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Technology has redefined the way we produce food: Q&A with John Vaske, head of agribusiness at Temasek

Written by Yin Lin Tan Published on 

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Temasek recently invested in Unfold, which develops seed varieties optimized for indoor vertical farms.

The Singaporean investment fund Temasek Holdings and German biochemicals company Bayer last week announced they were jointly backing Unfold, which uses seed genetics from vegetable crops to develop new varieties optimized for indoor vertical farming. Unfold received USD 30 million in funding from Temasek and Bayer’s investment unit, Leaps by Bayer.

While the company will be headquartered in California, it plans to open a second hub in Singapore. Unfold is led by CEO Dr. John Purcell, who was previously head of vegetables R&D at Bayer.

Over the years, the company has steadily increased its investments in the agribusiness sector, in line with Singapore’s 30 by 30 goal of achieving 30% of food needs by 2030. Its portfolio consists of companies like Impossible Foods, which develops a plant-based meat substitute, and Bowery, an indoor farming company.

KrASIA spoke with John Vaske, head of agribusiness and head of Americas at Temasek, about the agribusiness industry in Singapore.

John Vaske, head of agribusiness and head of Americas at Temasek. Photo courtesy of Temasek Holdings.

KrASIA (Kr): Why has Temasek added Unfold to its portfolio?

John Vaske (JV): Global food challenges require us to rethink traditional farming practices. We need to ensure secure farm-to-fork supply chains in urban settings while reducing the overall environmental impact of farming. The traceability and nutritional value of food are more important to customers too. Bayer is a global market leader in vegetable seeds, with strengths in both crop science and innovation. We align on the importance of sustainable living as a driver of growth and shareholder value.

Kr: What are some key examples of innovation in agribusiness?

JV: Technology has redefined the way we produce food while reducing our carbon footprint. Advances in agritech are making crop and livestock breeding faster, better, and safer. Unfold is one such company, focusing on innovation in vegetable varieties for the vertical farming industry. We have also invested in VoloAgri, which uses plant genetics to breed improved vegetable seeds. Sustainable protein alternatives are also changing food demand and production.

Using new tech from other sectors, like blockchain and AI, is also an exciting area in agribusiness. We invested in Farmers Business Network, a startup using data analytics to help farmers improve productivity. Established agri companies are also applying new technology. Olam, for instance, has developed a blockchain supply network to increase efficiency in agrilogistics. These trends are creating exciting opportunities in both startups and established companies.

Kr: Temasek’s life sciences and agribusiness investments have steadily increased over the years. Is this an area that Temasek is increasingly looking to invest in? Is the focus more on upstream companies, like Unfold, or downstream ones?

JV: We are committed to investing for a better, smarter, and more sustainable world. The goal of long-term environmental sustainability relies on the ecosystem of players within the industry. We see opportunities for innovative, sustainable solutions that can feed more people with less resources.

We also see more upstream opportunities in food production supply chains. Technology can be used to improve the quality of crops. VoloAgri is one such example, while Pivot Bio uses microbes, instead of traditional synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, to self-fertilize crops.

Kr: What trends do you expect to see in the agribusiness industry in the next few years? How can Singapore benefit from them?

JV: By 2050, global food demand is expected to increase by 60%. However, crop yields are threatened by climate change, urbanization, and soil degradation. Demand and distribution channels are also changing with the shift towards a digital economy.

We see the agrifood industry adapting reflexively to these changes in global agri trends. Technology, big data, blockchain, and bioscience are technology enablers that are exciting for us as the space evolves.

Asian cities like Singapore have the potential to become agrifood innovation hubs, as highlights in the PwC-Rabobank-Temasek Asia Food Challenge 2019 Report. With less than 0.8% arable land, vertical farming innovation is critical in Singapore—it will play a pivotal role in bolstering Singapore’s food security, in line with its 30 by 30. Singapore has been formative in developing this trend [of vertical farming], so we have insights and knowledge that Unfold can benefit from by setting up its commercial and R&D operations here. At the same time, its operations in Singapore will play a key role in the growth of the vertical farming space here and in the region.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Featured image: Shutterstock.

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