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Hungry China’s Growing Interest in ‘Future Foods’ and Alternative Protein

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Hungry China’s Growing Interest in ‘Future Foods’ and Alternative Protein

Will China turn to lab-grown or plant-based alternatives to meat to meet surging demand?

Hungry China’s Growing Interest in ‘Future Foods’ and Alternative Protein
Credit: Depositphotos

Safeguarding China’s food security has long been a high priority for the Chinese central government. In recent years, food security has been publicly linked to China’s national security by top officials. Although the Chinese central government’s policies and plans relating to food security have mainly stressed the importance of domestic production and diversification of food imports, less attention has been paid to the potential of alternative protein.

Beijing’s Shifting View on Alternative Protein

It appears that Beijing’s public view on alternative protein is beginning to shift. On March 6, Chinese President Xi Jinping reinforced the importance of food security during the 2022 session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In his speech, he encouraged agriculture officials to seek protein sources outside of the traditional livestock industries to help safeguard China’s food supply. As part of this, Xi urged officials to create cell-cultured, plant-based, fermented animal protein alongside traditional food sources to not only secure food supply but also protect the environment. He also noted that innovation is key to China’s food security and sustainable development.

Xi’s speech in March confirmed Chinese authorities’ growing interest in and plans for alternative protein. In January of this year, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released the five-year agricultural plan (2021-2025). The plan, which is linked to the National Medium and Long-term Science and Technology Development Plan (2021-2035) and 14th Five-Year Plan for Promoting Agricultural and Rural Modernization, included a section on “creating future foods” (未来食品制造) for the first time. This section referred to lab-grown meats and plant-based eggs as examples of future foods, which will be part of China’s blueprint for food security going forward.

China’s Enormous Appetite for Protein

The main reason for Beijing’s shift in thinking is the need to address China’s skyrocketing demand for protein. Following the unprecedented growth in demand for protein worldwide since the beginning of the 21st century, China’s protein consumption is projected to grow from 57 million metric tonnes in 2018 to 70 million metric tonnes by 2025. During this period, China is expected to account for 31 percent of the total global increase of protein consumption.

China has a particularly insatiable appetite for meat. Since 2000, total global meat consumption has increased by approximately 2 percent per year with nearly 50 percent of this demand coming from China. By 2050, global demand for meat will almost double, according to the World Resources Institute. Much of this demand is expected to come from developing countries like China, which is the world’s largest meat producer as well as consumer and importer. As a recent Good Food Institute (GFI) report noted, China is one of the biggest arenas for transforming the global protein market.

Intrinsically linked to health and socioeconomic background, meat has shifted from a rare treat to an everyday staple in China. Although the average person in China consumed under 5 kilograms of meat per year in the 1960s, today China is estimated to consume 28 percent of the world’s meat, including half of the world’s pork. Pork products dominate the Chinese market. For instance, between 2000 and 2019, the consumption of pork alone in China rose on average by 49.73 million metric tonnes. And the country’s enormous appetite for meat is likely to continue to grow. Present forecasts predict almost 30 percent of additional demand for meat by 2025, due to factors such as an expanding middle class and changing dietary preferences.

Alternative Proteins

Alternative proteins are plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein. They include food products made from plants, algae, insects, and cultured/lab-grown meat. Changing consumer behavior and interest in alternative-protein sources – due in part to health, price, and environmental concerns as well as animal welfare – have resulted in growth in the alternative proteins market, which is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades.  Currently, the market base for alternative protein is approximately $2.2 billion in comparison to a global meat market of approximately $1.7 trillion. However, by 2050, the GFI predicts that the overall alternative protein market – including plant-based, fermentation-enabled, and cultivated meat – may be worth $250 billion in annual sales.

One of the “future foods” mentioned in China’s five-year agricultural plan was cultivated meat. Cultivated or lab-grown meat is grown directly from animal cells rather than the raising and slaughtering of animals. A relatively new yet controversial technology, cultivated meat aims to overturn traditional animal agriculture by replacing slaughterhouses with laboratories.  At present, only Singapore has approved the sale of cultivated meat (chicken) although other countries such as the Netherlands are heading in that direction. However, in recent years, the Chinese central government has demonstrated a growing interest in cultivated or lab-grown meat. In 2017, China signed a $300 million deal to import cultured-meat technology from Israel while in September 2021, Chinese cultivated meat start-up CellX closed a funding round of $4.3 million, months after the company’s initial pre-seed round in late 2020.

Plant-based meat is another alternative protein that was also mentioned in the five-year plan. Despite regulatory approval for the commercial sale of cultivated meat in China having not yet been given, other alternatives, such as plant-based meat, are already produced and sold in China. In 2018, China’s market for plant-based meat substitutes was estimated at $910 million, compared with $684 million in the U.S., and is expected to increase by 20 to 25 percent annually.

Implications and Challenges

The shift in the Chinese central government’s policy comes at a time when Beijing is seeking to continue strengthening its commitment to food security through a dual food security strategy approach, heading against internal and external long-term challenges (such as domestic production deficits and climate change impacts) as well as growing new threats (such as rising fertilizer prices) against a backdrop of complex geopolitical events. These events, such as the Russia-Ukraine War and subsequent rise in food protectionism along with the lingering China-U.S. trade tensions, as well as the growing vulnerability of the global food supply chain due to accelerated climate change impacts and COVID-19-related disruptions, have all impacted China’s food security.

In response to these concerns, Beijing is seeking to diversify its food imports for non-staples (such as soybeans) and agricultural trade routes, aiming to boost domestic agricultural production of staples (such as rice and wheat), looking to biotechnology for answers to achieve self-sufficiency, as well as attempting to reduce demand at home. Notably, Beijing has recently expand its push for self-sufficiency, having included meat and dairy self-sufficiency targets in its five-year plan. In December 2021, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released a five-year plan under which China will seek to maintain a target to meet 95 percent of protein demand domestically through 2025. As part of this, China aims to achieve full self-sufficiency for poultry and eggs and 95 percent self-sufficiency for pork. In addition, it seeks to reach 85 percent self-sufficiency in beef and mutton and 70 percent in dairy. Aside from being part of an overarching aim to safeguard food security, producing alternative protein domestically may be seen as a way of helping China achieve these new self-sufficiency targets.

However, concerns remain over how successful China’s food security policies, including greater domestic agricultural production, will be. For these reasons, Beijing may consider alternative protein, and in particularly lab-grown meat, as part of its answer to food insecurity concerns and greater push for self-sufficiency alongside other measures and policies. If approved for commercial sale, lab-grown meat and other forms of alternative protein may be used to help in the next decade and beyond to meet growing consumer demand for meat by offering consumers mass-produced alternative proteins. This approach could also avoid threats that affect animals, such as African Swine Fever and zoonotic diseases.

Another aspect to consider is that the use of alternative protein, particularly lab-grown meat, could play a role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from raising or importing meat, and helping China meet carbon neutrality. China, the world’s biggest GHG emitter, has long been pushed by the international community to reduce GHG emissions. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, raising livestock for food accounts for up to 14.5 percent of global emissions. In China, the percentage is even greater: In 2014, the country’s livestock made up almost 29 percent of China’s indirect and direct agriculture emissions. Considering China’s limited natural resources (such as land and water) combined with labor and energy insecurity as well as its climate change commitments (such as the so-called “3060” goals), using stem-cell meat and other approaches may be seen as a potential (partial) answer to these concerns, despite sustainability and food safety concerns.

China’s growing interest in “future foods” and alternative proteins could have implications for major meat exporting countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. Although China is the world’s biggest meat consumer, the country is also the biggest meat producer and as such, is already self-sufficient in protein such as pork to a high degree. Thus, any reduction in meat and animal feed imports by China means that millions more tonnes will be available for other meat importing countries such as Japan and South Korea and many feed importing countries. This may have a ripple effect on grain and meat prices in major exporting countries as well as worldwide.

In conclusion, Beijing’s shifting view on cultivated meat and other “future foods” reflects its commitment to securing the country’s food security, including through domestic production, and diversification of food sources. At the same time, it is an acknowledgement of and a means of addressing nation-wide issues, including diminishing natural resources, skyrocketing protein demand, and climate change commitments as well as addressing the changing dietary preferences of an expanding middle-class and growing population. If regulatory approval is granted as expected, this could make China the biggest market for and a world leader in alternative protein (such as insect-based protein, pea protein, seaweed, plant-based meat, etc.) alongside the establishment of “agricultural Silicon Valley hubs” for research and development.

However, this is not without concerns or challenges. At present, regulatory governance frameworks and methods or plans of scaling up production of alternative protein in China are yet to be seen. For consumers, there could be issues surrounding food safety and sustainability concerns, which may need to be addressed first. For major meat and animal feed exporting countries, changing dietary preferences of Chinese consumers to alternative protein could impact their levels of agricultural exports and consequently national GDP, forcing countries to search for alternative markets while farmers may eventually look to producing other crops instead.

Guest Author

Genevieve Donnellon-May

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a master's candidate in Water, Science and Policy at the University of Oxford. Her interests include China, Africa, and regional resource governance. Genevieve's work has been published by AsiaGlobal Online, the Diplomat, Inter-Press Service, and the Wilson Center's New Security Beat.

Guest Author

Zhang Hongzhou

Dr. Zhang Hongzhou is a research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  He received his Ph.D. in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. His main research interests include regional and global resources conflicts and governance, game theory, discourse analysis, emerging technologies.