Could plant-based proteins be key in achieving China’s climate aims?


This blog was originally published on the SOAS China Institute Blog.

News that McDonalds has launched a breakfast menu featuring plant-based ‘spam’ produced by Green Monday (the Hong Kong-based founders of OmniPork) should come as no surprise. This may be the first time the fast-food behemoth has partnered with an alternative protein company in mainland China, but it fits into a growing appetite for plant-based protein amongst Chinese consumers – and could signal a path for China to meet both its climate and food security commitments.

As is the case in many developing countries, per capita meat consumption in China has soared in recent decades – from a per capita average of 5kg of meat per year in the 1960s to 63kg today – and looks set to continue to rise. The country now consumes 28% of the world’s meat. However, there is still a significant meat gap with western countries – in America, the average per capita meat consumption was over 100kg per year in 2019.

It is well documented that current patterns of animal agriculture are highly detrimental to the Earth’s environment – deforestation, pollution and eutrophication aside, animal agriculture contributes at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Given China’s vulnerability to climate change – higher temperatures have already contributed to an increase in extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, and sandstorms – the Chinese government has begun to position itself as a global leader in climate policy.

This suggests that a move towards plant-based proteins for China’s increasingly meat-hungry middle class will not only help fill the protein gap, ensuring nutritious diets for the country’s population, but will also help China to achieve its climate commitments.

Studies into perceptions of plant-based products suggest that Chinese consumers, particularly women, are far more accepting of plant-based meat than American consumers, with perceived healthiness, tastiness, and sustainability acting as key motivations. 42% of Chinese respondents to a survey supported by the government of New Zealand wanted to purchase foods that were more environmentally friendly, and 50% were interested in trying new plant-based meat alternatives.

Over the last few years, plant-based alternatives have become increasingly popular in mainstream restaurant chains within China. For example, last year, Starbucks announced a collaboration with Oatly, OmniPork, and Beyond Meat. Beyond Meat, one of the leading producers of plant-based meat alternatives globally, has also recently opened a production facility in Jiaxiang, near Shanghai – its first end-to-end manufacturing centre outside of the US.

Recognising the market potential for plant-based meat alternatives, increasing numbers of domestic firms have also begun to develop plant-based alternatives. Shanghai-based start-ups Hero Protein, Hey Maet, Beijing-based Zhenmeat, LIKE Foods, Tianjin-based New Singularity, and Shenzhen-based Starfield are all ones to watch, attracting large amounts of investment to develop alternatives to traditional Chinese meat products.

In conclusion, plant-based alternatives provide an exciting opportunity for China. Given the rising demand for protein in China, plant-based proteins fulfil consumer concerns about nutrition, healthy diets, and food safety while offering a way for the country to reduce its emissions and promote national food security.

Elizabeth Frost has recently completed a BA in Chinese and International Relations at SOAS.

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