Alternative proteins are increasing in popularity and fast becoming a regular feature on menus in Singapore’s restaurants. Here, contributor Sebastian Wong from Green Monday shares his views on what can be done to propel the plant protein industry, and the impact that would have on our diets, our planet, and the economy.
The omnipresent climate crisis, coupled with the ever-current coronavirus pandemic, has highlighted the fragility of the global food chain. As a country that is vulnerable to the climate crisis and relies heavily on imports, Singapore is trying its very best to boost its food security, committing to a ’30 by 2030′ guideline. The commitment to enhancing its food security is made evident through its involvement in the alternative protein industry. Through funding and collaboration, it has become an innovation hub for alternative protein. That being said, the industry in Singapore, and Asia at large, is still in its infancy, so what can be done to propel it to greater heights?
This would be operationally similar to other well-known ‘sin taxes’, such as the tobacco tax in Singapore, where each purchase/production of an item adversely-affecting society is taxed. Meat taxes have been recommended by professors and researchers alike, even proposed by governmental agencies in countries like Denmark and Sweden. A group of researchers at Oxford have suggested that, for a high-income country such as Singapore, an ‘optimal tax rate’ would be 21% for red meat and 110% for processed meat.
Another method of taxation would be taxing food proportionately to carbon emissions, which consequently create a substantially higher tax rate for meats. The taxes would not only deter consumers from eating meat, but it would bring additional revenue to the Singaporean government to invest in the alternative protein industry. While imposing a meat tax may seem drastic, or even offensive to some, it serves a bigger role than its face-value monetary functions. Processed meats are labelled as a Group 1 carcinogen, and red meat consumption is widely linked to cancer, diabetes and heart problems. Meat taxation can help reduce meat overconsumption, which will reduce healthcare costs in the long run. This tax embodies the price we must pay for the degradation of the environment, which is a product of our lifestyle choices. Its implementation would prompt conversations on sustainability that are vital in our ability to make responsible food choices.
Stamp of approval
The Singaporean government has been taking steps to become the first country to give regulatory approval to cultivated meats. It is doing so by consulting leading alternative protein start-ups, such as Shiok Meats and Karana, to develop regulatory frameworks. Different accelerator programmes have been set up by governmental agencies with the likes of Enterprise Singapore and Workforce Singapore, which assist in penetrating the budding alternative protein start-up space.
The proposed regulations should include a labelling system similar to the ‘Halal’ sticker and the ‘Sunflower symbol’ championed by the Vegan Society UK. The label would communicate to consumers that the alternative proteins they pick agree with governmental standards and should also include basic information like the cultivation origins from as well as unique health benefits. This way, consumers can be educated on what they’re putting in their mouths. The Singaporean government’s backing of the industry and experience with different speciality food regulations can bring material support to the growth of the alternative protein industry.
An integrated approach
The Health Promotion Board promotes its ‘My Healthy Plate’ programme to educate Singaporeans on what constitutes a healthy diet. It currently lacks recommendations and guidelines on alternative proteins. Endorsement of such products by an important government programme would be beneficial to the growth of the industry, as the community at large would have the opportunity to learn more about alternative proteins choices, given Singapore’s relatively high trust in their government. The government can consider adapting the Planetary Health Diet, a diet developed by the EAT-Lancet Commission that emphasises a balance between human health and environmental sustainability.
Its approach can also be extended towards other facets of Singaporean food education. How food education is taught today is relegated to distinct and separate topics such as Nutrition, Geography and Biology. Its lack of cohesion results in a skewed understanding of food. Educating the public on the integrated nature of food between subjects such as the climate crisis, food supply, and our food choices can reorient how we use our consumer power to affect the environment. This type of education is particularly essential to empower doctors and nurses so that they can give holistic medical advice to their patients. With the systemic change of how we view our food, not just as a substance needed to keep us healthy but also as a force for environmental improvement or degradation, people will understand the philosophy behind a plant-centric diet and will be more likely to incorporate alternative proteins in their meals.
All in all, the Singaporean government has put in a lot of effort to bolster the alternative protein industry, but it has its work cut out for it. Besides funding the industry and developing its regulatory frameworks to solve the supply side of the equation, the government can attempt to reorient the public perception of the relationship between food and the environment through a more integrated approach to drum up demand.