Podcast host Xin Yi Lim spoke to Chloe Dempsey, research fellow at the Cellular Agriculture Society and Yenching scholar at Peking University on all things alternative protein. Dempsey has been researching the alternative protein industry, in particular cultivated or cellular protein, as well as Chinese attitudes towards such foods.
The following Q&A comprises of a few choice nuggets we extracted for you to chew on from our podcast interview for ‘Agri Matters’, a podcast by PDD Podcasts which you can find on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple, Google and other platforms.
XYL: The coronavirus pandemic is clearly on the minds of many people at the moment, how do you think the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes or interest towards alternative protein?
CD: Alternative protein at the moment is generally experiencing a period of growth, and I think that Covid-19 has done nothing but to really accelerate that. Just today, Starbucks put out a new vegan, plant-based menu incorporating well-known brands like Oatly, Beyond and Omnipork from Asia. It’s a real growth area and Covid-19 has made people in the food industry recognize that we need to consider how volatile traditional animal agriculture and animal protein is and consider alternatives.
At the consumer level, people are beginning to realize the health risks, environmental risks and ethical impact of industrial animal farming. They want an alternative — one that’s healthy, that they can understand, and that process is beginning to happen.
At the government and policy-maker level, they are increasingly aware that they need to feed the world’s future population and to do that, they need an alternative to relying on an animal industry that is really vulnerable to shocks like Covid-19 and to infectious diseases which then pose a public health risk. This is especially the case in China, where prior to Covid-19, the African Swine Flu had led to 40% of the pig herd being killed last year. Coupled with Avian Flu, it’s a series of events that are mounting up to make people realize we need to consider what the alternatives are.
XYL: What does it take to get us to the next level of wider adoption? Is it perhaps government intervention on the regulatory front? Countries like Singapore have been relatively ahead of the curve in trying to come up with a proper framework so that industry can grow around it.
CD: Absolutely. Singapore is a good example to look to as it tends to lead in policy broadly and it has a 30% by 2030 policy to improve food sovereignty and reduce reliance on food imports. Alternative protein is one way to do so. Places like Singapore are trying to fast-track the regulatory process and support the industry. You’ve got to have regulations at the government level, you’ve got to have the supply chain, logistics, and also the development of the product itself. At the consumer level you have to have acceptance and a consumer that is willing to adopt the product.
Singapore is being proactive but in other parts of the world there may be roadblocks such as consumer perception that it’s not natural, or the incumbent meat industry and big agriculture lobbyists defending their piece of the pie. There are different attitudes — some players are willing to recognize that they have to be part of the disruption or be disrupted themselves.
XYL: Just to take a step back, do you mind giving us a 101? When we hear the term ‘alternative protein’, what does that actually mean and what is the difference versus conventional protein?
CD: That’s a good question that some people in the industry are still grappling with on the semantics. Alternative protein is an umbrella term to refer to anything not traditionally considered protein. When we traditionally think of protein, and this is a very Western perspective, we think of animal meat, dairy and cheese. The Asian perspective is more diverse, there are plant-based meats, mock meats, that have existed for thousands of years, and tofu. Alternative protein is anything that isn’t that.
Generally speaking, when people say ‘alternative protein’, they tend to be referring to three major types of products. First of those is plant-based meat like Beyond Meat, Omnipork, Impossible, which are completely made from non-animal sources but seeks to imitate meat. Then there is cultivated meat, which has yet to come to market anywhere — it is growing meat, just outside of the animal. The third area is insect protein, farming insects or using insects, and the products from insect protein could imitate meat or be completely new products.
XYL: What’s interesting to note is also that there has been a ground swell of consumer demand. Seems like vegetarian and vegan diets have gained in popularity over the last 10–15 years with internet queries for these terms growing at a 3% and 16% CAGR respectively. Do you think this surge of interest is mainly due to ethical reasons? Or are there other reasons driving consumers to these kinds of diets? Why should they be considering alternative protein?
CD: Ethical reasons are sometimes part of the equation. My research looks at historical relationships with meat and attitudes towards diet. Often in the Western context, when we think of a vegetarian it is often someone taking the moral high ground. But I think increasingly there is a movement of people towards plant-based diets for health, environmental and ethical impact reasons. Moving from saying ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ to saying ‘plant-based diet’ where the overwhelming majority of your calories (and protein) come from plant-based foods is not as strict or dogmatic, which encourages more people to join this movement.
Increasingly people are learning of how the livestock industry is contributing to 15% of global warming. Environmentally speaking we just cannot continue investing in this industrial process with animals.
On the health basis, companies are creating products with improved nutritional profile in comparison with meat. You can get all the proteins you need as well as other nutrients that meat does not provide. And there are other health issues associated with meat, not just public health issues with zoonotic diseases like what we are seeing now but also issues like microbial resistance. A lot of the meat that we are eating, especially coming out of countries like China and the US, use a lot of antibiotics so they can continue to have these massive industrial farms where production is happening constantly. People would rather consume less antibiotics and have something more natural.
XYL: Could you help us benchmark the cost per pound for lab-grown meat versus conventional meat and plant-based protein?
CD: Back in 2013, when the first cultivated meat burger was debuted internationally, it cost over $300,000. Now one of the main companies based out of Israel is saying that by 2022, they will have their mince at $10 per kilo. While that is still expensive, it is reaching some point of price parity with conventional meat. What is important to remember is that the process and technology behind alternative protein is continuing to evolve and so it will get closer to price parity and then it will overtake and most likely become less expensive. There are still so many ways to innovate and extend that technology, whereas for conventional animal farming, we have already reached the limits. You can’t get a chicken to slaughter weight any faster.
XYL: In China, players like Zhen Meats and Omnipork are going after pork whereas American players have typically focused more on beef. Apart from the type of protein, what do you see as the main differentiator amongst all the alternative protein startups out there?
CD: At the consumer level, you can look at what kind of animal meat, what kind of flavour profile, what kind of product are the startups producing. It’s also important to take a step back and look at the production process. While a lot of alternative protein research took place in the public domain, there wasn’t the funding to sustain that and so a lot of it now takes place behind closed doors. For cultivated meat, there are fermentation technology, 3D-printing or tissue engineering. You might end up with similar products in the end but it’s using different processes.
Also how will the startups bring their products to consumers? Without a relationship on supply and logistics, it would be hard to reach a huge market. In this sense, traditional protein or Big Agriculture companies have a big home advantage — they are already in supermarkets and know how to engage with consumers. Startups will have to find a way to partner with Big Agriculture or find a way to develop their own relationships but commercially that’s a hard slog.
XYL: What do you think is the main difference in consumer receptiveness to alternative protein in different cultures?
CD: Previous studies done in the US have looked at describing cultivated meat as an ethical, environmental choice and that matches what Western companies are doing in their founders and positioning around animal welfare movements. In China, I found that was not what encourages the most level of acceptance. Chinese consumers are thinking about what will deliver the best value and have good health benefits. They are not motivated by the same ethical or emotive narratives as in the West and maybe there is something to learn from that.
XYL: Some of the barriers to adoption you mentioned are around price, taste and convenience. In some countries the regulation has not been sorted out so it’s also hard to get these products to market. Are there other barriers that you see to alternative protein consumption?
CD: At the end of the day it comes down to convenience, ultimately it depends on how they can access alternative protein — whether its big chains like Starbucks or big supermarkets, if they can give consumers opportunities to engage with (alternative protein). A lot of companies have found success once they managed to access the market.
Looking at an international company successfully coming into China, you can look at Oatly. They have found huge support across China and partnered with local brands and targeted the Chinese consumer. It’s important to go in with the right strategy to reach the consumer.
Meat consumption in China is rising, but Chinese consumers are willing to consider an alternative as long as you can pitch it. It’s a whole package.
XYL: What is a most promising area or technology that you’ve seen and what is the weirdest or wackiest idea you’ve encountered so far in your research?
CD: In terms of promise, I think Shiok Meats in Singapore which is cultivating shrimp meat and Avant Meats, which is based out of Hong Kong and also looking at seafood are very exciting to watch. With the support of the government, these are closer to market than companies trying to create a steak, which still has so many technological hurdles.
I love the big ideas coming out of these new food entrepreneurs and innovators. A favourite is VOW Foods coming out of Australia which is working on cultivated kangaroo meat. Kangaroo meat is considered a healthier meat in Australia, very lean with a strong nutritional profile. Alternative protein gives us an opportunity to be more exciting with our food consumption and improve the nutritional profile of what we eat.
XYL: Are there other things you’ve encountered in your research that you’d like to share?
CD: An interesting issue to consider is how can we ensure the benefits of alternative protein can really be enjoyed globally and that it doesn’t become an elitist product purely existing for the gain of big agriculture companies.
The situation we are in now is a situation of flux and a major opportunity to think about how we can re-calibrate our food system and feed the population not just in the US but also in the Global South. We should also think about how it’s going to disrupt not just the big food companies but also the everyday smallholder farmer.
XYL: That’s it for this episode of Agri Matters. Please note that the views expressed by our guest do not represent those of PDD, nor does she own shares or receive support from the company. If you enjoyed this podcast, keep a look out for other episodes where we talk to subject experts and people close to the story. We’re available on Spotify, Stitcher, iTunes, Google — basically any platform where you listen to your podcasts