The role of digitalisation in futureproofing Singapore’s food supply chain 

By Ken Chew Tan

Singapore, an island nation scarce in natural resources, imports more than 90 per cent of its nutritional requirements from diversified sources comprising over 170 countries and regions to ensure a resilient food supply chain. 

The impact of lockdowns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, further exacerbated by geo-political issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war and coupled with the inflationary pressure over the past three years, has intensified the focus on global food supply chains. Closer to home in 2022, Singapore experienced a ‘food crisis’ that disrupted its supply of live poultry when its primary source, Malaysia, banned the export of chicken to protect its local requirements.

These issues have only reinforced the need for Singapore to be self-sufficient when it comes to food.

The impact of the global landscape on F&B

The present global landscape has resulted in a ‘trickle down’ effect on local food and beverage (F&B) businesses in Singapore, who find themselves confronted by unique challenges arising from supply chain disruptions, as well as rising costs of commodities and ingredients. 

At the same time, the industry is working hard to keep pace with evolving consumer expectations and demands, which in turn shape purchase decisions. A clear emerging trend is the greater priority placed on health and nutrition, as well as sustainability – be it in food packaging or ingredient sourcing. Many consumers actively look for options that minimize environmental impact.

Furthermore, F&B businesses have to navigate complex labelling and ingredient regulations, which vary from region to region, and from one country to another. This complexity can present real business challenges, to the extent of affecting global product launches, for example.

Optimizing operations in F&B with digital technologies

To tackle these challenges, F&B businesses in Singapore are turning to digital technologies to identify ingredients in line with consumer preferences, bridge gaps in the supply chain, streamline operations and optimize business processes.

Some F&B businesses have already implemented digital tools to manage their operations holistically and collaboratively or to better control production cost, regulatory compliance and quality control, to name a few.

Large F&B manufacturers are also leveraging tech to gain visibility into their global manufacturing networks, achieve synchronized operations, and operate in a leaner and faster way. At the same time, digitalization enables continuous implementation of improvements to their processes by eliminating common errors in production that lead to rework, scrap, and quality issues.

Virtual twin technologies, for example, enable F&B businesses to transform innovation processes from R&D labs (from bench-to-pilot) and from pilot to scale to bring game-changing innovations to market faster. By replacing antiquated, inefficient lab processes, such as physical experiments, with simulations via virtual twin technology, F&B businesses also stand to gain significant savings in terms of time and cost. 

How can the industry leverage frontier technologies such as AI and machine learning?

In recent years, the maturity of data analytics technology has transformed science-driven industries, F&B included.

With the adoption of frontier technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), F&B businesses can develop new, personalized, better-performing, and more cost-effective ingredients, flavours and fragrances in faster and more efficient ways. 

Newer techniques allow businesses to accelerate the stages of acquiring the characterization, cleaning and modelling of data. This data is subsequently translated into actionable insights into the development of new food products.

We are seeing more businesses apply technology to transform how food is grown and produced. The Singapore Government has been ramping up efforts to support the growth of the local agri-food ecosystem by facilitating investment in technology across three priority areas: Urban agriculture, aquaculture, and alternative proteins.

Scientists at A*STAR, for instance, are creating more sustainable protein products. The heightened awareness of environmental sustainability and health concerns has resulted in a growing global demand for protein production methods that minimize environmental impact.

Strengthening Singapore’s ‘30-by-30’ vision

The Singapore Government has set an ambitious “30 by 30” goal: To self-produce 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030. With this, many plans have been put into action.

First, there is a multi-agency team comprising the Economic Development Board (EDB), Enterprise Singapore (ESG), A*STAR, JTC Corporation, and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) set up to look into various aspects of growing the agri-food ecosystem here. This involves identifying ways to provide better support in industry and enterprise development, R&D, workforce, and regulations.

The Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) of A*STAR brings together A*STAR’s existing capabilities under one roof, builds on current collaborations, and better facilitates economic value capture for Singapore’s food ecosystem.

SFA is also streamlining regulatory requirements to help companies adopt new technology and new business innovations that are integral to this new industry.

On the private sector front, technology businesses are bringing innovations to the fields of advanced food manufacturing, agri-tech, biopharmaceuticals, biotechnology, farming, speciality chemicals and more.

In conclusion, it takes public-private sector collaboration to build a truly future-ready F&B industry. Technology businesses can bring the tools, whilst government organizations provide the infrastructure: This will serve as a springboard for the scientific community to drive breakthrough innovation.

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