Xi’s remarks are encouraging but alternative protein a long game in China
Official pronouncements from China on alternative protein sources have raised hopes for the nascent sector in the country. Development, though, will take time and patience, writes Tao Zhang.
On 6 March, China’s President, Xi Jinping, met members of the country’s agricultural, social welfare and social security sectors during the session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He participated in the joint group meeting, listened to opinions and suggestions and delivered a speech that could have far-reaching implications for the development of alternative proteins in the country.
In the speech, Xi mentioned the need for China to develop new proteins especially from plants and microorganisms.
“It is necessary to establish a big food concept … [and] it is necessary to ask for food from forests, from rivers, lakes, and seas, and from facility agriculture. At the same time, it is necessary to expand from traditional crops and livestock and poultry resources to more abundant biological resources, develop biotechnology and bio-industry, and seek energy and protein from plants, animals, and micro-organisms.”
Without a doubt, the remarks are a welcome signal China’s highest levels of government are interested in diversifying protein production.
Alternative proteins are growing rapidly worldwide. And the same could be happening in China if geared correctly, where 700 million consumers under 40 can help drive new interest in plant-based meats.
At the same time, it’s still early and we must wait to see how this high-level directive translates into concrete and useful policies. That will take time, patience and, above all, consistent effort and attention at all levels of Chinese policy-making and implementation.
Moreover, despite the growing recognition of next-generation plant-based protein in China, the products also face some backlash from consumers. A recent video on social media showing a famous young actress promoting plant-based meat dumplings sparked an online debate about the affordability and nutrition of plant-based meat products.
And there are even concerns foreign companies often hold the core technologies behind these new protein products – will that intellectual property take advantage of Chinese consumers without benefiting growing companies in the region?
The fact is that, in China, the knowledge – and adoption of – new protein products among mainstream consumers remains limited and there are no short cuts.
Celebrity-driven buzz comes and goes but it doesn’t last. Companies need to be very cautious, as only the right products can help win over consumers in China and it will take time.
What about cell-cultivated meat? Could it be a path of less resistance in China?
In January, Time magazine reported on the release of China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ five-year agricultural plan, highlighting that cultivated meats and plant-based products were part of the country’s approach to food security in the future.
Again, it’s promising, but let’s not get too excited yet.
For one thing, cell-cultivated meat was mentioned just once in the five-year plan and is quite hard to find, buried in a 45-page document:
“Food manufacturing of the future: Research cell-based meat, synthetic egg cream, functional recombinant protein cultivation, and manufacturing technology of other nutritional foods, promoting the use of high-value agricultural product resources, component interaction and quality control, new food resource mining, food big data, food omics, functional technological innovations such as functional food, molecular food creation, food hazard monitoring and evaluation.”
Essentially, China’s government plans to encourage more research into new, food-related technologies, and cell-cultivated meat is just one of them. At the same time, the five-year initiative seems to emphasise the need for further development of China’s livestock industry. On a separate but maybe relevant note, it is worth pointing out that Xi also made the following remark when he was urging caution about the proposed shift to renewable energies over coal, saying, “We cannot throw away the tools that can feed us before getting new tools.”
Meat consumption worldwide has been on the rise for decades, including in China, where rising incomes and living standards are driving new demand for quality protein. Though urgent, a solution to this problem requires patience, persistence, and long-term planning for both plant-based and cell-cultivated proteins.
Above all, it’s early and reading the tea leaves of ever-evolving China policy is an ongoing process that takes time, patience, and, above all, consistency of effort and attention. Decades of experience in China tell us this and it will be no different for alternative protein – even after the President’s remarks.
Although momentum has been building up in this sector over the past two years, the reality is alternative protein is still relatively nascent in China. That’s OK. Building a new industry in China is not a sprint but a marathon.
The game-changers in this space will be those entrepreneurs who know how to conquer the stomachs and minds of China’s mainstream consumers and the investors who are prepared to support them, each step along the way and for the long run.
Main image: Tianjin/China-April 23,2020: Starbucks announced to sell Beyond Meat’s plant-based alternative beef products in most of its stores in China. Credit: YPPicturesPro / Shutterstock.com