Cell-ing Southeast Asia

Published by Biotech Connection Singapore on

By Yap Wee Swan

Complexities of Southeast Asian Food Systems

From bustling street food markets to captivating fragrances of spices and herbs filling the air, Southeast Asia is renowned for its diverse food culture. Due to the unique climatic conditions and rich historical influence in this region, novel renditions of familiar dishes have been developed. While many countries in the region rely primarily on smallholder farming for their food systems, others, like Singapore, are heavily dependent on imports. The combination of these factors makes Southeast Asia especially vulnerable to food security threats associated with climate change, diseases, and disruptions of supply chains. In Southeast Asia alone, moderate or severe food insecurity is estimated to have increased to 20.7% by 2021, a considerable jump from pre-pandemic levels1. The increase is evident in many of the countries in the region that are still dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine (e.g. higher food prices, reduced purchasing power). From 2019 to 2021, as much as 50% of Cambodians experienced moderate or severe food insecurity1. Rapid urbanisation in the region is altering food patterns, so these numbers may continue to worsen unless concrete measures are taken to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.

Exploring the Potential of Cellular Agriculture in Southeast Asia

Recent introductions of cellular agriculture have portrayed its existence as a potential solution to these food system challenges. Cellular agriculture typically uses cell cultures of host organisms such as plants, animals and microorganisms to produce agricultural commodities2, which could potentially be used to support global food production and nutritional needs. One of the most notable applications of cellular agriculture in the region is the production and sale of cultivated meat in Singapore. Singapore has since rapidly transformed into a biotechnology hub, attracting a multitude of investments in this space while simultaneously inching the country closer to its goal of producing 30% of its nutritional needs by 20303. In line with ASEAN’s vision of developing as one, such innovations are bound to trickle down to the rest of the region.

Considering these developments, can cellular agriculture feed the region while remaining affordable and accessible, or is it merely a pipe dream that leaves behind marginalised groups? To further complicate things, the region is home to some of the world’s leading exporters of agricultural products such as rice (Vietnam and Thailand), palm oil (Indonesia and Malaysia), coffee (Vietnam) and bananas (Philippines). Hence, would Southeast Asia, a traditionally agrarian-focused economy, be prepared and willing to welcome these developments?

Balancing Sustainability and Affordability

In line with the sustainable development goals, cellular agriculture aims to reduce hunger and promote food security, but this is ironic considering how launches in Southeast Asia only took place in Singapore, one of the least affected countries in the region when it comes to food shortages. Cellular agriculture products are currently priced at a premium, beyond what most in the region can afford. According to industry assertions, these prices will eventually fall as production scales through the establishment4 or acquisition5 of manufacturing facilities. Despite that, will they ever be affordable for the vast majority within the region6,7, especially with unprecedented production levels required even in the biopharmaceutical industry8? And if so, when will this be accomplished such that fewer people have to suffer the consequences of malnourishment? Until then, cellular agriculture products will remain an exclusive option for affluent diners in Singapore, while others in the region struggle to afford their regular meals at a fraction of these prices. This inequity will only worsen if global powerhouses monopolise these technologies and may not feel compelled to lower prices9. If regulators were to offer more support to help people afford these products by matching price points, perhaps this inequity can be mitigated.

Nevertheless, cellular agriculture could be game-changing for the region from a developmental perspective if it delivers on its promises of feeding the world without sacrificing affordability. It has been found that more than half of the countries in Southeast Asia have high and very high stunting prevalence1 – a result of chronic malnutrition on a child’s development. Cellular agriculture could potentially reverse this trend through nutritional interventions, especially during a child’s first 1000 days of life. Nutrition during the first 1000 days is instrumental to a child’s development, and a lack of it can damage their brain and body irreparably10. Since milk is the primary source of nutrition for infants, several cellular agriculture companies, such as Biomilq, Remilk and TurtleTree, are developing milk proteins like casein11, whey12 and lactoferrin13 to improve infant nutrition. Due to the strong influence of maternal nutrition on breastmilk quality, these products could also help break the cycle of intergenerational malnutrition by ensuring high quality nutrition from birth14. It is, therefore, crucial that Southeast Asians can access and afford cellular agriculture products in order to benefit from them.

Consumer Perception and Societal Priorities Impacting the Success of Cellular Agriculture Adoption

As with every nascent technology, the level of public acceptance will determine its success. Currently, cellular agriculture products are being rolled out slowly in selective markets and have been met with varying degrees of acceptance. Products derived from fermentation are often received better than those derived from animal cells due to familiarity and lower risk perceptions. Due to this edge, they have been able to launch more quickly and easily, such as Perfect Day’s sale of fermentation-derived ice cream and milk in Singapore supermarkets. There is growing recognition of the potential of cellular agriculture within Southeast Asia, with Malaysia announcing plans for a cultivated meat facility15 and shrimp producers in Vietnam partnering with Shiok Meats16, a Singapore-based cultivated seafood company. Despite this, apart from Singapore, most countries in the region have yet to establish regulations for novel cellular agriculture products. The lack of regulation could result in greater apprehension towards the products, since safety is one of the most important factors driving consumer acceptance17. Thus, it remains unclear how Southeast Asia, a region driven by conventional agriculture, will react to cellular agriculture and whether it will face trepidation or resistance, much as mRNA vaccines did at the beginning of the pandemic. After all, both biotechnologies share similar concerns about their safety and long-term side effects. Since the food shortage in the region does not constitute a pressing problem yet, the adoption of cellular agriculture is unlikely to be prioritised by most of these countries. This would inevitably hamper regional development, particularly when it comes to enjoying the benefits of cellular agriculture.

With its advanced science and technology expertise, strong intellectual property protection and trusted food safety regulations, Singapore stands out in the region as an anomaly and can serve as a model for developing cellular agriculture in the region. However, could Singapore’s pursuit of becoming a biotechnology hub be motivated by other factors, or merely by survival? In any case, cross-sharing will be beneficial to a region’s collective growth in the long run.

Finally, these 3As – availability, accessibility, and acceptability – summarises the latest developments in cellular agriculture in Southeast Asia. By introducing novel food sources to the region, cellular agriculture seeks to improve the availability of food, albeit not without accompanying limitations. This places affordability in the spotlight, which hinders access to these food sources. As with any deep-tech product, acceptance is still crucial to its ultimate success. The truth is, cultivated meat is not accessible to someone who cannot even afford McNuggets. Until this is achieved, it will be difficult to discuss their acceptability. However, if breakthrough innovations reduce costs drastically, Southeast Asia’s development potential could be unleashed.

References

  1. FAO, UNICEF, WFP & WHO. Asia and the Pacific – Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2022. Urban food security and nutrition. Bangkok, FAO https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3990en (2023).
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  5. Perfect Day. Perfect Day Expands Global Footprint and Owned Manufacturing Capacity in India. https://perfectday.com/newsroom/perfect-day-expands-global-footprint-and-owned-manufacturing-capacity-in-india/ (2022).
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Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.