Can a country with no livestock become a meat producer? Singapore is going to try

May 30, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC

They are, without question, the fanciest chicken nuggets I have ever eaten. There are two plates on my kitchen table. On one the nuggets are diced, mixed with finely shredded carrot, cabbage and mushroom, and encased in a velvety dumpling drizzled with chili oil. On the other, they are cut into crispy cubes over a salad of kale and orange topped with edible blue flowers. But what makes them fancy isn’t so much the presentational flourishes as the chicken itself. It didn’t come from an animal. It was grown in a vat in Singapore.

The nuggets—a little spongier than regular chicken but crispy and delicious, just like the real thing—are produced by Eat Just. The American company that also makes plant-based “egg” has a facility in Singapore to manufacture cultured meat, which involves propagating cells in a factory rather than slaughtering animals. Eat Just is the first company in the world to have a cultured meat product approved for sale. Certified by the Singapore Food Agency last December, the chicken is now available to Singaporeans via delivery from Madame Fan, a Chinese restaurant at the Marriott hotel. 

Earlier this month, Eat Just raised $170 million in new funding, much of which it is plowing into a larger factory in Singapore to produce meat for the Asian market. It is not alone: over the last couple of years, around 20 companies developing lab-grown meat and plant-based protein have set themselves up in Singapore, which is fast becoming Asia’s most important food-technology hub. In time, this tiny island with no livestock and hardly any agricultural land may become a meat producer.

For Singapore’s food industry, necessity is the mother of invention. The country currently imports more than 90% of its food, a reliance on foreign farming that has long concerned the government. The pandemic’s disruption of global supply chains has only intensified the worry. Although supermarket shelves have remained well-stocked throughout the COVID-19 crisis—Singapore sources food from more than 160 countries—the government is trying to increase self-sufficiency: it wants 30% of Singapore’s nutrition to come from domestic sources by 2030.

To that end, it has poured $250 million into the food-technology industry in the last two years, and is providing incentives and tax breaks for enterprises that take it. Private investment is flooding in too. Big Idea Ventures, a venture capital firm, set up Singapore’s first alternative-protein fund two years ago, and sometimes partners with Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign-wealth fund, on financing. Other VCs have followed. 

Just as importantly, Singapore is the first country in the world to develop a regulatory framework to bring cultured meat to market. The Future Ready Food Safety Hub, a collaboration between Nanyang Technical University and various government agencies, opened last month. It is designed to help companies navigate the approval process and speed their products onto restaurant menus. 

“Singapore provides a path to commercialization,” says Carrie Chan, founder and CEO of Avant Meats, a company developing cultured fish in the city. “It is the only place in the world where that’s possible.” 

Even with these commitments, there are two major obstacles standing in the way of Singapore’s dreams of ‘meat’ self-sufficiency. 

The first is cost. 

Take Shiok Meats’ ‘shrimp’ for example. The 3-year-old startup can already make a kind of shrimp paste for use in dim sum and gyoza and is working on producing something that actually resembles a prawn. The trouble is that it costs the company about $5,000 to produce one kilogram of the paste—far from commercially viable. Other companies are targeting high-end foods to increase their chances of a return. Avant is working on culturing fish maw, otherwise known as swim bladder. A delicacy in Chinese cuisine, fish maw taken from an actual fish can sell for tens of thousands of dollars a kilo, depending on the species. “We like it because it has a high price point,” says Chan, Avant’s CEO. 

Most lab-grown cells are nourished with a substance called fetal bovine serum (FBS). This nutrient-rich liquid is extracted from aborted calves. Used widely in the biotech industry, its production is highly regulated all over the world, its supply is limited, and its cost is astronomical: 500 milliliters typically runs around $500. Andrew Ive, CEO of Big Idea Ventures, reckons that to produce cultured meat on a commercial scale, the industry needs an alternative that is about 50 times cheaper. What’s more, an industry premised on making meat without having to kill animals needs an option that doesn’t derive from the slaughterhouse. Other synthetic options exist, but none has yet been certified for commercial use in the food industry.

That’s a big problem, because to disrupt Singapore’s existing supply chain, the food the city-state produces needs to be affordable for ordinary consumers. The chicken nugget dishes I ate sell for $23 each—high-end restaurant prices. The company won’t say how much it costs to produce them, but an Eat Just spokesperson admits that they “aren’t making money on this endeavour at the moment.” Selling them is a way to build their brand and educate consumers about this new technology—which is why, when my chicken nuggets were delivered, they arrived with a VR headset that allowed me to watch a 3D film about how the poultry industry is destroying the planet. 

Paul Teng, a professor at Nanyang Technical University who advises companies and the government on growing food, is skeptical about cultured meat. “The costs are coming down,” he says, “but whether they can come down enough to be competitive is anybody’s guess.”

The second big question for Singapore is whether more domestic production will actually reduce its reliance on foreign supply. Substances like FBS have to be imported, as do the ingredients needed for Singapore’s other booming market, plant-based protein.

Singapore’s new Protein Innovation Centre—a joint venture between Givaudan, a Swiss flavor company, and Buhler, another Swiss company that makes food-processing machinery—opened last month. Housed in Givaudan’s flavor factory in Singapore, the center is designed as an R&D facility for plant-based protein companies that want to develop new recipes and figure out how to industrialize them. It features a giant extruder, a gleaming mass of pipes, valves and gauges. Raw protein powder is poured in at one end, before being mixed with oils, flavoring and water. From the other end comes something with the fibrous texture of chicken or fish. Next door is an elegant, white-marble kitchen, where chefs crank out vegan crab cakes or ‘pork’ stir fries to be taste tested. This is all much cheaper to produce than cultured meat—plant-based burgers typically sell for around $40 a kilo in Singapore—yet almost everything that goes into the machine is shipped in from overseas. 

Food waste is one possible solution to Singapore’s reliance on foreign ingredients. One way of making protein in a factory is through fermentation. Ordinarily the microbes or fungus that produce such protein would be nourished with glucose, which would have to be imported. But scientists at Nanyang Technical University are studying whether these microbes and fungi are partial to coffee grounds from Singapore’s cafes or old yeast from its breweries. That would at least give imported food a second life.

The future of Singapore’s nascent protein industry may be a combination of animal and vegetable. “The trend we see right now is a mix of cultured meat and plant-based protein,” Adrien Beauvisage, Buhler’s president for southeast Asia says. “Full cultured meat in the market is far away, but animal proteins help the texture of plant-based products.” 

Even if Singapore fails in its goal to produce 30% of its own nutrition by 2030, the effort should bring other economic benefits. “The government here sees the alternative-protein space as one in which it can play in and export the technology,” says Teng. Beauvisage agrees. “This goes beyond producing food for themselves,” he says. “It’s about being a brain for the region and developing services for other countries.”

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.