From Plate to Planet: How Singapore can shape the future of food and help reverse climate change

Image Source: World Wildlife Fund

Peter Lewis is a food sustainability advocate and manages business development at Karana, a Singaporean plant-based food startup

Introduction

Earlier this week, scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a call for all hands on deck, emphasizing the need to dramatically improve the way our civilization operates in order to protect the life-support systems of Spaceship Earth. Renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and behavioral change were some of the main points highlighted in the report, although the costs of implementing these changes were conspicuously absent. The report emphasized that our window for action is quickly closing, but it also included hopeful tones, assuring us that there is still time to act. While the inaction or counterproductive activity of many nations has received widespread publicity, less reported have been the decisive and effective actions of some cities, investors, and businesses, which Al Gore praised at a US climate summit in September. As a small island city-state with a rich history of technological innovation, financial savvy, and far-sighted policy measures, Singapore embodies this climate action in its efforts to upgrade our food system. Food is the most fundamental form of energy in our lives, and the role this system plays in a climate-changed world is hard to overstate. In this article I explain why the basic principles of ecology necessitate a change to our animal-based food production system, and how culinary innovation can open pathways to large-scale carbon sequestration that could potentially reverse humanity’s impact on the climate. In the process of developing a system that nourishes us and the planet, Singapore can improve its food security, reduce healthcare costs, and be one of the first movers to disrupt a trillion-dollar meat industry, repeating the same agricultural innovation that propelled its economic growth during the booming rubber trade of the 20th century. The Garden City is uniquely poised to build on its existing momentum and lead other cities as a model of innovation, initiative, and possibility. I have included a bulleted section of policy recommendations at the end of the piece in the hope that those with the financial and political resources to accelerate this transition will renew their commitment to creating a healthier and ecologically sound food system that is aligned with our values.

Food and the Environment

Ask any environmentalist, and they’ll likely offer a host of explanations of what makes meat dirty, citing the ecological imperative to transform our food system. Earlier this summer a team of researchers at the University of Oxford, and Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope, published the most extensive study of agricultural production to date in Science, analyzing the environmental impact of nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries. Their five-year analysis included 40 types of food products, representing 90% of all human food consumption. In an interview with The Guardian, the lead author Joseph Poore stated that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use… It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car”. If you’re saying to yourself “I would never go vegan, I’m not one of those crazy people”, words that I’ve said myself—loudly and publicly—keep in mind that every effort does make a difference. A study published just yesterday in Nature found that even a so-called “flexitarian” diet, one that replaces a portion of meat with plants, could reduce agricultural emissions by more than half.

Emissions reductions is only the first step; often overlooked is the even more promising potential for carbon sequestration through reforestation. By allowing deforested and degraded agricultural land to return to native forests, carbon is gradually sequestered through the growth of plant, animal, and soil biomass. Poore et. al. found that a shift towards plant-based food production would require 76% less land, freeing 3.1 billion hectares, equivalent to the combined area of the US, China, Australia, and EU. In 2015, Rao et. al. assessed a similar scenario and found that recovering forests could sequester 265 gigatons of carbon on just 1.96 billion hectares of pastures and grassland, an area comparable to the combined size of the US and China. Astonishingly, this sequestration potential is more than the 240 gigatons of carbon that have accumulated in the atmosphere since 1750, suggesting the possibility of healing humanity’s impact on Earth’s climate. It is this potential for carbon sequestration that inspires Impossible Foods CEO and founder Pat Brown on his mission to evolve our food system. In describing his food research, he states that the potential for carbon sequestration “makes this the only thing that I could possibly be doing with my life right now.” Such a transition would also eliminate one of the leading drivers of deforestation, habitat loss, and species extinction, while regenerating habitat for biodiversity to thrive once again.

This simple trophic pyramid illustrates the natural balance of ecosystems and the loss of energy (kilo calories, or biomass) from one tropic level to the next (Image Source: Healing Earth)

To fully understand the resource intensity of meat production and the cause of its environmental impact, it is worth taking a moment to examine trophic efficiency, one of the fundamental principles of ecology. Trophic efficiency describes how only 10% of energy is transferred from any given level of the food chain to the one above it, with the other 90% of energy being used to power all of the biological processes that support the prey species throughout its life. One consequence of this principle is that it requires ten times more biomass and habitat area to support a carnivore than it does an herbivore. As the diagram above depicts, this is why ecosystems are balanced such that they support abundant vegetation and herbivore populations with few carnivores and even fewer apex predators. By processing nutrients through the bodies of animals, we effectively multiply our food-related ecological footprint by a factor of ten. The ecological devastation of animal agriculture is a natural result of this principle, because we need to deforest enormous tracts of land in order grow crops or pasture to feed the animals that we then consume, which explains why approximately a third of our planet’s landmass is consumed by animal agriculture.

Clearing land for grazing and feedstock cultivation is the primary driver of deforestation in the Amazon (Image Source: NASA)

This inefficiency also severely undermines the global food system’s ability to feed a growing world population, raising issues surrounding food security as well as food justice. Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, stresses that even the most efficient animal of meat production, chicken, requires nine calories of feedstock to produce one calorie of meat. For this reason, he argues in his TED talk that eating meat is comparable to wasting 9 servings of food for every one serving of meat consumed, a factor that far outstrips the food waste that occurs throughout the rest of the food supply chain. Requiring at least 9 additional calories of feedstock translates to similar increases in resource demand for freshwater, land, fossil fuels, herbicides, fertilizers, along with the resources needed to support the more complex processing infrastructure and supply chain associated with animal products.

As it stands, 1 billion people currently lack the food they need to live a healthy life, and providing food for everyone is a challenge which will only intensify as the global population swells to 10 billion by 2050. However, there is a pathway forward: by growing crops for direct human consumption we could feed an additional 4 billion people, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota. Distribution is indeed a critical component of world hunger, but Dr. Richard Oppenlander incisively addresses this point in his book “Comfortably Unaware”, highlighting that “82 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by well off individuals in developed countries like the US, UK, and Europe”. The food system of the future should instead utilize agricultural production in these countries to feed the hungry, rather than exporting it and cycling it through such an inefficient method of production to supply the appetite of wealthier markets. Animal agriculture is thus incompatible with our future food security, and contributes to a system that tastes bitterly of neocolonialism. It is very important that we develop a food system that is more mindful of inequality and the precious resources of our limited planet, as climate change will undermine freshwater supplies and agricultural production, creating the potential spark for conflict.

The Solution

Fortunately for all of us and the planet, in the 21st century we no longer need to rely on the crude and destructive technologies of animal exploitation in order to produce meat. Food scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers are currently pursuing two parallel strategies to steer humanity towards a future free from this waste and pollution: plant-based meat and clean meat. At the core of the plant-based approach is the insight that all of the nutrients found in animal products are derived from the plants that the animals consume. Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of plant-based meat company Beyond Meat, explains: “Meat is composed of amino acids, water, lipids, minerals and water. Animals use their digestive and muscular systems to convert vegetation and water into meat. We’re going straight to the plant, bypassing the animal, and building meat directly”. A recent study published by the University of Michigan found that the Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, 46 percent less energy, and produces 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional beef burger. A second champion of the plant-based approach is Pat Brown, who founded Impossible Foods during his sabbatical as a biochemistry professor at Stanford. Dr. Pat Brown applied his expertise to identify heme as the molecule that gives meat its culinary properties, and devised a way to produce it in abundance by modifying yeast. Heme is a molecule that occurs naturally in every animal and plant cell, and the Impossible Burger achieves efficiency improvements similar to those of the Beyond Burger.

Clean meat will offer consumers a safer and more affordable alternative to existing meat products (Image Source: Clean Meat)

Although not yet available to consumers, clean meat is a revolutionary technology that describes the process of growing solely the cells desired for consumption rather than an entire animal, and in a fraction of the time of conventional production. In his authoritative book and TED talk on the subject, Paul Shapiro emphasizes that the technology yields a product that is molecularly identical to animal meat, but without the health concerns or environmental impact that are concomitant with raising and slaughtering a whole animal. Researchers have already succeeded in producing clean meat burgers, meatballs, and steak chips, although production costs are currently too high for commercial applications. Despite these challenges, dedicated visionaries are working tirelessly to realize a future in which a tiny sample of cells could be harmlessly biopsied from an animal, and then placed in a medium of nutrients to commercially produce practically unlimited supplies of meat. By eliminating the need to grow an entire animal and all of the biological processes to support her throughout her life, this new method of production will be safer and vastly more economical, leading meat titans like Tyson and Cargill to invest in companies pioneering this technology. The biotech field is rich with examples of technologies that defied even the most optimistic timelines of cost reduction, and the progress of clean meat research has experts in this field predicting that it is not a matter of if, but when clean meat will replace conventional animal agriculture as a food production technology. For example, Bruce Friedrich predicts that clean meat will be commercially available within 3-5 years, and achieve cost parity with conventional meat in another 5. It is important to note, however, that even passionate clean meat innovators like Memphis Meats founder Dr. Uma Valeti, a vegetarian himself, admit plant-based production is a more efficient technology, and that clean meat is only intended to replace consumption among those unwilling to relinquish genuine animal-based meat.

Existing Investment, Research, and Innovation

Albert Einstein once advised us that “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity”, and above the deep and multifaceted crisis we find ourselves in today exists a correspondingly vast market opportunity. Alongside the potential to restore ecological balance, protect human health, and eliminate the unnecessary suffering of the animals trapped in our food system, a paradigm shift offers an opportunity to disrupt the trillion dollar global meat market. Far-sighted investors understand that the quantum leap in efficiency of plant-based and clean meat technologies is an opportunity to address some of the most urgent problems facing humanity while profiting handsomely from reduced production costs and shifting consumer demand. Along with tycoons like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings is leading this paradigm shift through its investment decisions. Temasek’s commitment to its ‘generational investing strategy’ is most evident in its generous support of Impossible Foods: it led the 2017 and 2018 funding rounds in the high-profile startup, with the firm’s total investment climbing to $189 million US. At a review presentation in 2017, Temasek’s head of strategy Michael Buchanan praised the Impossible Burger’s appeal to investors and eaters alike, claiming that “even as a very longstanding meat-lover, I can tell you they taste really good!” This deep investment is bolstered by the breadth of Temasek’s plant-based and clean meat portfolio, which includes investment in JUST (formerly known as Hampton Creek), Modern Meadow, and Perfect Day, companies that are all pursuing research in plant-based or clean meat technologies.

Heme gives the Impossible Burger all of the taste of animal meat, but without the environmental impact (Image Source: Impossible Foods)

Singapore is also bringing us closer to a more sustainable food system by applying the resources of its world-class research universities to advance the food technologies of the future. In June 2018, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Wilmar announced a new $110 million research facility to develop plant-based food and biochemical technology to meet the need for healthy and sustainable food. In an interview with the Straits Times, Wilmar CEO Kuok Khoon Hong stated that “from the elderly to millennials, people are demanding healthier and more nutritious food. To stay ahead of the curve, we embrace open innovation.” This new venture follows the footsteps of NUS researchers Mr. Ricky Lin and Dr. Leong Lai Peng, who developed a plant-based food product last year, which launched Mr. Lin’s startup Life3.

Complementing Temasek’s international investment and Singapore’s research is a nascent but thriving food innovation ecosystem. Singapore ranks as the most innovative country in Asia on the Business Innovation Index, and this is especially apparent in the food sector, where grants, technology sharing platforms, and startup incubators are empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs to create the food system of the future that is so clearly needed. I consider myself lucky to be working for one such startup, Karana, which aims to use underutilized, sustainable, and healthy crops such as young jackfruit to empower people to eat better. Karana founder and CEO Dan Riegler sees immense potential in basing a food startup here in Singapore, stating that “There is a growing focus on healthy and sustainable food in Singapore, and a strong, diverse food culture that can bring a fusion of innovation and tradition to markets here and overseas.” Food safety and quality have always been two of Singapore’s core strengths, and by combining these with the island’s vibrant melting pot of cuisines, Singapore is positioned to create some truly remarkable products in the years ahead.

The majority of plants have not yet been fully tapped for their culinary potential–young jackfruit is one example of a sustainable crop that closely resembles the texture of pork, chicken, and seafood (Image Source: Rachel Tang, Karana)

Policy Challenges and Recommendations: “Build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Buckminster Fuller, the renowned futurist and systems theorist who coined the term “Spaceship Earth”, is famously quoted for stating, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Bucky’s insight is a valuable guide for understanding how to envision and implement an ambitious system transition, and our food system is no exception. There are three interdependent pillars that define this problem, and I outline three corresponding policy directions that could bring Singapore closer to a new model of food: institutional change, collaborative partnerships in the food sector, and open-access research.

Policy Challenges:

  1. The existing food environment does not offer healthy and sustainable choices to consumers in an appealing, affordable, and convenient way: Singapore is already making an admirable effort to encourage consumers to make healthier choices through its “Eat, Shop, Dine Healthy Challenge”. However, unless the architecture of consumer choice is changed at public institutions and private food and beverage outlets, the impact of such programs will be limited. Studies of food choice in the field of behavioral science emphasize that three of the main criteria for consumer choice are taste, affordability, and convenience—to enact a significant change in consumer choices, the food environment must change so that healthy and sustainable options fit consumers’ decision-making criteria.
  2. Underdeveloped capacity among institutional food service providers and food and beverage outlets limits their ability to add healthy and sustainable options to their menus: Most institutional food service providers in schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, etc. have limited familiarity preparing and presenting appealing plant-based options to the communities they serve. Having worked with a large-scale food service provider as well as outlets in the private food sector, I can attest that plant-based recipe development, nutritional planning, meal preparation, and presentation are key areas of improvement for changing the food environment.
  3. Lack of open-access research hinders innovation and product development in the plant-based and clean meat sector: Along with private-public partnerships such as the WIL@NUS laboratory, open-access research is needed so all food innovators can contribute to a food system transition, unhindered by the restrictions of intellectual property.

Policy Recommendations:

  1. “Make the healthier choice the easy choice”: This motto of the World Health Organization is a helpful way to direct policy goals and expand the options offered at public institutions. Public schools and university campuses are an excellent starting point for pilot initiatives, as students in Singapore are already seeking ways to enact change on their campuses to meet the dietary needs of all students. By empowering students to create healthy lifestyle habits at a young age, Singapore could dramatically reduce its future healthcare costs, according to researchers at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.
  2. Developing partnerships across the food industry and adopting the best practices of the private sector are key for changing the food environment: Building partnerships between public institutions, restaurant chefs, food producers, and nonprofits such as Humane Society International will give institutions all the tools they need to craft healthy and sustainable menus that will appeal to all. Singapore is no stranger to drawing inspiration from the private sector, and companies including Google and a coalition of 10 leading companies are helping their employees add more plants to their plates to meet sustainability targets, reduce healthcare costs, and boost employee productivity and wellness.
  3. Open-access research in clean meat and plant-based food will support Singapore’s food innovation and bolster Singapore’s future food security: Bruce Friedrich identifies open-access and publicly funded research as a crucial component for accelerating our food transition. By developing these technologies and making them available to the national food innovation ecosystem, Singapore can position itself to take advantage of the rapidly growing demand for meat in the region. As a contributing author of Asia Research and Engagement’s recent report on animal agriculture in Asia, I highlighted that the region is projected to experience more growth in meat demand than anywhere else in the coming decades. This environmental, public health, and financial risk can be transformed into a tremendous market opportunity if Singapore develops cost-commensurate clean meat or plant-based products for Asian markets. Such an investment would also bolster Singapore’s food security, a crucial issue considering Singapore imports over 90% of its food and that climate change threatens the integrity of the global agricultural system.

Conclusion

In closing this piece, I will share a story echoing one more tenet of Buckminster Fuller’s perspective that illustrates the potential for the small city-state of Singapore to lead a change in the global food system. Bucky’s unique insight into how systems function emerged during his career as a naval architect at the height of World War II, when he was tasked with the crucial engineering challenge of literally steering a battleship. At that time, the latest generation of battleships had become so large that the engine’s power could no longer steer them using the conventional rudder system, and he applied his inventive mind towards devising a new mechanism which would become a metaphor for his life’s purpose. In the midst of this wartime pressure, “Bucky” discovered that by adding a hinged metal flap six inches wide to the end of a battleship’s main rudder, a small amount of force could move this trimtab to create a low-pressure zone that would then steer the main rudder. Through the calculated application of a gentle force, this small trimtab could alter the course of the largest ships the world had ever seen.

Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist who dedicated his life to serving humanity (Image Source: Huffington Post)

This dynamic of small efforts yielding titanic shifts, grounded in a tangible and physical system, convinced Bucky that our ability to affect the larger system of which we are a part of is not limited by our size. As we venture deeper into the uncharted waters of a climate-changed world, this understanding can inspire us—as individuals and cities—that we do have the power to create meaningful change. If Al Gore’s assessment is true that cities are now the leaders in taking environmental action, then Singapore will certainly be among those with the momentum, resources, and skill needed to pioneer a model for the future of food. And if executed well, Singapore’s policies, technology, and industry can serve as a model for others to follow, helping to steer Spaceship Earth towards a greener and brighter future.