Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 21
Plant-based meat alternatives were first introduced to China over 2000 years ago. The original purpose of these products was to support the Buddhist population and the religion’s commitment to vegetarianism. According to a recent report by the Good Food Institute, out of this demand grew two of China’s leading companies in plant-based alternatives, Whole Food Perfect and Godly, but these products have failed to attract non-vegetarians because of their historical significance and taste dissimilarities with their meat counterparts. However, China could soon see the introduction of “2.0” plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meats that appeal to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians in the general public. With this new industry, meat alternatives as a whole would not only serve a historic purpose, but also mitigate the environmental harms associated with the growing animal agriculture and aquaculture industries.
China is currently home to the largest aquaculture and animal agriculture industries in the world both in terms of production and consumption. The scales of these industries create a sustainability challenge for China. Researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Gansu Agricultural University estimate that the contributions of these industries range from 18 percent to 34 percent of China’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Most emissions consist of nitrous oxide and potent methane gases from livestock management that contribute to air pollution issues and climate change. Further, environmentalists identified waste from animal agriculture as a cause of the growing “dead zone” in the South China Sea and pollution in China’s freshwater lakes. These consequences create obvious problems for biodiversity and sustaining ecosystems. Relatedly, the extensive land and water use for this industry poses further threats. These environmental concerns are not limited to animal agriculture, either. According to a review article from Huazhong Agricultural University, overfishing and the release of pathogens through poor waste and pollution management in China’s aquaculture industry threaten habitat depletion. Given that these harms are inextricable from China’s exponential growth, they are expected to increase over the coming years.
The transition from a reliance on these industries towards alternative meats appears to be an environmentally promising strategy for mitigation. For instance, a report on the environmental prospects of cultured meat in China estimates that they would use 7 to 45 percent less energy, 78 to 96 percent fewer GHG emissions, 99 percent less land use and around 90 percent less water use. Plant-based meat alternatives too, from companies like Beyond Meat, create less of a carbon footprint similar to cultured meat with 90 percent fewer GHG emissions, 99 percent less water use, and 93 percent less land use, according to a report by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. Both alternative meat products offer a greener option for China, but such benefits could only be realized after they have become mainstream and competitive in the market.
The attitudes of Chinese consumers towards these products will play a large role in the transition and the environmental benefits they bear. Various surveys of consumer preferences and behavior in China seem to be in favor of such a transition. For instance, one report suggested there is a rising demand for meat products that are advertised as coming from environmentally sustainable sources. In fact, many Chinese consumers are willing to pay more for these kinds of products. An additional survey from the University of Bath on consumer perceptions of plant-based and clean meat found that Chinese consumers reported to be more accepting than American consumers towards cultured meats and plant-based products that have yet to be introduced to their markets. Many of these findings are admittedly limited to reflecting preferences of major cities in China among high-income and well-educated consumers. However, general trends in Chinese markets also seem to be indicative of consumer receptiveness. For example, The Good Food Institute’s Industry Report claims that there has been a noticeable and consistent increase in the (non “2.0”) plant-based meat industry in China of 14 percent every year over the past five years. This report also shows that there have been significant investments into related products such as plant-based snacks and milks.
Throughout any transition of market changes and new industries, it is hard to ignore the power and interests of the Chinese government. What role would the Chinese government play in this transition to a more sustainable food system? Across other environmental topics, current efforts from the government look discouraging. For instance, although China remains in the Paris Climate agreement, they have failed to enforce stronger regulations on emissions at the recent UN Climate Summit. Further, China has followed suit with the U.S. in relaxing environmental regulations across industry lines and, according to a review on China’s Energy Law and Policy, renewable energy sources are still underused. Despite this, the Chinese government seems to be receptive to environmental concerns raised from the public, especially relating to water and air pollution. The alternative meat industry may appeal to these attitudes towards sustainability through their far less taxing consequences on water use and pollution. This gives the alternative meat industry an advantage by supporting the interests of the Chinese government.
The success of the alternative meat industry in China would help alleviate many environmental challenges associated with the current practices of the animal agriculture and aquaculture industries. This opportunity now depends on Chinese consumers, the timely engagement of key companies, and government support. Even with these assumptions, however, there are numerous uncertainties about the future of such a new industry. For instance, given the cultural and historical significance, how would Chinese consumers react if most “2.0” alternative meat products came from the U.S. as opposed to domestic companies? And, perhaps most importantly, how long would the transition take for this new market to become mainstream and for China to reap the environmental benefits? Amid these uncertainties, it remains clear that alternative meat carries the potential for bringing China one step closer to satisfying consumer concerns and promoting sustainable development.