Cultured beef and chicken meat concept for in vitro cell culture meat production. Credit – Getty Images/iStockphoto
China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has set the lab-grown meat industry abuzz with the release of its official five-year agricultural plan (pdf in Chinese) on Jan. 26. For the first time, China included cultivated meats and other “future foods” like plant-based eggs as part of its blueprint for food security going forward.
Grown from animal stem cells in a bioreactor and nourished on a nutrient broth, cultivated meats are a relatively new technology that promises to upend traditional animal agriculture by replacing slaughterhouses with laboratories. But while alternative meat companies have made immense strides in replicating the taste and texture of conventionally raised pork, beef, and chicken, barriers to large scale development and distribution remain. China’s embrace of the technology could upend that metric by encouraging investment and providing a market.
“China is far and away the largest consumer of eggs and meat in the world, so incorporating plant-based eggs and cultivated meat into the country’s five-year plan is a significant indicator of what’s to come,” says Josh Tetrick, the CEO of California-based food-technology company Eat Just Inc., which is already selling plant-based eggs in China, and cell-cultivated chicken in Singapore.
“This nationwide strategic initiative could accelerate the country’s regulatory timeline for cultivated meat, drive more research and investment into the alternative protein industry and fuel broader consumer acceptance of these products,” Tetrick says. “In short, this is one of—if not the most—important policy actions in the history of alternative proteins.”
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China, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, is under pressure to take stronger actions to address its role in global warming. Animal agriculture could be a good place to start. Livestock raised for food accounts for up to 14.5% of global emissions according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. China’s livestock was responsible for nearly 29% of the country’s direct and indirect agriculture emissions in 2014, the latest year for which official figures are available.
The U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change is calling for a reduction in global meat consumption to help reduce climate-warming gasses. Yet global demand for meat is set to nearly double by 2050, according to the World Resources Institute, particularly in nations with a growing middle class, like China. Per capita meat consumption has tripled since the late 1980s in China, and today the country consumes 28% of the world’s meat, including half of all pork.
By promoting cultivated meat alternatives, China could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from raising livestock (or importing meat), while ensuring that it maintains food security—a vital concern, particularly after the 2019 and 2020 African swine fever outbreaks that saw domestic pork production plummet in China. “As the world grapples with the twin challenges of skyrocketing protein demand and diminishing natural resources, a rapid shift towards plant-based and cultivated meat is a critical element of how we increase food security, mitigate environmental degradation, and alleviate global poverty,” says Mirte Gosker, the Asia acting managing director for the alternative meat promotion organization Good Food Institute. “By including game-changing food technologies like cultivated meat, [China’s] national leaders are saying publicly what others around the world have long hoped: that China intends to go all-in on building the future of food.”
That’s not just good for China, it’s also good for the cultivated meat industry. China has yet to grant regulatory approval for the sale of cultivated meat (so far, Singapore is the only country in the world that has), but that could soon change as pressure mounts to achieve the five-year plan. Market approval would see increased private investment in local cultivated meat start-ups, like Joes Future Food, which has already raised nearly $11 million to start lab-grown pork production. Meanwhile, the sheer size of China’s potential market could spark additional investment in global brands that are already scaling up.
“When China moves, especially on an area as critical to the global economy as food production, the world takes notice and often moves to either compete or partner,” says Tetrick. For the companies developing meat alternatives, both are a good thing.