2021 with potential for future expansion,” said Dr Koh, who spoke on the need to strengthen infrastructure support to encourage innovation in the sector. Dr Koh said the vision is for Singapore to be a leader in urban agriculture and aquaculture technology, with a food production model that can be exported to the region. More likely, any new urban food production model developed by Singapore can contribute to increasing efficiency and productivity rather than replacing existing systems.

Close to home, the Ping Tung Agricultural Biotechnology Park in southern Taiwan exemplifies the type of park in which a mix of R&D, educational and incubation entities, together with agrifood enterprises, have helped put teeth behind Taiwan’s policy of promoting exports. These demonstrate the importance of combining intensive production with investment in research and development, integrated processing and packaging, supply
chain and logistics, waste management and capability development.

Establishment of an AFIP in Singapore can make contributions
• To support continued development of the agrifood industry in Singapore;
• To create new export opportunities;
• To accelerate disruption, innovation and entrepreneurship in new areas of future food systems; and
• To “connect the dots” among the many agrifood players stretching across entire supply chain areas such as research, technology development, production, processing, marketing, etc. all of which will likely contribute to improved food security for Singapore.

What enterprises should the AFIP aim to support?
Singapore to date has had limited experience with the conventional types of agriculture being practiced by the majority of food producing countries in Asia, given the limitations of land and growing systems here. It’s experience and expertise in urban farming (i.e. vertical, indoor, community and rooftop systems) are growing quickly, and Singapore is regarded as one of the world leaders in the related competence around water (recycling and filtration). In the area of high tech agriculture and food processing, Singapore has accelerated development in recent years, most notably with recent announcements encouraging investment (e.g. Seeds Capital and the “30×30” strategy) Singapore’s foremost experience has been in the growing of three key food items targeted previously to make up 10% of its self-production, i.e. leafy vegetables, eggs and fish. More recently, several enterprises have shown good progress in technology enabled farming, such as in the indoor farms for vegetables, large scale commercial fish farms and technology-enabled egg farms.

It is also making progress in research and development of farming systems using digital and biological technology. What other enterprises can Singapore venture into which leverage on its comparative advantage of available financing, stable environments and available human resources? One is the relatively new product categories of plant-based meat alternatives, cell-based meats and hybrid proteins, often termed “clean” or “cellular” meat. This innovative development in protein production is predominantly driven by concerns around the sustainability of current meat production systems, both in terms of animal ethics and environmental impact. Aside from development of the technology and scaling of production systems, however, key for success will include the extent that these products can be readily mainstreamed into the food supply chain and be accepted by consumers.

Some other noteworthy areas for investment in the AFIP that would add to its leadership role could be
• Internet-of-Things (IOT) systems for new food systems that incorporate latest sensing and predictive algorithms to optimise production efficiency;
• R&D to develop new technologies for animal, fish and plant breeds using modern genomics;
• Diagnostics, detection and disease prevention systems in animals, fish and crops;
• Protection of food identity to assure integrity of the food delivery system;
• Novel (sustainable) food packaging material and systems;
• Novel grow-out systems for intensive urban animal, fish and vegetable farming (Landbased Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), feed/fertilisation; waste disposal; space efficient systems, etc.);
• Shared facilities for collaborative research initiatives; and
• Waste valorisation / repurposing produce waste under aseptic conditions.

Singapore’s leverage points are its relatively stable work environment supported by its geographic position in SE Asia, good infrastructure, presence of world class research centres, governance and access to capital markets.

What could an AFIP focus on stimulating or improving?

Experience from other countries has shown that agri-technology parks can help if there are other supportive activities, such as
• Articulation at highest levels of government, of support to develop an Agrifood sector,
backed up by significant funding into targeted areas to create impact (e.g. Accelerators,
R&D, Investment);
• Encouraging private financing of agtech and development of new FINTECH systems;
• Assistance to develop and penetrate markets overseas based on products not just from the AFIP but the rest of the country;
• Close alliances amongst all relevant agrifood ecosystem stakeholders including producers,
corporates (e.g. Bayer, Nestle), Peak Bodies (e.g. Food Industry Asia, CropLife Asia), NGO’s
(e.g. GrowAsia), Startups, Accelerators, Investors and Government agencies
• Longer term human resource development in appropriate knowhow and knowledge areas
through HEIs and TVET institutes;
• Supply Chain Infrastructure (i.e. cold train, transport and logistics) and traceability systems;
• Clear and consistent branding for “Singapore Fresh” that identifies locally produced food that consumers can support;
• Seeding “centres of excellence” in selected areas;
• Promoting a culture of I&E using an ecosystems approach; and
• Strong international linkages/ collaboration with other research and academic centres.

While the current focus of indoor growing systems is predominantly on leafy green vegetables, the majority of these varieties are adapted with variable success from field varieties. Cost-effective advanced breeding technologies (e.g. gene editing such as CRISPRCAS 9) will enable the faster development of fit-for-purpose varieties that have specific (heavy fruiting, dwarf and short growing cycle) traits more suited to indoor growing systems.

The return on capital for infrastructure development of indoor farming systems can be improved significantly through targeting of high value crops grown under aseptic conditions, including functional microgreens, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and others such as truffle, mushrooms, vanilla bean and saffron.

Separately, advances in lighting and energy use, automation and sensor systems will continue to drive down the cost of operations. Aquaculture is another area of opportunity. The AFIP could encourage development of land-based RAS production systems based on advanced water filtration, sustainable feeding systems and adapted species most suited to this development. Singapore could produce fish certified and traced throughout its production and grow these in external farms under a “Singapore Certified” label which addresses the consumer’s desire for food safety assurance. Furthermore, mid-stream technologies which could support certification could be developed within the AFIP.

Accelerating impact with the AFIP

For the AFIP to be successful requires it to have focus and relevance to Singapore’s agrifood industry, and additionally, be able to capitalise on the food and farming needs of the region. This can best be achieved by forming a not-for-profit business entity that can serve to coordinate, catalyse and guide efforts to achieve synergies across the agrifood sector. In the Netherlands Food Valley, this role is played by the Food Valley Organisation (FVO). We are proposing that there is a need to form an AFIP Organisation. Built from public and private sector support, this independently operating entity could “connect the dots” among the many agrifood sector players and accelerate progress in delivering tangible outcomes. The Ping Tung Agricultural Biotechnology Park has an apex entity providing this kind of impetus.

The current agrifood tech ecosystem in Singapore is being incubated by a limited number of organisations who host ag and food related start-ups and corporates, run meetups and facilitate interchange of technologies and capabilities, e.g. Commonwealth Capital’s “The Common Good” in Jurong.

Singapore is also having an increasing number of key industry-related conferences such as Rethink Agrifood Innovation Week, Indoor Agcon Asia, and Techinnovation. Regular networking platforms such as Hypha (www.hypha.asia), Biobeers and Sustainable Food Systems (WhatsApp Group) all play an important role in connecting ag and food industry stakeholders. Building networks with established overseas players in the agrifood space would be one important function of the proposed AFIP Organisation.

As the sector continues to develop it would also make sense to develop a conveniently located, fit-for-purpose agrifood tech facility that can host multiple stakeholders, from startups to investors, researchers, corporates and the range of accelerators currently entering Singapore. The role of this physical facility should not be underestimated in terms of its capability to drive connections, build collaboration platforms and drive output value for Singapore and the region.

For long-term sustainability, the AFIP would have to help in building human resource capacity and capability, and a vibrant culture of innovation and entrepreneurship directed to raising Singapore’s exports of food technology and products .

In the short-term local expertise can be augmented by resources from overseas but it is expected that domestic HR demands will increase, especially in plant agriculture and aquaculture. It is envisaged that specific courses focused on relevant key industry needs (e.g. indoor farming and aquaculture systems, cellular meat) could be developed in conjunction with global education partners.

Opportunities for technology applications in agriculture could be highlighted in current engineering, electronics and computer science programs, consequently stimulating the convergence of technologies to impact agriculture.

Future Forward
One outcome of a successful AFIP would be its role in the contribution of Singapore’s farms to the “30 by 30” target recently articulated, to produce 30% of Singapore’s food needs by 2030. Another is the contribution of its outputs (innovative technologies, etc.) to Singapore’s position as an agrifood innovator, i.e. by increasing the value of food exports and/or agrifood technology exports.

What might the future export sector look like? One of the aims of the AFIP is to enhance export earnings. Certainly, new technology that adds value can drive this but rather than look at just finished food products, the AFIP could actively assist in the development of proprietary technology that would in itself be a valuable product with applications globally. In this way Singapore could position itself as a key agrifood technology hub in Asia, linked to other key hubs (e.g. Melbourne, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Hyderabad) Untapped markets exist on our door step in the approximately 350 million small holder farmers in Asia, 100 million in ASEAN. It is noteworthy that the progressive move from subsistence to commercial farming that is developing globally, and especially regionally, represents a market of huge potential for products and services. Opportunities exist in development of agtech (ICT, data analytics, finance, genomics etc.), fintech, waste management, sustainable packaging and in provision of services via mobile platforms.

Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow (Food Security) in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, advises agriculture and food entities worldwide, and mentors budding agrifood-entrepreneurs.
Andrew Powell is CEO of Singapore company Asia BioBusiness Pte. Ltd. founded in 2005.
The company consults to the private and public sectors in agrifood. He sits on the Advisory
Committee for Research and innovation of the Alberta Government (ARIAC).
Rob Hulme is Head of Asia for Beanstalk Agtech, a challenge-led innovation company aimed at helping agribusiness clients across Asia Pacific implement and scale technology into their operations. He sits on several advisory boards and is passionate about helping reinvent the food system.