S’pore works to tackle threats to food sup­ply

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - Jose Hong

Rice plants stand in rows of pots, some stained yel­low with fun­gus in­fec­tions, oth­ers wilt­ing af­ter days with­out wa­ter.

Be­fore The Sun­day Times en­tered the green­house, rice re­searcher Rapee Hee­bkaew handed over white lab coats and plas­tic bags to place over shoes. “Wear this,” she said. “You’ll be fine from what­ever’s in there, but we need to pro­tect the rice plants from you.”

This is the Sin­ga­pore green­house of Ger­many’s pharmaceutical and life sciences gi­ant Bayer, where Ms Hee­bkaew de­vel­ops ways to make rice more re­sis­tant to rice blast fun­gus, a devastating in­fec­tion that an­nu­ally de­stroys so much rice that could have fed mil­lions, and will only spread and worsen with cli­mate change.

Since Bayer be­gan op­er­at­ing its seeds lab­o­ra­tory in 2008, it has tested 12 rice va­ri­eties that are rel­a­tively re­sis­tant to the neg­a­tive ef­fects of cli­mate change.

Though Sin­ga­pore im­ports more than 90 per cent of its food, this is among its ef­forts to help a warm­ing world.

Even lo­cal out­fits are work­ing on rice re­silience.

Te­masek Life Sciences Lab­o­ra­tory an­nounced the launch of Te­masek Rice two years ago, the first and only rice variety to be cre­ated and sold here. It is spe­cially for­mu­lated against flood, drought and pests – all of which cli­mate change will worsen. Te­masek Rice’s lead in­ven­tor Yin Zhongchao said that the grains were softer and at least as tasty as other brown rice va­ri­eties.

Te­masek Rice was one of the seven va­ri­eties of rice sent by Te­masek Life Sciences Lab­o­ra­tory to the “Dooms­day Vault”, a Nor­we­gian seed vault high up in a re­mote Arc­tic is­land whose sole pur­pose is to pre­serve sam­ples of the world’s crops, in case of a global catas­tro­phe.

Dr Yin, se­nior prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the lab­o­ra­tory, told The Sun­day Times that around 40 tonnes of Te­masek Rice has been pro­duced, and his team is in­tro­duc­ing genes that en­able the rice to re­sist an in­sect called the brown plant­hop­per.

“This in­sect can be brought by storms from trop­i­cal re­gions to sub­trop­i­cal ones like China,” he said, adding that the pest may spread as cli­mate change makes storms more in­tense.

The team plans to make this rice more af­ford­able to en­able farm­ers to earn more, while fight­ing cli­mate change.

All this points to a paradox: That Sin­ga­pore is the world’s most food­se­cure coun­try ac­cord­ing to the Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit – mean­ing it en­sures that its cit­i­zens have ac­cess to safe and nu­tri­tious food at af­ford­able prices in the short and long term – but that the na­tion re­mains highly vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change’s im­pact on other food-pro- duc­ing places in the re­gion and beyond. So it is us­ing lo­ca­tion as a hub and its talent to join the fight against global warm­ing.

For ex­am­ple, the head of global rice crop man­age­ment at Bayer’s Crop Sci­ence divi­sion, Mr Amit Trikha, said that even though most of the firm’s op­er­a­tions take place out­side Sin­ga­pore, the city state is an im­por­tant re­search cen­tre. “Sin­ga­pore is a po­lit­i­cally neu­tral coun­try with very high in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty pro­tec­tion and where a highly skilled work­force is avail­able.”

Its lo­ca­tion also al­lows Bayer to use it as a re­gional hub for sci­en­tific ma­te­rial that comes from the Philip­pines, Viet­nam or In­done­sia.

In­ter­na­tional Rice Re­search In­sti­tute (Irri) wa­ter man­age­ment sci­en­tist Sud­hir Ya­dav said that Sin­ga­pore also pro­vides im­por­tant lessons for the re­gion’s rice-pro­duc­ing coun­tries in how the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors can work to­gether.

“Wa­ter man­age­ment re­quires co­or­di­na­tion among dif­fer­ent sec­tors,” said Dr Ya­dav, adding it was not help­ful for ur­ban, in­dus­trial and agri­cul­tural sec­tors to man­age wa­ter in­de­pen­dently of each other.

“For ex­am­ple, the use of agri­cul­tural wa­ter up­stream of an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem not only af­fects how much wa­ter is avail­able down­stream, but also its quality. A city like Bangkok may need to de­vote sig­nif­i­cant re­sources for wa­ter treat­ment if sustainable prac­tices in wa­ter and crop man­age­ment are not im­ple­mented.”

Dr Ya­dav said: “Sin­ga­pore has done a lot of re­search to de­velop very ef­fi­cient wa­ter man­age­ment prac­tices like us­ing rainfall and fresh wa­ter, de­sali­na­tion, and re­cy­cling.” The co­op­er­a­tion be­tween pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tors helped it suc­ceed, he said.

Dr Ya­dav was speak­ing to The Sun­day Times last month, when the world’s largest con­fer­ence on rice sci­ence was held at Ma­rina Bay Sands.

On its open­ing day, Irri di­rec­tor­gen­eral Matthew Morell said: “While agri­cul­ture plays a lim­ited role in the econ­omy of Sin­ga­pore, the coun­try is a sig­nif­i­cant lo­gis­tics and ship­ping hub for rice trade.

He said dis­cus­sions at the In­ter­na­tional Rice Congress could pave the way for poli­cies and part­ner­ships to drive the sec­tor glob­ally.

An Agri-Food and Vet­eri­nary Author­ity (AVA) spokesman said that cli­mate change was one of the many in­ter­linked threats fac­ing Sin­ga­pore’s food sup­ply, which in­cludes pop­u­la­tion growth, ris­ing ur­ban­i­sa­tion and re­source scarcity.

“Th­ese trends are in­ten­si­fy­ing, and their in­ter­play is height­en­ing food se­cu­rity chal­lenges more than ever.”

Among other things, Sin­ga­pore has tried to boost lo­cal food pro­duc­tion in a high-tech­nol­ogy con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment.

“The re­sult is an as­sured and con­sis­tent out­put, and a pre­dictable way to ad­dress the ef­fects of cli­mate change and ex­treme weather,” the spokesman said.

AVA com­mis­sioned a study on the im­pact of cli­mate change on lo­cal farms and helped lo­cal fish farm SAT to rear fish in tanks to mit­i­gate the fall­out from events like plank­ton blooms.

The group di­rec­tor of AVA food sup­ply re­silience group, Mr Melvin Chow, said: “We recog­nise that un­der­stand­ing and build­ing re­silience to the ef­fects of cli­mate change is an on­go­ing ef­fort.

“AVA will con­tinue to re­view cur­rent mea­sures and de­velop new ones to help Sin­ga­pore pre­pare for long-term cli­mate change im­pacts on our food sup­ply.”

ST PHO­TOS: MARK CHEONG

Rice re­searcher Rapee Hee­bkaew spray­ing fun­gus on rice plants at the Sin­ga­pore green­house of Ger­man pharmaceutical and life sciences gi­ant Bayer. There, she helps to de­velop ways to make rice more re­sis­tant to rice blast fun­gus, which an­nu­ally de­stroys so much rice that could have fed mil­lions.

Sam­ple leaves are placed in tubes and passed through a cen­trifuge for test­ing at the Bayer Crop Sci­ence lab­o­ra­tory.

Ms Hee­bkaew pre­pares a so­lu­tion with the fun­gus that she sprays on rice plants, as part of the process to de­velop rice va­ri­eties re­sis­tant to rice blast fun­gus.

Ms Hee­bkaew han­dling a rice grain. Rice blast fun­gus, a devastating in­fec­tion which de­stroys rice crops, will only spread and worsen with cli­mate change.

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