This screenshot image taken from the official Facebook account of Eat Just shows food items produced by the company.
Singapore’s decision to allow the production and sale of laboratory-grown meat will help the land-scarce country to attain its goal of reducing food imports without sacrificing food security, analysts said.
The Singapore Food Agency approved on Dec 2 an application to manufacture and sell cell-cultured chicken by Eat Just. Based in the United States, the startup is known for developing plant-based egg substitutes. Following SFA’s regulatory approval, Eat Just will produce cultured meat by way of introducing stem cells gathered from the fat or muscle of an animal into a culture medium that feeds the cells, allowing them to grow and produce meat.
Paul Teng, adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the production of cultured meat is in line with the Singapore government’s “30 by 30” food security plan.
Under the 30 by 30 plan, Singapore aims to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs by 2030. With a land area that only spans over 700 square kilometers, Singapore has barely enough space for farming and needs to import roughly 90 percent of its food.
“For a country that currently imports 90 percent of its food, every little bit that contributes to (increasing) local production will (contribute to) food security,” Teng said.
Singapore, he said, is aiming to meet 10 percent of its 2030 needs through growing its own proteins, which includes cultured meat. Other protein sources, like eggs and plant-based protein, as well as the production of more fish, are also being targeted.
“Singapore is a city-state. We have little land for farming and (in order to attain) food security, we have to beef up local food production capabilities,” said William Chen, Michael Fam Chair Professor and director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology Program.
Chen, who is also a member of Novel Food Safety Expert Group – created by SFA and involved in the evaluation of Eat Just’s application – said manufacturing cultured meat is part of Singapore’s food diversification strategy, giving its population of over 5 million more choices to meet their protein needs.
He also noted that the pandemic has shown the need to reduce reliance on imported food. Chen said that with COVID-19 disrupting the supply chain, even countries that have the means to import goods cannot access them, with borders shut to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In April, Singapore imposed “circuit breaker” measures to stem a rise in its COVID-19 cases. These measures included closing borders and imposing travel restrictions. The delivery of food to Singapore was temporarily disrupted as Malaysia also enforced its own lockdown.
Promoting food security, Chen said, will mitigate the impact of climate change on Singapore, noting that global warming has brought erratic weather patterns and increased infestation that are cutting global food output and putting import-dependent countries at risk.
“We also need to maximize food utilization. When we import food, we also generate so much waste, it’s not sustainable,” Chen said.
On a broader scale, Singapore is not the sole beneficiary of technologies that produce cultured meat, Chen said. This can in fact encourage the development of technology-driven urban farming, proving that it can go beyond the traditional concepts of vertical farming and backyard gardening.
With more than 70 percent of the global population leaving rural areas to move to the cities, Chen said it is crucial to promote urban farming to boost domestic food production.
Indeed, analysts said that as the first country to approve the manufacturing of cell-cultured meat, Singapore can serve as a role model to other countries keen to boost food production using this technology.
“You’ll definitely see a snowball effect,” said Dean Jerry, director of research at the Singapore campus of the Australia-based James Cook University.
Manufacturing laboratory-grown meat, Jerry said, addresses several issues. Apart from its contribution to food security, other countries might also follow suit to meet the demand of vegans and other consumers who, for religious and ethical reasons, refuse to eat food that involves the killing of animals.
Jerry, however, does not see cultured meat evolving into a mainstream product. He expects it to cater more to a niche market that is willing to pay a premium for alternative meat options.
Bruce Friedrich, executive director of international non-profit Good Food Institute, said Singapore is leading the global transition to a “safe, secure, and sustainable” food supply.
“As nations race to divorce meat production from industrial animal agriculture, countries that delay their investment in this bright food future risk getting left behind. The rest of the world should be following Singapore’s lead by funding alternative protein research and working with companies to ensure a rigorous and thorough path to regulatory approval and oversight,” Friedrich said in a statement.
Teng of NTU said Singapore is renowned for its stringent food safety standards, and its approval of lab-grown chicken means that Singapore’s regulators consider it safe for human consumption, after examining all the evidence.
“This gives assurance to other countries and will lend support to the developer (company) when it applies for approval in other countries,” he said.