Addressing the "Hidden-Hunger" of nutrition, food security and sustainability using underutilised crops within ASEAN
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
First of all, the fine garden city is our birthplace and we would like to make a difference. Secondly, Singapore is strategically positioned at the heart of ASEAN, with a strong R&D environment and supportive government, our country is perfect in becoming a leader in food science and technology for the ASEAN region and beyond.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
A Metropolis of business, science, and the arts, Singapore is a small and bustling city where innovation & technology thrives. There are compelling reasons for Singapore to stay at the forefront of developing leading food technologies and techniques. Singapore currently imports more than 90% of the food supply. With expanding global populations, erratic weather patterns, and an uncertain geopolitical landscape, there is a pressing need for Singapore to explore ways in better securing the in-country food supply. In March 2019, the government announced an ambitious plan to ramp up its local food supply to 30% by 2030, adding to that was also a declaration on growing better and healthier food in an environmentally conscious manner. Health & Nutrition is the new frontier in the food innovation space. The unique positioning of Singapore as the heart of ASEAN provides immense opportunity for Singapore to take food innovation and food sustainability to the rest of ASEAN
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Being a small and densely populated city with little land for farming, Singapore imports 90% of our food across 160 countries. Apart from a high carbon footprint, our food security is a threat as it is vulnerable to import disruptions such as climate change and natural disasters from various importing countries. Globally, the monocropping practice to produce major crops (maize, potato, rice) have contributed to the decrease in soil fertility, which must be treated with chemicals like fertilizers that increase pollution.
With the large investments in major crops, many people are faced with a homogenised diet and are getting more carbohydrates with fewer micronutrients. This deficiency in micronutrients, termed as “micro-hunger”, has led to stunting, weak brain development, and body functions. Countries such as Southeast Asia and Africa are the most affected, with roughly 44 million in SEA due to our region’s rice dependency. Functional foods such as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are common attributes that people expect in food products. With the rise in health awareness, consumers are aware of superfoods and the various phytochemicals that can potentially supplement one’s health. These substances, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, can be found in large amounts within underutilised crops (UU crops). One perfect example would be the Kei apple, which contains at least 2 - 10 times more vitamin C than Oranges. Furthermore, the ascorbic acid in kei apple juice shows exceptional stability with very little oxidation of its dehydro-form (DHA). This is very important for health & nutrition industries as DHA is not easily absorbed across the intestinal mucosa and possesses little antiscorbutic activity.
Economics & Policy
Efforts in enhancing Singapore Food Security include diversifying import sources and expanding our local farms overseas. Fortunately, Singapore’s government agencies such as the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) have proactively supported the agri-tech and food-tech business through investments like SEEDS capital and GROW accelerator. This creates a conducive environment to develop innovative ways to diversify our food sources and to maintain our food security in the long run.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is to develop an innovation hub – Unnovation in Singapore that focuses on downstream food applications and innovation for underutilised crops that are found in tropical climate. Unnovation was developed with the goal of achieving our 3 Us:
Uncover, Utilise and Uplifting lives
Through Unnovation, we can address the challenges of food security and sustainability via the three pillars:
Research & Development
A research and development centre will be set up to explore the potential of underutilised crops in the Tropics to solve the problem of food security, sustainability & nutrition. Areas of research focus primarily on the downstream applications of underutilised crops: Incorporating underutilised crops into commercial applications, extracting useful nutrients from underutilised crops and developing sustainable technology.
Commercial applications of UU crops
As an innovation hub primarily for developing product applications involving underutilized crops, Unnovation examines possible applications, creates an IP database, and sells our ideas to shareholders, if not adopting the ideas ourselves. The proposed commercial applications are UBread and USpray which will be further elaborated below. With our applications, Unnovation aims to accommodate different stakeholders. We do so by exposing the public to underutilized crops and educating them on its huge potential of and value-add to the society at large through our nutrient-dense food products for children and for the elderly.
Public awareness through changing consumer behaviour
To create awareness, three approaches which will influence consumer behaviour:
1. With the use of UGroups, businesses will be able to form a network with each other for collaborative efforts and other investment opportunities. They would also be incentivised to hop onto the bandwagon to promote the use and consumption of UU crops. Consumers who utilise our mobile application, UShare, will automatically be part of the UGroup for the public. The application will be elaborated on in the full vision.
2. With more innovative applications, UGroups will have to potential to draw more investors such as future labs, ESG and EDB. This will place Unnovation in a better position in the market to achieve economies of scale. This also adds credibility to Unnovation among consumers.
3. Community engagement programmes (CEPs) can be promoted to the public via UShare. CEPs include cooking classes and community planting of UU crops. Cooking classes will teach the public on the various applications of UU crops to encourage them to incorporate the crops into their diet. These cooking classes can be conducted by chefs or volunteers. The CEPs play a part in Unnovation to inform consumers of UU crops.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Through Unnovation, Singapore would be able to grow and develop locally-produced underutilised crops, providing sustainable food security by reducing the reliance on food imports and by monocropping upstream. Furthermore, by collaborating with neighbouring countries in the SEA region, the food import supply chain becomes shorter, further strengthening food security. Not only does this reduce carbon footprint, but the research on underutilised crops will also attract investors and businesses, creating job opportunities and commercialisation. Discoveries of new superfoods and applications can help improve nutrition and provide options for those with less disposable income to be equally healthy. The awareness of these crops will ultimately lead to an increase in demand, allowing Singapore to become a world-class leader of underutilised crops research.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Monocropping of major crops has led to a decrease in soil fertility and soil structure. Overtime, this has to be compensated via chemicals like fertilizers which can pollute the environment. Crop rotation schemes using a diverse range of UU crops can be incorporated as a form of soil management, to enhance the quality of the soil.
With ⅔ of the population being afflicted with diet-related metabolic syndrome, there is a need to innovate applications such as our product - USpray to inculcate the habit of healthy eating from a young age. With the switch in tastes and preferences, there is hope for the reduction in the preference for the consumption of sugary and salty calorie-dense foods. Another key issue in our diets today is the “hidden hunger” in urban countries caused by lack of nutrient diversity due to the overconsumption of common crops, which can be minimized with the incorporation of underutilised crops. Our UBread is a weekly subscription box delivered directly to the homes of consumers, giving them the convenience to the access of nutrient-dense bread as they include a nutritious mix of nutrient-rich UU crop flours. UBread thus aims to incorporate UU crops into the diets of consumers without having them to adapt immediately to crops with different flavours and textures
We help farms with their on-farm income, as the crop rotation scheme involving UU crops improves the quality of the soil which allows farmers to obtain a higher yield of produce. These farms will be located in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. We will provide the technical know-how while tapping onto their abundant land and resources. Moreover, farmers who follow the crop rotation scheme will be part of UGroups, a community that will be involved in supporting the use of underutilized crops. These farmers will collaborate with Unnovation for downstream innovation activities. Developing more applications for UU crops also generates demand for them, which will provide an incentive for farmers to grow them.
The creation of UGroups enables different stakeholders to play a part in making a movement towards UU crops. Anyone can be part of UGroups‒ from children in childcare centres, elderlies in Community Centres, to farmers and business shareholders to build a sense of belonging. With the involvement of the community via cooking classes, we aim to teach Singaporeans on how they can incorporate UU crops into their cooking. Moreover, through these cooking classes, we can inculcate a sense of belonging via Singapore’s unique “Kampong Spirit” (creating a close-knit community) by participating in these cooking sessions together. Also, for many working adults in Singapore, eating alone or on the go (e.g. in cars, buses, etc.) is common, especially with our “workaholic” culture amongst working adults in Singapore, as this is seen as a time-saving mechanism. Unnovation provides an avenue to innovate “healthy fast food” such as UU crop-based snack bars and milkshakes with UU crop supplements in the form of powders. This caters to people in our fast-paced society. Production technology and flavourists will be tapped on to develop bread which maintains the common taste of bread, while incorporating UU crop flour into a typical bread recipe.
Our commercial products can potentially utilise advanced processing and development technologies to integrate UU crops into our application. For instance, USpray involves technology used for extracting micro- and macronutrients from UU crops and developing a nutrient-dense food spray bottle, using the extracts. As for UBread, machines are required to mill UU crops into fine flour, to be mixed with bread flour to achieve a balanced nutrient intake. The compositions of UU crop flour added will be such that drastic changes to the texture and taste of the bread will be prevented. This is to prevent unfamiliarity from the taste of bread that consumers are used to. The type of UU crop flour incorporated into the product will be different every time, to increase the exposure of various UU crops to consumers.
Being an innovation hub, Singapore government agencies such as EDB and ESG have made Singapore a springboard for food-tech and agri-tech startups to flourish. These government agencies can speed up the R&D of UU crops in Singapore and ASEAN. As more Singaporeans are eating outside of their home for convenience, Health Promotion Board (HPB) has launched the “Healthier Ingredient Schemes” to promote healthier ingredients for F&B outlets to utilise. By incorporating UU crops into the schemes, the F&B outlets will have more variety and healthier choices on their menu. This will be a part of our advocacy efforts for proper disclosure of nutrition labels and the adoption of underutilized crops in food production.
Commercial applications of UU crops
UBread is a weekly bread subscription box, in which the UU crops are milled into flour to be incorporated into bread. Flour from UU crops will be mixed with pre-bread flour to achieve a balanced nutrient intake, without drastically changing the texture and taste of the bread. Every week, a box of freshly baked breads with different underutilized crop flour will be incorporated, depending on the surplus of the crop that week. The crop chosen will depend on the surplus of the crop grown that week, so as to reduce food wastage of unsold food. Apart from the range of bread created by our chief chefs, an information slip on the underutilized crop will be included in the box. This slip gives the reader snippets of information on the underutilized crop flour used in the bread mix that week. This application serves to educate the public on the existence of such crops in a sensory manner while introducing the crop into Singapore’s commercial market.
USpray is a food spray made from the nutrient-rich extracts of underutilized crops. This serves to add flavour while acting as a temporal nutrient supplement to nutritious, but unpopular foods which are consumed insufficiently. Originally meant for children, USpray will improve the taste of vegetables while temporarily alleviating the lack of vitamins and minerals obtained by the child due to consumption below the recommended number of servings of vegetables. Parents will be able to regulate the number of sprays on vegetables, depending on the quantity consumed by the child. This product is meant to be used as a temporal mean only, as the number of sprays is to be reduced over time. This is meant to provide children a window for them to develop an acquired liking to the taste of vegetables. USpray will contain extracts from a mixture of underutilized crops ensuring the high proportions of macronutrients, micronutrients and dietary fibre that can similarly be obtained from consuming vegetables. USpray can also potentially expand its target group range, to reach the elderly who are unable to masticate.
Public awareness through changing consumer behaviour
UGroups is a collaborative circle for stakeholders who are involved in Unnovation’s activities ‒ from farmers to businesses (private sector), government bodies (public sector) and consumers. Farmers who take part in our UU crop rotation scheme will be able to benefit their local produce by generating better quality soil as they supply to downstream entities, during application development. Businesses will be able to form a network with other companies that are also part of UGroups, for collaborative efforts and other investment opportunities. Also, with the hope of UU crops as future foods, many companies will be incentivised to hop onto the bandwagon which allows this circle to continuously expand with a common goal ‒ to promote the use and consumption of UU crops. With bigger players (e.g. Nestle, Abbott) joining UGroups, this will also act as a platform to promote the trend of utilizing UU crops as a commercial venture. With UU crops gaining popularity, consumers are more likely to incorporate UU crop consumption as part of their lifestyle. Consumers who utilise our mobile application, UShare, will automatically be part of the UGroup for the public.
UShare is a mobile application that aims to encourage people to incorporate UU crops into their daily lives via articles, cooking classes, and consumer incentives. Useful articles and information on UU crops will be updated daily to increase awareness and understanding of UU crops. The application also promotes upcoming community events such as cooking classes and edible farming activities to teach the public on the various uses of UU crops. To encourage the public to choose UU crops and products in participating outlets, points can be redeemed in the application via purchase using QR codes. Consumers can convert the points into vouchers that can be used to purchase other UU crops and products in the future, which encourages continuity. This creates an incentive for consumers to purchase UU crops and products which will allow them to slowly incorporate UU crops into their meals. In collaboration with major supermarkets (e.g. NTUC, RedMart), these supermarkets can also promote the use of UShare to create community engagement programmes. Overall, UShare is not only a platform to promote UU crop application through exposure and events, but as a tool to engage the community. This instills a sense of belonging to the community, encouraging consumers to share the benefits of UU crops with others.