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Singapore marina bay
Image credit: Elaine Watson

Letter from Singapore: Connecting the dots between climate change and food security

November 27, 2023

It’s been a busy few months of travel for me over here, made a bit less busy with a bout of Covid ruining my plans to finally meet the KMZero crew in Valencia (the new strains are pretty brutal so stay safe out there friends)!

My last trip was to Singapore, where AgFunder hosted various events with our global impact accelerator GROW and Asia investment teams during the Singapore International Agri-Food Week.

Key takeaways? We all know activity overall is muted, be that in investment levels, as our new Asia-Pacific AgriFoodTech Investment report revealed, or in the attendance numbers at the main events in Singapore, which were certainly down on last year. But something that was somewhat surprising to me, perhaps naively, was the lack of a plan from and for the region’s government with regards to reducing emissions from its agricultural supply chains.

The Asia Food Challenge

I attended a media briefing for a new report from Rabobank, PwC, Temasek and Terrascope entitled The Asia Food Challenge: Decarbonizing the Agri-Food Value Chain in Asia, which revealed that greenhouse gas emissions from the agrifood industry account for up to 50% of all emissions in Southeast Asia and 45% in South Asia, before energy and other industrial uses. That compares with the general estimate of one-third of emissions globally, and the vast majority of these emissions are taking place on farms.

The report offered a range of different solutions to bring down those emissions in line with 2050 net zero targets. It estimated that to get the region on course for those targets across industries by 2030, it would be three times cheaper to do so by targeting agrifood emissions than energy; said another way, the energy industry in Asia would need three times the investment to reduce emissions by 840 Mt by 2030 than reducing emissions by the same amount from agrifood.

And the report goes on to say who the key stakeholders are and what they can do to help achieve this.

But as my astute friend and Green Queen editor-in-chief Sonalie Figueiras commented at the session, the ask of government was merely to “develop a roadmap to coordinate action on decarbonization in agrifood,” such as regulating carbon markets, which in her words, is “to be frank, a bit vague.”

‘Everybody is going after energy’

Revealingly, Anuj Maheshwari, managing director of [Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund] Temasek and head of agrifood responded to Sonalie: “We are behind on this journey; let’s first call a spade a spade. No government is saying agrifood is a big area, let’s try focusing on that,” he said, adding that furthermore, local governments are even removing methane emissions – of which around half comes from the region’s agriculture industry, especially rice production – from their targets. 

“Everybody is going after energy,” he added. “And that’s great; we’ve got to remove coal plants and we got to have transitions and all of that… But there is another bandwagon which we are just not getting on to and that is the agriculture and food bandwagon. So that’s why we keep it vague because there is no point saying let’s do ABCDE if you don’t realize that… and unless countries start taking food waste, how we grow our food and those five areas we identified [in the report seriously], it will not happen.”

Connecting the dots

Given the level of support Singapore’s government has given to this industry – from approving the world’s first cultivated meat product to the various grant programs available to agrifood startups and investors like us at AgFunder to Temasek’s underwriting of the Rethink Asia-Pacific AgriFood Innovation Summit – I was surprised to hear Anuj saying this. (Although I really appreciated Anuj’s candour, which is sadly quite rare at his level.)

And while food security is the bigger concern for a government like Singapore, which imports most of its food, and most likely for others in the region where subsistence farming dominates the industry, it’s shortsighted not to connect the two; climate change is and will negatively impact food security in this region. And many of the innovations the report outlined are climate-adaptive too.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: as I’ve been saying a lot this year, this is still a niche industry, dwarfed by fintech, EVs, NFTs…… Innovation shouldn’t need to wait for government support, but that government focus is still so far off the mark means agrifood activists, entrepreneurs and investors clearly still do not have a big enough collective voice.

Next up, I’m on to Dubai for COP28 and the new World AgriTech Innovation Summit for The Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Check out my article about this event here and I hope to see you there!

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