The growing appetite for plant-based meat in China: what’s driving the change and what does the future hold?
China is gearing up for a diet change. Madaline Dunn looks at why plant-based eating is on the rise in one of the most carnivorous countries, and the impact of the transition on China and the world.
In our ongoing China series, we’re looking at the country’s pulse market in more detail and discovering the flourishing plant-based revolution.
The recent launch of the China Vegan Society (CVS), the opening of the ProVeg Shanghai office, and the Chinese government’s inclusion of plant-based food in its five-year plan for the first time all indicate one thing: attitudes to diet are changing in China.
Concerns around health, Covid-19 and the environment have been cited as some of the main drivers pushing plant-based food into the spotlight. One major poll, for example, found that 80% of Chinese people are either “concerned” or “very concerned” about climate change. The Chinese government is beginning to take the climate crisis seriously, too: twelve years after being blamed for the failed Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 (COP15), it has made a number of sustainability pledges, started investing in green tech and outlined a plan to promote the development of plant-based food.
Considering its size, consumption habits and influence on international markets, many believe that China holds the key to unlocking the global plant-based food revolution.
Rising plant-based consumption
China’s per capita meat consumption may have increased five-fold in the last 30 years but that doesn’t stop the population being hungry for something new. The change is reflected in the country’s burgeoning plant-based meat sector, which, according to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, is set to grow 200% over the next five years and is forecast to be worth almost $12bn by 2023. Who is driving this change and why?
Research in 2018 found that the demographic driving the plant-based movement is the 18-35s, who make up 46.9% of plant-based meat consumers while those aged 18 years and below make up 25.7%. Bloomberg found that almost half of millennials cited health reasons and environmental concerns (27%) as their motivation, making it clear that the younger demographic is increasingly conscious of the dangers of eating meat.
While Covid-19 peaked awareness of the risks posed by meat-eating and zoonotic pathogens, the Chinese population is also waking up to the environmental havoc the meat industry is wreaking on the country. Research shows that the industry has contributed to nearly 20% of China’s notorious air pollution which, according to a 2021 study, is responsible for up to 90,000 premature deaths each year. Between 1980 and 2010, for example, meat production ballooned by 433%, increasing from 15 megatons to 80 megatons. In that same period, agricultural ammonia (NH3) emissions doubled.
Chinese consumers are also becoming increasingly health-conscious. An Ipsos survey revealed that 84% of the population is paying more attention to their health in the wake of Covid-19 - and it’s better late than never: high blood pressure affects one in three adults and the country also has the largest number of diabetics globally - ailments both linked to excess meat consumption.
In response to the surging demand for more plant-based options, the restaurant industry is making moves: according to a PTI report, in Shanghai alone between 2012-2017, vegan restaurant offerings increased from 49 to 100. Likewise, fast food giant KFC has begun to sell plant-based nuggets and both TacoBell and Starbucks have started to distribute OmniPork, a plant-based pork alternative in branches across the country.
It’s also worth noting that when it comes to plant protein processing capabilities, China is front and center. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), China currently owns the majority of the world’s processed soy protein supply and half of that of pea protein. Clearly, China’s processing companies, which typically export between 50% to 100% of their products, are in a prime position to accelerate the growth of the plant-based meat market in the country as demand for processed soy, pea and mung bean increases.
China’s five-year agricultural plan
Although in the past China has been criticized for its lack of action around climate change, the tide has changed in recent years. In 2016, the health ministry published new dietary guidelines that recommended a 50% reduction in meat consumption as part of the pledge to cut carbon emissions. In 2020, in an unprecedented move, China’s president Xi Jinping told the United Nations general assembly that the country pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, and achieve “carbon neutrality” before 2060.
Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs published its 14th Five-Year Plan outlining the national strategy to establish a better food system. For the first time, this plan includes both plant-based and cultivated meat alternatives and has subsequently been called the “blueprint for the future of meat,” and one of the most important policy actions in the history of alternative proteins by Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just Inc, in terms of its ability to drive both investment and consumer acceptance.
And China isn’t pushing for the adoption of more alternative diets solely for the sake of the planet. Food security has become a serious issue in the country over the last few years; feeding 1.4 billion people, it seems, is no mean feat. Recently, China's agricultural ministry admitted that the country is facing its worst-ever crop harvest due to record floods and other destructive climactic events. According to research, China is also gearing up for a meat deficit of over 53 million tonnes between 2021 and 2030 and over the last few decades has become increasingly dependent on imports to feed its population. In 2020, responding to the food insecurity issue, President Xi Jinping launched a “clean plate campaign” and indicated that China needed to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security”.
Change China, change the world
If the world is to win the fight against climate change, China needs to change its eating habits. The most populous country in the world is, naturally, also the largest consumer of meat and eggs. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2022 alone the Chinese will consume 3 million tons of pork and 10 million tons of beef and veal.
If China, whose agricultural production is responsible for 13% of global GHG emissions, replaced even a small fraction of its meat and egg consumption with alternatives, the effect on the world would be transformative. If, for example, the country’s livestock industry were to halve, in line with its 2016 guidelines, the changes would result in a 1 billion metric-ton reduction in CO2 emissions.
With export volumes of processed pulses and soy still high, the evolution of the country’s plant-based protein industry, although promising, is still in its early phases. While there has been some sway in recent years with regard to the uptake of plant-based eating within the country, looking ahead, consumers in China appear to be more willing to adopt cultivated meat over plant-based alternatives. A 2022 report from Lever China and Chinese media outlet FoodPlus found that 90% of those surveyed would eat cultivated meat and 30% would regularly consume it as their primary source of protein if the same texture, taste and appearance could be achieved.
When it comes to the widespread adoption of plant-based meat alternatives, there are a number of potential barriers. The current price of newer alternatives is one example. Right now, the companies creating meat mimickers in the country are working within a small industry, however, as these plant-based alternatives scale, their products will become more affordable. As per projections made by the GFI, plant-based meat is expected to reach parity with conventional animal meat by 2023.
Another factor to consider is the need to convince a population that believes strongly in meat's nutritional value that the same nutritional profile and taste can be delivered through alternatives. A Good Food Academy survey, for example,found that much of the population perceives beef as a ‘healthy food option” and a significant portion also believes that beef is required for good nutrition.
At the same time, attitudes are shifting and recent research shows an increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables in China. Furthermore, a GFI report found that 86.7% of people surveyed eat plant-based products, despite over 90% not identifying with the vegan moniker.
The transition to plant-based eating in China is well and truly on the way. While the evolution may be complex, change is indisputably on the horizon when it comes to the country’s eating habits, attitudes and environmental policy. And that, in a country that represents almost one fifth of the global population, can only be a good thing.