Singapore has set an ambitious target to produce 30 percent of its food requirements locally by 2030 as part of its Singapore Green Plan 2030, which aims to tackle its large carbon footprint associated with food production, transportation, and waste management. The government has established and invested in programs and incentives to foster research and development in sustainable materials and technologies, including cellular agriculture, to accomplish this goal.

The production of animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs, is identified as having a more significant impact on the environment than transportation. Animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the emissions from the entire transportation sector worldwide, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Alternative proteins have had commercial success in Singapore, with several innovations, such as plant-based chicken options from Tindle or meat made from jackfruit by KARANA. However, another type of alternative protein, cultivated meat, which is mostly still in development now, is unique because it is derived from actual animal cells and does not rely on the slaughter of animals. In the future, milk and eggs could be cultivated without animal husbandry through cellular engineering.

In December 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to permit the commercial sale of cultivated meat products. The Californian company Eat Just was granted regulatory approval to sell its cultivated chicken in Singapore. Since then, other cultivated meat producers have viewed Singapore as an ideal place to launch their products.

As Singapore builds R&D leadership in this field, the capabilities developed for cellular agriculture can translate to other industries that heavily depend on animal husbandry or animal derivatives. One example is the cellular engineering of skin. Lab-grown human skin has been used in cosmetics or for pharmaceutical testing; in the same way, lab-grown animal skin can be tanned into leather, and this holds the potential to create a new industry.

That lab-grown skin can be tanned into leather is important because the leather industry, notorious for its unethical practices, is heavily dependent on the slaughter of animals. The production of leather negatively impacts the environment because it uses large amounts of water and toxic chemicals and is responsible for the release of greenhouse gases. However, with cellular engineering, when treated with tanning agents, cultivated skin is essentially real leather. Moreover, cultivated skin is customizable, allowing for the production of leather with specific properties, such as thickness, texture, and color.

Investment in research and development of cellular engineering can pay dividends beyond what was anticipated in Singapore. However, some of the challenges that lie ahead include overcoming the high production costs of cellular engineering, including the high price of the growth media, nutrient sources, and growth factors required to grow the cells, as well as the cost of bioreactor equipment and facility infrastructure. By diversifying how cellular engineering is applied, such as to leather as well as food, better price parity can be gained because food needs to be produced at a very low price point, whereas fashion and luxury customers spend more, making meeting price parity easier.

Another limitation is that although Singapore’s strategic location and well-established logistics infrastructure make it an ideal hub for developing and distributing cellular products to the rest of the Asian region, the industry needs to navigate the complex and varied regulations in this space across different countries and regions. Overcoming these bottlenecks and hurdles still requires significant research and development and investment in infrastructure and equipment.

As the different cellular engineering-related technologies improve and economies of scale are achieved, the costs of cell-based products will decrease, and their applications will increase, making viable, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible alternatives to traditional animal agriculture.

Dr. Viknish Krishnan-Kutty is CEO & Founder, Cellivate Technologies.

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