NUS Enterprise and BoP Hub to incubate budding startups that can generate positive impacts to environmental and food sustainability.
The United Nation’s Population Division estimates that the world’s population is expected to reach 10.9 billion (currently 7.8 billion) by the end of the 21st century, 50 per cent of which will reside in Asia. To sufficiently feed the expanding population, it is estimated that food production will have to increase by 70 per cent by 2050. The need for a better food system to cater to the increasing demand without causing a collapse in the ecosystem has never been more imperative.
All stages of the global food supply chain, from agricultural production through processing, distribution and retailing to food preparation and waste, are interlinked to socio-political and environmental influences, particularly climate change and biodiversity loss and the unbalanced distribution of wealth and opportunities.
Making a case for the future of food
Shen Ming Lee, Chief Marketing Officer of CRUST Group and author of Hungry for Disruption: How Tech Innovations Will Nourish 10 Billion By 2050, shed light on the inevitable issues facing our food system and the need for change at the Joint Initiative of Social System Innovation (JISSI) virtual event on 16 April 2021. The event was organised to kick off NUS Enterprise and BoP Hub’s new Launchpad for Innovation in Food and Environmental Sustainability (LIFES) programme.
“Inevitable issues facing our food system include increasing urbanisation, droughts, climate change and falling farmer incomes. Food is at the root of so many pressing global issues, such as diet-related diseases and the loss of arable land. It is at the nexus of almost all our world’s most pressing issues: hunger, poverty, global health, education, unemployment, inequality and global warming,” says Lee.
“A large part of the hunger problem isn’t just calorific hunger. It is nutrient hunger. Approximately two billion people worldwide don’t get enough essential nutrients in their diets, increasing the risk of diet-related diseases and deaths,” Lee adds.
Shen Ming Lee, Chief Marketing Officer of CRUST Group and author of Hungry for Disruption: How Tech Innovations Will Nourish 10 Billion By 2050.
Food and agriculture can be linked to all 17 of the UN’s sustainable development goals. Considering the wide-ranging impacts of our global food system, Lee says consumers need to educate themselves and do their part to make informed purchase decisions.
In the race to feed a growing population in an increasingly challenging climate, Lee says food production in the 21st century must adopt more efficient and productive methods amidst scarcity of resources and adapt to climate change while reducing its impact on climate change.
In the webinar, Lee also highlighted key innovation areas seen across the food-agriculture chain and discussed ways and opportunities that could improve efficiency and transparency:
Digital farming: The age of smart agriculture
Various hardware, software and platforms can provide farmers access to information that helps optimise farm productivity and automate menial tasks. Depending on the region, labour tends to be cheaper and more abundant in Asia than in other parts of the world.
While options to adopt the Internet of Things, drones, robotics, mobile advisory apps, and chat-based technologies are available, Lee says they may not be so prevalent for smallholder farms.
Some of the key opportunity questions are then put out for the audience to contemplate: how do we leverage big data and AI to connect the farmer to the farm? How do we adapt those solutions to the smallholder farms? How do we shift from big data to smart data that arms the farmer with crucial information and insights that help operate their farm more productively.
Indoor farms: The advent of urban agriculture
With indoor farm technology, agriculture is no longer limited and dependent on geography and climate. Lee observes that this can address many food production and food security issues, such as climate change, soil degradation and agrochemical pollution.
“The arrival of urban agriculture will also mean that vertical farms will increasingly become part of our city landscapes as seen in Singapore. We’ll be able to deliver fresh food to consumers with less waste, less greenhouse gas emissions, and provide better nutrition in crops.”
Some of the key opportunity questions in this area of innovation include: how can we find ways to optimise and mitigate the overwhelming capital and energy costs associated with vertical farms? And how can we ensure such systems are not only reserved for the urban elites?
GMOs and CRISPR: Re-engineering crops
A topic Lee covered in her Amazon-best-selling book, Lee believes that with the right implementation and regulatory oversight, gene-editing tools can help create highly resilient and nutritionally enhanced crops to mitigate the impending effects of severe climate change in the region.
With such modern gene-editing techniques available, Lee asks the audience to think about how we can use them to enhance agriculture production safely and transparently so that it doesn’t compromise trust among consumers and governments.
Novel food products: Re-engineering food
Many companies and startups are using food science and biotechnology to create innovative food products and ingredients that better cater to consumers’ appetites for healthier and sustainable food products.
Opportunities to explore in this area of innovation include creating products that leverage underutilised crops and highly functional ingredients that are still unexplored and using biotechnology and food science to make more nutrient-dense and healthy products.
Other areas of innovation Lee elaborated on include:
- Alternative protein, such as plant-based, cell-based and fermentation-based sources of protein.
- Food waste technology and solutions to help reduce and better manage food waste and loss.
- Agribusiness marketplaces connect buyers and sellers of agriculture inputs and outputs to facilitate smoother transactions and cut out the middleman in the agriculture supply chain and reduce the inefficiency involved in these systems by shortening the food supply chain and making food more traceable.
“We as a human race are facing unprecedented challenges in food production, and Covid-19 has only magnified them. While we live in a world of significant challenges, we also live in one where the pace of scientific and technological advances are unparalleled, and the opportunities are endless. However, to spearhead this change, we need to involve everyone, from farmers, distributors and restauranteurs to scientists, investors and consumers. The future of food, most of all, requires collaboration and understanding,” Lee concluded.
JISSI is an initiative launched by NUS Enterprise in partnership with Base of Pyramid Hub (BoP Hub), a Singapore-based business accelerator platform with a mission to create an efficient marketplace for communities at the base of the pyramid by supporting entrepreneurship and connecting partners.
The collaboration between NUS Enterprise and BoP Hub provides:
- Mentorship, incubation support and resources to scale and grow social projects and startups initiated or formed by members of the NUS community.
- Multidisciplinary programmes to help those from the NUS community take their first steps towards creating impact-driven enterprises.
- Support for corporates with social impact objectives and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals.
The LIFES programme seeks to encourage and unlock the entrepreneurial spirit among Singaporeans and drive the potential to lead the change towards new and sustainable business models.
Tony Tan, Executive Director of BoP Hub says this will be done by running several programmes in the next few months. Four areas of focus include production, waste, security and culture.
Tony encourages budding entrepreneurs to send in their proposals to be considered by June. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to a Demo Day to pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists, impact investors, and other key stakeholders to win prizes, funding and grants.
Click to watch the entire ‘Hungry for Disruption: Opportunities for a Better Food Future’ webinar to find out more.