The country that eats more pork than any other could be looking at a pork-less future. As China battles the African swine fever that has wiped out millions of pigs domestically and across the wider Asian region, the alternative meat movement has taken off. A plethora of plant-based and cellular meat startups, including both local and foreign players, are betting on the Chinese market, and consumers seem to be biting.
China is home to over half of the world’s pigs, producing more than 50 million tonnes of pork meat in 2018. Chinese citizens consume more pork than any other country, but supplies are currently threatened due to the outbreak of African swine epidemic. In China alone, over 100 million pigs have been culled by authorities, and the government has called on Chinese citizens to reduce their pork consumption. The situation is so dire that the country has even begun releasing “emergency pork reserves” to deal with the shortage, especially as we approach China’s national “Golden Week” holiday, which begins October 1st.
The problem with eating pork doesn’t just lie in the threat of disease, but its environmental impact too. Industrial hog farming generates a huge amount of ammonia-filled waste that contaminates waterways, eliminating the oxygen in water and choking fish. Pork rearing also produces large amounts of carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming and more frequent climate disasters. The animal livestock industry has repeatedly been labelled as one of the primary polluters in the world, accountable for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures.
The answer may lie in the plant-based alternative meat industry. These products mimic the standard taste and texture of meat without the health and environmental negatives or animal cruelty concerns associated with meat. Sales of these plant-based products, from burgers to sausages, have soared globally in the past few years as both consumers and investors wisen up to the importance of reducing meat consumption, and more recently, the companies behind these alternative protein products are eyeing China with barely concealed glee. Catering to the Chinese palette offers huge opportunities for growing food tech companies.
Hong Kong’s Green Monday, for instance, debuted a minced-pork alternative Omnipork earlier this year to rave reviews and record growth. Mere months after launched, the vegan-friendly pork-like mince is now available in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and is set to launch in China imminently.
Beijing-based plant-based startup Zhenmeat is also bringing pea-protein and fungus meat analogs to China by creating alternatives tailored to local cuisine dishes, from dim sum to mooncakes.
Alongside these local brands are leading Silicon Valley food tech startups who are also looking to make inroads into Chinese dinner plates. These include Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, who have now served their plant-based burgers all around Asia. JUST, with their mung-bean-based scrambled egg, is also keen to capitalise on the Chinese market, and their product is now available at select Chinese retailers.
VC-darling Impossible Foods, whose bleeding soy-protein burger patty has been recognised as one of the best imitations of beef’s texture and mouthfeel, said in a statement that “plant-based meat can set the clock back on climate change, save water and reduce water pollution, and still support nutrition and China’s strong legacy of plant-based cuisine.”
Indeed, despite its current reputation as a pork-addicted and meat-and-egg loving country, China has long been a cradle for plant-based dishes due to Buddhist influences. Mock meats in traditional Buddhist cuisine dates as far back as the 12th century, and have always been a counterweight dish that omnivores enjoy regularly.
And the demand for meat alternatives is clearly there to battle out the hardcore meat lovers in China. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Chinese consumers are now increasingly ethically minded and environmentally conscious, and exhibited great levels of approval for plant-based and “clean” cultured meat products. The study surveyed over 3,000 participants in the United States, China and India, and found that while all three countries demonstrated high levels of acceptance, Chinese respondents were twice as likely to buy alternative meat options than their counterparts.
With Chinese consumers on board, it is possible that the majority of meat consumption of the future would no longer be manufactured traditionally through livestock farming. As found in a recent report by global consultancy AT Kearney, consumers are seeing meat eating as an unnecessary evil. The analysis also predicts that by 2040, as much as 60% of meat will be lab-produced or plant-based with Asia at the helm driving the change.
Lead image courtesy of RightTreat.