Artificial meat welcomed for its environment benefits

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, January 27, 2021
Adjust font size:
A customer orders food at a fast food chain outlet in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in south China, on April 28, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

It was 90 years ago when Winston Churchill thought it was absurd to grow a chicken but eat only parts of it. In an essay titled Fifty Years Hence he published in 1931, he envisioned the meat people would eat in the future.

"We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium," he wrote in the essay.

The lab-grown meat that Churchill imagined in the essay didn't appear until the 2010s, decades later than he assumed. In 2013, the first lab-grown hamburger patty was developed successfully and fried up in the Netherlands. The hissing sound from the frying pan kicked open the door of the synthetic meat world.

Scientists from other countries followed suit. In December 2019, a team of Chinese scientists produced 5 grams of meat cultured from animal muscle stem cells.

The 'new'concept

The reason for the birth of lab-grown meat is not to avoid wasting the "inedible parts" of the bird, like Churchill thought, but the fact that the meat produced on Earth can hardly feed its population.

According to a report released by the United Nations in 2019, the world's population is expected to increase to 8.5 billion in 2030, and further to 9.7 billion by 2050. It is estimated that the world's meat production in 2019 was about 335 million tons, and the consumption was about 333 million tons.

"If the current dietary habit, especially meat consumption habit, is followed, the meat products on the planet will not be enough to meet the consumption needs of nearly 10 billion people," said Xue Yan, Secretary General of China Plant Based Foods Alliance, one of the first organizations to represent the alternative protein sector in China. "Meat substitutes may be able to meet the demand for more people to eat meat in a more healthy and green way."

Manmade meat can reduce the environment cost. "Animal husbandry is a major source of land degradation and water pollution," Xue said. In addition, the industry is also a major source of greenhouse emissions. Xue revealed that greenhouse gases produced by animal husbandry account for nearly one fifth of the global total and exceed those produced by all vehicles in the world.

Zhou Guanghong, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University who leads a lab-grown meat project, explained that there are currently two types of manmade meat: plant-based meat and cultured meat. The former is made by extracting plant proteins, while cultured meat is produced by harvesting animal cells and nurturing them to create muscle tissue.

Lab-grown meat still needs some time to break into the market due to its current high cost, and it awaits more support from governments, but plant-based meat has already made its successful market debut.

The words "artificial meat" are not new to Chinese people at all. The use of tofu to make dishes imitating the flavor of meat has a long history in China. It is believed that this tradition originated in Buddhist monasteries after Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), a supporter of Buddhism, advocated monks eat vegetarian food instead of meat. The monks then used soybean products to replace meat dishes and such artificial meat dishes gradually went out of the monasteries. There are some records of such dishes appearing in banquets hosted by officials in the following years.

Such meat substitutes were especially popular in hard days when many households couldn't afford real meat. In rural markets in central China including Henan Province, "artificial meat" is a well-known word as people there have been eating it for decades. With a processing machine, people can even make it at home. On Taobao, the major online shopping platform in China, a seller of such artificial meat sells over 13,000 kg on average every month. "It is the memory of generations in my hometown," a buyer said in their review. "It is the comfort food in my family."

"Such artificial meat including the vegetarian meat served in many vegetarian restaurants in China is different from the artificial meat we talk about now," Jian Yi, founder of Good Food Fund, told Beijing Review. "Even though the traditional artificial meat is also processed from plants like soybeans or mushrooms, the processing is very simple. Their meat effects are mostly from the way and ingredients that people cook them with. The artificial meat that we talk about now involves much more advanced technologies in the processing to make it taste like meat by itself."

Beetroot juice and coconut oil extract give artificial meat the color and texture of animal meat; there is virtually no difference in appearance between the two kinds of meat. Heme, an organic molecule, gives artificial meat a rich meaty flavor.

"Such elements were not included in the traditional imitation meat food made from tofu," Jian said.

Jian has been advocating vegetarian food for years. For him, plant-based artificial meat can solve many issues caused by meat, including the risk of many zoonotic diseases. And when producing artificial meat, the nutrients can be controlled to produce healthier food.

Market prospect

Eyeing the market prospect of artificial meat, many food giants have jumped on the bandwagon. Celebrities including Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing are big investors in this industry.

In November 2019, at the Second China International Import Expo, Impossible Foods, a plant-based meat processor from the United States, made its debut in China's market by launching hamburgers made with plant-based meat. In September that year, a Chinese company produced mooncakes with filling made from artificial meat and within two minutes, the 3,000 boxes were sold out.

In April 2020, KFC and Starbucks both released new foods made of artificial meat. One month later, Heytea, a milk tea chain, announced the debut of its vegan hamburger in cooperation with Starfield, an artificial meat food developer based in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province in south China.

Yu Jinghua, a white-collar worker in Beijing, bought a hamburger from Heytea out of curiosity in late December last year. "For me, it tastes ok but is not as chewy as real meat. But the price is higher than a hamburger made from real meat," Yu told Beijing Review. "I would not buy it again unless they slash the price."

Impossible Foods said its production has increased by six times since 2019, and with expanding production scale, the price of its artificial meat products has been reduced twice within one year, respectively by 15 percent in March 2020 and January.

This advantage is more apparent for lab-grown meat. In 2013, the first artificial meat burger cost about $300,000. A few years later, scientists in the United States claimed that they had reduced the cost to $600. It is estimated that in the following five years, such meat can be affordable to the average household.

There is no doubt that the market for artificial meat has great potential in both China and the world, Zuo Lingye from Matrix Partners China, a leading investor for artificial meat companies, said. "With more startups plunging into this industry, we are expecting to see a great change in the following years."

Follow on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
ChinaNews App Download
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:    
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from