The demand for meat is growing globally, and China is the world’s largest future market for protein. Extensive research on consumer responses to cultivated meat has disproportionately been conducted in Western contexts, where attitudes toward eating, food safety, ethical consumption, and other factors differ substantially from those in East Asian countries. The wildlife trade and meat from animal farming have also become particularly salient topics with the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
To better understand rising meat consumption in China, The Diplomat spoke with Chloe Dempsey, a Yenching scholar and Cellular Agriculture Society Fellow exploring the future of the consumer market for cultivated meat in China.
How did you first become interested in researching meat in China?
Meat is a particularly interesting case study of the nexus between consumption choices, business, and the impact these have on the environment and society: it’s eaten by almost everyone and it has a devastating impact on our world.
When I first came to China in 2012, I lived in an apartment directly above the live animal section of a market. I would often wake up to the distressing cries of animals being slaughtered. However, this type of meat trade is largely disappearing in China and being replaced by what is familiar to where I grew up: prepackaged meat on a supermarket shelf that has come from an industrial farm. Industrial agriculture is causing a range of environmental and health issues, which is particularly relevant currently, as humanity struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease (transmitted from animals to humans). Zoonoses, which proliferate through industrial agriculture, are considered to be the origin of up to 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases. I became interested in cultivated meat more specifically as an alternative protein, which has the potential to overcome the ethical, health, and environmental issues associated with meat produced through animal slaughter. My research examines the potential for cultivated meat in China, with a focus on the Chinese consumer.
How is cultivated meat different from conventional meat?
Cultivated meat refers to meat produced not through the slaughter of an animal, but through a growth process which originates with animal cells and is then undertaken in a separate environment outside of the animal. This results in a biologically identical piece of meat to that produced conventionally. The process of cultivating meat may differ based on the application of technology and growth processes, but first requires a small sample of cells from a living animal, which can be obtained without any harm to the animal. These cells are then placed in an environment intended to mimic the animal’s body, including replicating important processes like movement and nutrition.
While no country has yet opened its market to cultivated meat, there are many start-ups in the area that have already held numerous public tastings. Some jurisdictions, including the United States and Singapore, are dedicatedly working on developing a regulatory regime.
Is this technology controversial?
Given that the technology is still being developed, there is as yet little public controversy over it. However, it is likely that the vested interests of the meat lobby will try and create controversy over cultivated meat, in a similar manner to what is currently happening with plant-based milks and meat, which face legal challenges and public campaigns against them funded by industry giants who are worried about losing part of their market to these new alternatives. On the other hand, Cargill, the world’s largest meat company, has recognized the value in such innovation and is a significant investor in the largest cultivated meat start-up, Memphis Meats. It is important for the industry to be open about the science behind cultivated meat so that controversy, often wrought by misinformation, can be avoided.
If cultivated meat is not a market staple, what role can cultivated meat play in the Chinese context?
Despite rising domestic production and meat imports, China will still struggle to meet its rapidly rising demand for meat in coming decades. Domestically, China is limited by diminishing amounts of arable land and potable water, as well as affordable feed (aggravated by its trade dispute with the United States). This is combined with the volatility of livestock populations in China and abroad, made evident by the ongoing crisis of African Swine Fever (which has resulted in the decimation of over 40 percent of the country’s pig population), as well as the vagaries of weather patterns and climate change. These threats to ongoing supply should also be considered in the context of the health problems raised by the live animal trade and industrial farming, including animal borne diseases. This is most recently showcased by COVID-19 but evident in other cases such as Avian Flu, as well as the issue of antibiotic resistance due to high levels of microbial use in industrial farming.
In such an environment, cultivated meat has the potential to provide a protein source that can be reliable, safe, and absent of the problems attendant with industrial farming, while also being familiar to our palate and food traditions. China has been a strong case study for the adoption of new technology across various industries, and cultivated meat is an opportunity for the country to develop this reputation further. China’s leadership through adoption in this area could have a global impact not only on the environment, but also on food sustainability in other countries that are developing economically with accompanying dietary changes, such as Pakistan and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Beyond being a safer and more sustainable product, what other factors influence Chinese consumers’ acceptance of or resistance to cultivated meat?
The Chinese historical relationship with meat is as unique as any culture’s and dates back to the domestication of the pig in the region over 10,000 years ago. While culinary and agrarian traditions that are so ancient may not seem entirely relevant today, they inform some important parts of daily life and culture, such as the Chinese character for home, which is a pictographic image of a pig under a roof. All cultures have complex relationships with food, and often especially meat: China is no exception. It is important to take this into consideration when examining new food products.
Chinese consumers vary from their U.S. counterparts when it comes to their attitudes on cultivated meat. For example, my research confirms prior findings that Chinese consumers are more open to cultivated meat than consumers in the United States. Chinese consumers are more receptive to messaging focusing on the potential health and food safety benefits of cultivated meat, as well as its reliability as a food source. While these issues are important to Chinese domestic audiences, they are not as relevant to Western consumers. Chinese consumers also opt for cultivated meat products that are more similar to typical meat options in China, such as processed meat products like snack sausages. Considering these differences, it is important for industry to recognize that strategies that may work in a Western context are probably not as applicable in China.
What can we learn from China about rising meat consumption around the world?
China illustrates how rising incomes are typically accompanied by rising meat consumption. While this is not universally true, this trend is likely to continue to be reflected across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as these highly populated regions continue to grow economically. The negative externalities of industrial agriculture are beginning to take their toll in China, as well as in other interconnected regions such as the Amazon. These externalities will also begin to take their toll in other countries as the industrialization of animal agriculture inevitably increases. The effects of such increases will have both domestic and global consequences for the environment, as well as human and animal welfare.
Considering China’s movement toward attempting to influence international norms on progress and development, it should take up the mantle of leading on the adoption of such innovative technology, which it is well placed to do with the right support from the government. This may not only be beneficial in resolving a number of increasingly dire domestic issues in China, but the use of such a solution has the potential to positively impact human and animal health and welfare globally.