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Building capabilities for food security in Singapore

JCU lends its expertise in aquaculture in support of Singapore’s 30 by 30 Food Story strategy

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Professor Dean Jerry, the Dean of Research at the Singapore campus of James Cook University

In 2030, almost a third of the food consumed in Singapore will need to be homegrown, according to an announcement in Parliament earlier this year.

Dubbed as the "30 by 30" strategy, the government aims to ensure Singapore's food security in the coming years by increasing our food production to 30 per cent - up from 10 per cent today. The initiative is set to strengthen the resilience of Singapore's food supply by boosting the production of protein sources, vegetables and fruits in the coming years.

Currently, Singapore imports 90 per cent of its food supply. This leaves us vulnerable to the impact of the volatile global food market on the nation's nutritional needs.

Food security: a rising global concern

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In The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019, a joint report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization, findings show that 59 out of 65 countries where food security and nutrition have been adversely impacted by economic slowdowns and downturns, rely heavily on primary commodity imports.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation have highlighted the immense challenge that humanity will face leading up to 2050 in supplying adequate and high-quality food to the burgeoning human global population.

Professor Dean Jerry, the Dean of Research at the Singapore campus of James Cook University (JCU), says: "For a country like Singapore that is so dependent on imports as its food supply, trade embargoes and geopolitical manoeuvring may impact on the ability of nations to import food in the future. It is thus extremely important that the country builds a buffer and has a degree of resilience to any perturbations in its food supply in the future.

"The way it can do this is to foster local production and/or alternative forms of food and protein generation, along with helping establish new trading partnerships."

JCU lends its expertise

Helping to increase local cultivation of food and protein sources is an area Prof Jerry is looking into with other leading experts at the Aquaculture Innovation Centre (AIC), of which JCU is a core participant and brings to the consortium world recognised domain expertise in aquaculture research and training.

The AIC comprises a consortium of nine research institutes, agencies, universities, and polytechnics. Each one of these agencies has particular skills and infrastructure that can be applied to aquaculture research and development.

Prof Jerry is a global expert in the application of genetics to improve the productivity of aquatic organisms and is Chair of the Breeding, Care and Culture technical committee at the AIC.

With leading scientists in the area of genetics, aquatic animal health, nutrition and production, along with a focus on tropical aquaculture species relevant to the Singapore context, JCU is uniquely placed to value-add to the current research and training capabilities in Singapore.

JCU plans to play a big role in helping the AIC achieve its major objectives and to work closely with consortium partners in solving problems faced by Singapore's aquaculture industry and provide the future skilled workforce required as the sector expands.

It also adds value to the current research and development ecosystem related to aquaculture in Singapore by bringing our knowledge working with other global aquaculture partners and companies and helping adapt and translate that acquired knowledge to Singapore.

He says: "It is pleasing that JCU can be part of the AIC as we bring specific high-level research capabilities and a world-recognized reputation to help Singaporean companies solve their industry-relevant bottlenecks, or to develop new intellectual property."

The challenges ahead

Globally, aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector. This is particularly the case in Asia, which is becoming the powerhouse of global aquaculture production. 

Aquaculture is also transforming from a low technology, low skill set, with small to medium-size farm industry, into one which will become high-tech, require skilled expertise in activities all along the aquaculture technology supply chain, and involve large companies and multinationals such as established agribusinesses.

With this evolution on the way, the road ahead to solving our food security issue is not without its obstacles.
 
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Singapore will face regarding developing its aquaculture industry, says Prof Jerry, is for the industry to realise that some of their issues holding expansion back can be solved if they engage and invest in research and development, or seek to hire skilled practitioners.
 
Among some of the areas that researchers are looking into include developing better genetics of the species farmed, recognise and alleviate aquatic animal health issues, and to develop new aquaculture technology that drives productivity gains and reduces the risk of farming.

These require thinking outside of current experience and a multidisciplinary approach.

JCU, says Prof Jerry, when talking with the industry, often will view industry problems within a systems approach that may not be restricted just to solving one little piece of the puzzle, but bringing different expertise to bear to more fully understand the cause of the issue and how to solve it. 

He cites the example of disease outbreaks in the aquaculture industry, which are not always because a pathogen is present, but because the diet of the animal doesn't provide the basic requirements to stimulate the immune system, or there have been no efforts to identify genetically related tolerance within stocks that could be bred for that ultimately improve survival. 

He says: “By taking an approach that considers how genetics, nutrition, culture environment and aquatic animal health interact often can increase the likelihood that a solution for the industry problem can be identified.” 

Growing together

JCU has quite a task at hand in helping to take a multi-prong approach to tackle Singapore's food security concerns. But forging ahead requires cooperative work with various stakeholders and this is what excites Prof Jerry the most.

Prof Jerry shares that JCU is committed to partner with innovative companies and other research and development service providers to help overcome industry production bottlenecks, produce new technologies, lower risk of farming due to aquatic health issues, and to train highly skilled workers who will be the future of the industry as it expands.

"JCU has experts covering all the major pillars of aquaculture research and development needs, and can reach back into our Australian capabilities where we have one of the largest teams globally working across all areas of tropical aquaculture that can provide world-class multidisciplinary focused solutions for the local aquaculture industry," he adds.
 
Riding the new wave

As Singapore production expands, similar demands for skilled labour will eventuate and this is where JCU is contributing to the future Singaporean aquaculture growth by providing tertiary-level training in aquaculture. 
 
The aquaculture industry needs experts in fields such as genetics, internet of things (IOT), data science, engineering, chemistry, food science, aquatic animal health and veterinary expertise, marketing and business management.
 
Currently, in many of these disciplinary fields, students that are now interested in the industry have almost guaranteed employment prospects somewhere within the global aquaculture sector as there is a shortage of such skilled practitioners. 
 
JCU’s aquaculture programme gives students the advantage they need as it is very focused on teaching students not only the scientific basis of aquaculture, but a core set of practical skills that will be helpful for them when they enter the industry. 
 
These may include practical skills in water quality testing and monitoring, handling aquaculture species, using genetics to improve productivity, how to breed and produce the seed stock, along with exposure to business principles.

He says: “Aquaculture is an industry that is both grounded in science and business. JCU’s aquaculture program is the only program globally that we know of that develops in students both an aquaculture scientific and business mindset.

Learn more about the aquaculture research capabilities at the Singapore campus of James Cook University: http://jcu.sg/aqua08