S’pore works to tackle threats to food supply
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.”
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.