Moving away from meat

A McDonald's
A McDonald’s “PLT” burger with a Beyond Meat plant-based patty at one of 28 test restaurant locations in London, Ontario, Canada Oct 2, 2019. (Reuters file photo)

A recent report identified food security as the main driver for the adoption of alternative and plant-based meat products in China, where the population of 1.4 billion consumes 86 million tonnes of meat annually — more than double the amount eaten in the United States.

The report, by the credit intelligence agency Fitch Solutions, found China’s meat self-sufficiency is declining and the country is becoming more reliant on imports. While nearly 20% of Chinese people are already vegetarians by choice, the swine fever epidemic — which I wrote about last month — is increasing China’s focus on meat security and driving demand for safer non-animal protein.

The Chinese market for alternative meat is already the largest in the world, according to the Good Food Institute, with sales of US$910 million in 2018, compared with $684 million in the US. The two largest global alternative meat players — Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — are yet to join the Chinese market, leaving it open for local players to gain a strong foothold.

Alternative meat is not a new development for China, as imitation meat made from plants, such as seitan and tofu, has been a part of the national cuisine for more than a thousand years. There are currently only a handful of alternative meat manufacturers in China, with most using soy protein to mimic the texture, taste and quality of animal protein.

This differs from Impossible Foods, which has invented and patented heme (or haem), which is the iron-rich molecule in blood that gives animal meat its deep red colour. There are also reports that lab-grown meat, developed by US-based Future Meat Technologies, may be on our shelves by 2022.

Eager to take on its Western counterparts, Whole Perfect Food is a Chinese alternative meat manufacturer with annual sales of 300 million yuan ($44.6 million). Founded on Buddhist principles, the company sells hundreds of plant-based imitations of foods including oyster sauce, bacon, sausage and hamburger patties, even extracting protein from seaweed to make vegan seafood.

The global alternative meat market was estimated at $4.6 billion last year and is predicted to reach $6.4 billion by 2023, with Asia the fastest-growing region. This could be an opportunity for Thailand where non-meat diets are celebrated each year during the Jae Vegetarian Festival, which features premium-grade plant-based meat substitutes.

Thailand has also long been a centre for environmentally friendly insect protein, which can be produced using significantly less space, water and greenhouse gas emissions.

Apart from reducing the global pork supply, swine fever could prompt us to question our reliance on animal protein. Given the many alternatives to meat in Asia, it could well be that what is in the Petri dish today could be on our plates before we know it.

Suwatchai Songwanich is an executive vice-president with Bangkok Bank.