Food security is more than just counting calories

In achieving food self-sufficiency, Singapore must not neglect the aspect of nutrition.

By Dr Andrew Wan, Principal Research Scientist at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) and the Singapore Institute of Food Biotechnology and Innovation (SIFBI)

The twin challenges that land-scarce Singapore grapples with are food security and sustainability. Over 90 percent of the country’s food is currently imported to feed its population of about 6 million, making it sensitive to any volatilities in the global agricultural scene.

While ensuring continuity of food supply is vital, Singapore must make a conscious effort to keep the nutritional aspect in mind, an essential part of food security that has not been thoroughly addressed as yet.

The nutrient content of food is seldom, if not at all, given consideration in national targets for food self-sufficiency and security.

Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal — to produce 30per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030 — aims to increase Singapore’s food supply from less than 10per cent today. R&D and new technologies can strengthen food security, and our food system is evolving with novel foods being introduced.

Overfed and Undernourished

However, intensive industrial agriculture also known as the Green Revolution – technologies that in 1950-60 increased agricultural production worldwide – has created a food system that does not nourish people equitably. This was noted by the journalist and professor Amanda Little in her award-winning book, The Fate of Food.

In this food system, “populations are severely overfed, others severely undernourished, and still others at the same time overfed and undernourished.”

Dr Little says that the last category is the fastest growing, with nearly half of all the countries worldwide experiencing serious levels of both undernutrition and obesity. In the developed world, it has become more likely that a person is overfed. Alarmingly, the increases in food yield and consumption have not led to an increase, but instead, a decline in nutrition. When it comes to food, more does not necessarily mean better. This is an important point to note for any nation, including Singapore, in its efforts to achieve food security.

The nutritional aspect of food security is also highlighted in Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) definition: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

For a developed nation like Singapore, which has achieved most of the conditions for food security as defined, it may seem that the strategy towards achieving self-sufficiency is a straightforward one, which is to produce more of the same. Hence, it makes perfect sense that food security targets can be expressed in terms of the shortfall of particular food items.

For example, Singapore’s 30 by 301 goal includes targets for classes of food items such as vegetables, fish and eggs. The strategy is based on the idea that if the country can produce more of the same items, but in larger quantities, it can be rest assured that it will meet its self-sufficiency, as well as nutritional goals within the allocated time frame.

Sustainability Considerations

However, other considerations such as sustainability have introduced a degree of complication. A good example is the need to lower the consumption of meat to combat climate change. Thus, there are now plant-based alternatives to meat from livestock. The availability of protein alternatives on our supermarket shelves in the form of plant-based patties, sausages and mince by companies like Eat Just, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods may not be a bad thing for food security, as these products supplement the traditional food sources. These products may help us meet the shortfall in achieving Singapore’s “30 by 30” target, and mitigate climate change.

Determining Nutritional Targets

But herein lies the crux of the present discussion: Where does the nutritional aspect come in, and how can these alternative proteins be figured into our calculations for food security targets?

To tackle this problem, my colleagues and I realised that a systematic approach was required to link food security and nutrition. In a recently published paper in Trends in Food Science and Technology, we suggested a possible method. Zooming in on proteins, we decided to plot the mass of protein consumed annually for 10 major food items in Singapore versus the protein quality scores for each of these items. We further divided protein quality into four classes (low, medium, high, and very high) and calculated how much protein was consumed for each quality class. The plot helped us to make some observations.

Protein content and top 10 annually consumed protein containing food in singapore

For example, Singapore’s “30 by 30” target includes a goal to increase the local production of fish and eggs, which are in the “very high” protein quality class, by about 6per cent. To help supplement the shortfall in these items, plant-based protein of the same protein quality class could be produced for consumption. However, the plot tells us that a common protein source for many plant-based substitutes, soybean, falls short in terms of protein quality (being in the “high” quality class). The same is generally true for protein from other plant sources, when compared to protein that comes from meat.

But all is not lost as there are ways to produce plant-based meat that has the protein quality equivalent to that of fish and eggs. For example, the blending of soybean protein with proteins from other sources, such as mushrooms, can compensate for the nutrients lacking in soybean. In this way, the final product's overall protein quality may be increased.

Even as Singapore strives to reduce its dependence on food imports, it must make a conscious effort to keep the nutritional aspect in mind and frame nutritional security in quantitative terms, as nutrition remains key to a healthy, productive, and prosperous nation.

Alternatively, there are start-ups with plans to produce alternative proteins from cultured animal cells, known as cultured or cell-based meat. Singapore has made a name for itself in this area, having established the regulatory framework to approve the world’s first cultured meat product by the US-based Just Eat. While the protein quality of such cell-based products has not been reported yet, it is reasonable to assume that they will be nutritionally more similar to meat from fish or livestock than the plant-based ones.

There is an urgent need to measure the ability of alternative proteins to replace or supplement traditional sources in terms of both quality and quantity.

The Economic Factor

Besides plant-based meat, cultured meat may be a second alternative to supplement the local production of conventional meat, to achieve Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal while addressing the nutritional aspect. But whether these turn out to be viable alternatives depends on another crucial factor – the economic one.

Processes must be developed to produce these alternative proteins at sufficiently large volumes, to ensure that the final product’s cost is affordable to the masses. Low content of these proteins in the product, or their limited availability at only high-end restaurants would go nowhere towards helping to meet food security.

In summary, even as Singapore strives to reduce its dependence on food imports, it must make a conscious effort to keep the nutritional aspect in mind and frame nutritional security in quantitative terms, as nutrition remains key to a healthy, productive, and prosperous nation.

About the Author

Dr Andrew Wan and his team have published their innovative work in 3D-cell culture and tissue engineering in top tier journals such as Nature Communications and Nature Nanotechnology. He has been invited to speak at various international meetings, such as the International Symposium on Cultured Meat and International Society of Materials for Regenerative Medicine (ISOMRM) meetings.

In 2004, Dr Wan joined the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology as Senior Research Scientist, and became Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist in 2006. He held an adjunct position at the Department of Chemistry, NUS, from 2006 to 2011 and served on the Editorial board of the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine from 2009-2016. He has served as a regular panel interviewer for the A*STAR Graduate Academy scholarships since 2008 and was selected by MOE, Singapore, to join its delegation to ISEF 2016 as Grand Award Judge. His current research efforts are focussed on engineering plant-based and cultured meat.

1 P. Teng, J. Ma, L.P. Montesclaros. Singapore's ’30 by 30’ strategy: Can food self-production be achieved? RSIS commentary (2019), p. CO19054