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Forward thinking: Customers browsing the shelves of a food store in Singapore. The island nation is investing heavily in life science and agriculture research and development, all the while working towards trying to reduce import dependencies. — Bloomberg

SINGAPORE: Temasek Holdings chief executive officer (CEO) Dilhan Pillay (pic) runs a US$290bil (RM1.29 trillion) state-owned investment empire. But every quarter he spends up to two hours chatting to a man in Indonesia about fish.

Those lengthy calls with Bandung-based eFishery, a startup so small it only accounts for 0.01% of Temasek’s portfolio, are emblematic of its quiet zeal for the business of food.

The precarious state of the world’s food supply, highlighted by sizzling heat waves that are wilting crops in Europe, China and the United States, has found an unlikely crusader in Singapore, a small island with hardly any agriculture at all.

Under its relatively new CEO Pillay and head of agri-food Anuj Maheshwari, Temasek has doubled down on an agriculture strategy involving ambitious investments – including efforts that take control of some businesses –to try and reap profits from solving some of the biggest problems in food production.

Since 2015 it’s quietly grown its life science and agriculture holdings from about US$5.7bil (RM25bil) to US$26.7bil (RM119bil) as of March this year, spanning everything from plant-based meat-maker Impossible Foods Inc and Bayer AG to Israeli irrigation firms.

“When we started looking at this, most of our peers were not focused on this industry because it tends to have government influence, it’s volatile and it involves land, which can be capital intensive,” Maheshwari said.

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Food security

“But if we don’t create a system that is more efficient and resilient to climate change the food security of the planet is at risk.”

Almost half of the earth’s habitable land, 70% of its fresh water and 30% of the workforce is used for agriculture, said Maheshwari.

“Despite such massive resources, this industry produces a third of greenhouse gases, and a third of what it produces actually just goes to waste,” Maheshwari said. “These are massive challenges that are very ripe for the kind of capital that we bring in.”

Singapore produces only about 10% of its food, and while it’s trying to lift that to 30% by investing in technologies such as offshore fish farms and vertical farming, the only way to guarantee long-term supply in the face of climate change and disruptions such as the war in Ukraine is to build complex and redundant supply chains.

When Malaysia, supplier of a third of Singapore’s chicken, banned most exports in June to keep domestic prices down, Singapore added suppliers of frozen chicken from Indonesia to supplement imports from Brazil, Thailand and Australia to soften the blow.

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