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Scientists grow 'meaty' rice hybrid food for protein kick

The rice is seeded with animal muscle and fat cellsYonsei University

Scientists have created a new type of hybrid food – a “meaty” rice that they say could offer an affordable and eco-friendly source of protein.

The porous grains are packed with beef muscle and fat cells, grown in the lab.

The rice was first coated in fish gelatine to help the beef cells latch on, and the grains were left in a petri dish to culture for up to 11 days.

The researchers say the food may serve as “relief for famine, military ration, or even space food” in the future.

It remains to be seen whether consumers would take to it if it gets to market.

The hybrid rice is apparently a bit firmer and brittler than regular rice, but packs more protein, Matter journal reports.

According to the team at Yonsei University in South Korea, it has 8% more protein and 7% more fat.

And, compared to regular beef, it has a smaller carbon footprint, since the production method eliminates the need to raise and farm lots of animals.

For every 100g (3.5oz) of protein produced, hybrid rice is estimated to release under 6.27kg (13.8lb) of carbon dioxide, while beef production releases eight times more at 49.89kg, they say.

Researcher Sohyeon Park explained: “We usually obtain the protein we need from livestock, but livestock production consumes a lot of resources and water and releases a lot of greenhouse gas.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice.

“Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

She said: “I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice. Now I see a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food.”

‘People need convincing’

Rice appears to provide a scaffold or structure for the meat cells to grow in, and also gives them nutrients.

The team is not the first to explore lab-grown or cultivated meat products.

Since the first lab-grown burger was unveiled in London in 2013, dozens of companies around the world have joined the race to bring affordable cultivated meat to the market.

Singapore recently started selling the world’s first cultivated chicken product to customers.

Meanwhile, Italy has backed a bill to ban laboratory-produced meat in order to safeguard the country’s food traditions.

Critics point out there is nothing synthetic about lab-grown meat – it is made by growing natural cells.

Prof Neil Ward, an agri-food and climate specialist at the University of East Anglia, said this type of research holds promise for the development of healthier and more climate-friendly diets in future, but that some people needed convincing.

“While data on cost and climate impact look very positive, a critical test is around public appetite for these sorts of lab-developed foods,” he said.

“With lab-based alternative meats in general, the greatest potential is probably in replacing processed meats rather than prime cuts.”

Bridget Benelam from the British Nutrition Foundation said: “Developing a diet that supports health for both people and planet is a major challenge. This study demonstrates an innovative new approach that could contribute to the solution.”

But she added: “The findings represent a relatively small increase in the protein content of rice, which isn’t a high protein food. So further work would be needed if this technology were to be used as an alternative protein source to traditional animal products.

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The Somerset family travelling to Australia without flying

Theo Simon, Rosa and Shannon CogginsBuckle Up Dorothy

A family travelling to Australia without flying have reached Indonesia after a journey of three and a half months.

Shannon Coggins, Theo Simon and their daughter Rosa, 19, left East Pennard on 16 August to begin the 10,000-mile (16,000km) journey to Sydney.

They decided to stop flying in 2002 “because of its effect on the climate”.

The family is hoping to make it in time for Ms Coggins’ sister’s wedding on 28 December.

They have travelled through Kazakhstan, China, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, and are now in Dili, East Timor’s capital, hoping to find a boat to cross the Timor Sea to Darwin, Australia.

From there they plan to take a bus to Sydney.

Theo Simon, Rosa and Shannon Coggins

Buckle Up Dorothy

“My sister moved to Australia in 2007 and she’s getting married in New South Wales on 28 December,” Ms Coggins said.

“Although we live far apart, we’re very close because our mum died when we were young but I’ve never been to her home, or taken her son to school, or even met the man she’s marrying.

“I want us all to be there on her wedding day but I am also trying to do my bit to reduce my carbon footprint by trying not to fly.”

The family saved up for several years to pay for the trip, which has cost them much more than air tickets would have done.

‘A fabulous adventure’

In August, Ms Coggins left her job as administrator at the Avanti Park School in Frome and Mr Simon finished working at Songbird Naturals in Ditcheat.

They also had to turn down bookings for their band Seize The Day during their journey.

“Our band can’t play any gigs without us, but we hope to be back in June 2024 for the summer season,” Mr Simon said.

“All three of us have campaigned in different ways for action on climate change, so we decided our journey to Australia would have to be as low-carbon as practical.”

He added: “But we’re realistic. We know that people can’t necessarily find the time to do this, and unfortunately the world isn’t currently set up to make low-carbon travel easier than flying.

“But it has been a fabulous adventure so far, and we’ve still got our fingers crossed that the harbour master in Dili can help us find a boat.”

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Commentary: COP28 raises questions about the future of Singapore’s fossil fuel-reliant industries

DATA CENTRES, MARITIME AND AVIATION

Another area to keep an eye on is the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. Currently, the ICT industry is responsible for a relatively modest 8 per cent of electricity consumption in Singapore. However, ICT power use has quadrupled over the last 10 years.

According to consultancy Cushman and Wakefield, Singapore is now the largest data-centre market on a city basis in the Asia-Pacific outside China, with more than 40 data centres. Given the growth potential of this industry, it is important for data centres to adopt the latest smart cooling technologies. 

A further concern is maritime transport and aviation, business activities which Singapore is a hub for. The emissions associated with these sectors are generally not included in national estimates, because the fuels used are categorised as “international bunkers” and are not included in the Paris Agreement. This loophole has limited the pressure to address these sectors’ emissions until recently.

If the aviation industry fails to abate its emissions, it could consume more than a quarter of the world’s carbon budget for 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050. Although the aviation industry has recently agreed to reach net zero emissions by 2050, this is a voluntary agreement which risks being reneged upon if procuring enough sustainable aviation fuel or commercialising electric planes proves too challenging.  

A rigorous carbon accounting model would include all emissions attributable to Singaporeans’ air travel. It would also include the emissions due to shipping of goods they buy. Ideally, it would additionally account for the emissions due to the production of goods imported into the country.

While these indirect emissions are more challenging to estimate, they are crucial in getting the full picture of Singapore’s carbon footprint. It is time for individuals, companies and countries to take responsibility for their own actions and the environmental impacts they cause.

The transition away from fossil fuels is now official. The urgency of the climate crisis behoves all countries to take stock of and apportion responsibility for their emissions. The conclusion of COP28 is a chance for Singapore to review its climate strategy and decide where it should strengthen its efforts.

Roger Fouquet is Senior Research Fellow at Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore.

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Push to green data centres as they guzzle more power amid growing digital demands

‘EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS’

The view is shared by companies such as Empyrion DC, a next-generation digital infrastructure platform headquartered in Singapore. 

Empyrion DC CEO Mark Fong said this involves thinking about sustainability holistically, “because every little bit counts”. 

The company has taken steps to cut down its carbon footprint, including regularly upgrading technology, properly managing e-waste and reducing water usage in the bathrooms. 

“The end goal is really to be able to tap off the grid clean energy,” said Mr Fong, adding that even starting with 10 per cent is a step in the right direction. 

Tech giant Google has been matching 100 per cent of its global annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy since 2017. 

The company plans to operate its data centres around the world on carbon-free energy by 2030. 

“Obviously this is very challenging, even with… the most advanced renewable markets that we have now,” said Mr Ken Siah, head of Data Center Public Affairs (Asia Pacific) at Google. 

“The sun is not going to shine 24 hours a day. The wind is not going to blow 24 hours a day. So we have to really work with governments, energy producers, (and) renewable energy generators to make sure the grid is set up and properly equipped to make this transition.”

There is a need to encourage governments to tweak regulations, and invest in scores of renewable energy projects globally, said observers.

For Google, the transition also involves installing more efficient chips, using machine learning to slash power consumption, and even giving customers a chance to choose where in the world they want to run their cloud computing to meet their own sustainability goals.

“Customers are demanding it. Governments are demanding it. It is a business imperative that they have to become more sustainable,” said Mr Siah. 

“And I think a lot of companies recognise this, and I think that’s why you see there’s a greater push in the industry in general to have more sustainable data centres.”
 

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Indonesia thinks its nickel export ban is working

Economists have long advised Indonesia to reduce its reliance on commodity exports and promote economic diversification. The Indonesian government has been pursuing this through the establishment of special economic zones and tax holidays. 

But in 2020, the Covid-19-induced recession led to a more draconian diversification approach with a ban on the export of all unprocessed nickel.

Using an export ban as an industrial policy instrument is controversial since it creates market distortions and its goals must be carefully stated and measured.

Nickel is an important material for the production of most rechargeable batteries and its significance in the global supply chain has increased dramatically with the pursuit of global net-zero ambitions. 

As Indonesia is the largest producer of nickel ores, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is sanguine about leveraging this advantage to increase the domestic value added from the nickel ore export ban.

Domestic value creation is cited as Jokowi’s primary goal. On paper, the results of the export ban are striking. Almost US$14 billion has been invested in nickel smelter capacity in Indonesia. 

Maluku Utara and Sulawesi Tengah, Indonesia’s nickel downstreaming provinces, experienced double-digit growth rates in 2021, driven primarily by investment in the industry. Jokowi has highlighted how the ban has seen a 30-fold increase in the value of Indonesia’s nickel-related exports.

Calculating domestic value added is not straightforward. Comparing nickel ore export values and their derivatives is misleading since downstream products also embody the cost of energy needed for production and other inputs.

President Joko Widodo (third left) during a visit to the PT Obsidian Stainless Steel (OSS) production line, during a series of events for the inauguration of the China-invested nickel smelter factory PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) in Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, in a file photo. Image: Twitter / Doc Palace / Agus Suparto

Because Indonesia was one of the largest nickel ore exporters, the ban has led to an increase in the international price of nickel and its derivatives. Investors in smelters now enjoy a much cheaper domestic price for nickel ore and a much higher value for exports of nickel metal. 

On top of the tax holidays and cheap energy, which are crucial for capital and energy-intensive extraction, smelters are effectively subsidized by the government.

One may justify a reduction of short-term efficiency for future gain. The ultimate aim of nickel downstreaming is to position Indonesia as a major producer of electric vehicles (EVs), and achieving this may warrant a short-term loss. But the details matter and the challenges are apparent.

Most of the nickel mined in Indonesia is more suitable for producing stainless steel than renewable batteries. General smelter incentives and the nickel export ban skew investment towards stainless steel production instead of EVs. 

The government has had to introduce measures to stop the growth of stainless steel production – including taxing exports of ferronickel – to support the development of smelters for battery production and processing facilities for high-pressure acid leaching.

The processing of nickel for use in EV batteries, however, comes with a significant environmental and carbon footprint. This is important if Indonesia wants to tap into the global market for EV products, particularly in Western markets. 

EVs and their components are generally still more expensive than conventional combustion engine vehicles, and the Indonesian market alone will not be large enough to build sufficient scale.

Accessing the EU and US markets is likely to be challenging. In addition to environmental concerns, both have their own industrial policies. The fact that the European Union took legal action against Indonesia over the nickel export ban and won with US support does not help.

The Chinese market, which is larger and growing faster, is a potential market for Indonesian EV production. But the highest-selling EVs in China use nickel-free batteries. Global nickel scarcity creates incentives for producers to reduce or even eliminate nickel content in their batteries through technological innovation.

The Indonesian government is considering reducing its EV import tax to encourage the adoption of EVs domestically. While this policy may help Indonesia’s domestic EV adoption goal, it runs counter to the aim of nickel downstreaming. 

Indonesian EV producers must compete with imported EVs, which may reduce the market share of domestically produced EVs even further and discourage investors from building an Indonesian EV industry.

By considering an import tax reduction for EVs, the Indonesian government implicitly acknowledges that building a domestic EV industry is at odds with its 2060 net-zero emissions goal. 

For now, a better bet may be to focus on electric scooters, which are easier to manufacture and more affordable to domestic consumers. By tapping into this market first, Indonesia could gradually expand its industry for larger EVs.

Trade policy remains key. If the Indonesian government thinks the European Union filing a case against Indonesia in the WTO is a form of “forced export”, it should navigate this diplomatically. If Indonesia wants to restrict its exports, it should not complain when the European Union imposes controls on its imports from Indonesia. 

The Indonesian government needs to understand the reciprocal nature of WTO membership if it wants to negotiate this matter with partners.

Indonesia has imposed a ban on raw nickel exports. Image: Facebook

Nickel is a small part of the whole EV value chain and building an EV industry requires much more than a ban on nickel exports. But Indonesia’s nickel downstreaming policy is here to stay. 

Firms already committed to investing in Indonesia under conditions set by the policy have an incentive to resist change to the status quo. The government has to consider the country’s reputation as an unpredictable investment destination if the resource-based downstreaming story is to be sold as one of Jokowi’s biggest achievements when he ends his second term in 2024.

Downstreaming will not get any easier for the next Indonesian president. Government funding will be constrained by the debts of past infrastructure projects and the construction of Indonesia’s new capital city. Global uncertainty and high-interest rates won’t help either. 

As renewable industries become more complex, factors like a predictable supply chain, proper law enforcement, market access, human resources and technology will become even more important. 

The Indonesian government has to address these issues to improve Indonesia’s business environment. Relying on export bans is no magical solution in framing Indonesia’s industrial policy.

Krisna Gupta is Lecturer at Politeknik APP Jakarta and an Associate Researcher at the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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