Cultured Meat – Opportunities in China

Cultured Meat – Opportunities in China

It is well recognized that rising meat consumption puts a heavy burden on the environment worldwide. Cultured meat claims to offer a solution for many of those problems, by technological innovations. China has quickly become one of the world’s most important players in a variety of green technologies, like solar power and electric vehicles. The ingredients are there for a similar movement in this area, although the field is clearly not a focus yet. In contrast, the Netherlands already has a leading position. Dutch cultured meat initiatives are encouraged to investigate opportunities in China, or even actively raise awareness in relevant government bodies.

 

What is cultured meat?

Many names are used to describe the same thing. Synthetic meat, lab meat, in vitro meat, clean meat, or cultured meat all have in common that they are meat grown from a cell culture in a lab, instead of in a living animal. This is a radical new way of producing meat with the potential to disrupt a multi-billion dollar industry.

The benefits offered can be significant. Although this is difficult to estimate, a prospective study estimates up to 45% less energy consumption, 96% less GHG emission, 96% lower water use, and 99% lower land use[1]. Intuitively the gain is clear, as resources only go into building the parts of the animal that we need, and nothing is lost on “inefficient processes” during the life of livestock. There are doubts that the acceptance of this kind of meat will be halted by ethical or emotional objections, but investigations on the media coverage about cultured meat suggests this will not be the biggest hurdle[2].

Instead, the most important reason why you won’t find lab-grown sausages in the supermarket yet is the cost. The world’s first lab-grown hamburger from the Netherlands, that was consumed with much media attention in 2013, cost around 300,000 USD to produce (including highly paid scientists and expensive lab equipment). Nowadays, the claim is that the cost can already be dropped to $11 per hamburger, although it is unclear what this claim is based on[3].

It is important to note that even though cultured meat is the term most frequently coined, the methods underlying production can also be used for other foods. The world’s first lab-grown fish filet was already produced in 2002[4]. Other possibilities are milk or eggs. However, there might also be possibilities that are hard to imagine at the moment. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the macrostructure of the product (T-bone steaks, chicken wings), the harder it will be to artificially grow the meat. For the sake of convenience, cultured meat is used in this article to loosely indicate all forms of artificially grown food based on cell cultures.

With all these promises, the amount of research being done in this field is surprisingly limited. The number of scientific articles about a single term like “precision livestock farming” describing an incremental innovation, are already more numerous than cultured meat and all of its aliases[5]. The Dutch Cultured Meat Foundation contributes this to the uncertain and disruptive nature of the field, and the fact that it falls right in between medical sciences and food sciences. Medical scientists have the knowledge but not the drive or the financial incentive to do research in this area, while traditionally food sciences requires very different expertise.

The overarching scientific discipline is the animal branch of tissue engineering, a much larger field of science, which also has applications in regenerative medicine.

 

Position of the Netherlands and the rest of the world

This field has strong roots in the Netherlands. Already in 1997, the first patent on cultured meat was filed by a Dutch entrepreneur. From 2005 to 2009, a project at Utrecht University, Amsterdam University, and Eindhoven University of Technology was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture and Government Agency SenterNovem. This ultimately led to the famous first lab hamburger that was presented by Dr. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in London in 2013[6]. This was only a limited success because of the high cost of the burger. After that, no significant breakthrough has yet been made, but companies and institutes focused on this topic are now sprouting up around the world.

Silicon Valley has Memphis Meats that aims to produce commercially competitive beef and chicken by 2021. Other startups from the area are Perfect Foods, creating dairy products, and Clara Foods, creating egg products. In Israel, Super Meat was funded through a very successful crowd funding campaign. Mark Post and Paul Verstrate of Maastricht University started their own company, called Mosa Meats. Next to that Maastricht University has initialized the International Conference on Cultured Meat. The Good Food Institute from the United States is a non-profit institute for promotion of the field. A couple of investors have started to focus solely on cultured meat, such as the Modern Agricultural Foundation from Israel, New Harvest from the United States, and recently the Cultured Meat Foundation from Leiden, the Netherlands.

It is clear that this technology is presently not yet commercially viable. Next to that, the amount of public research driving innovation is also limited, with less than 700 articles from 2010 to 2016 worldwide[7]. However, the overarching field of Tissue Engineering is gaining a lot more popularity, growing with 11% per year in worldwide paper output from 2011-2014, totaling at around 60,000 publications per year[8]. All Dutch University Medical Centers are active in this field.

 

 

Strategic importance for Chinese government

At the moment, China does not seem to have any companies active in cultured meat. Like for any country, public research in the area is limited. However, in Tissue Engineering, Chinese affiliations appear on 19% of all the world’s scientific publications, much more than the average of 8% for Medicine in general.

A couple of factors makes cultured meat a very interesting option for China. Its meat consumption is rising fast, and is projected to be 1.3 times as big in 2030 as it is now. Because of this, China is now a major importer of soy and corn. It is well imaginable that its leaders are keen to return to the state of self-sustainability that the country was in before the turn of the century[9].

Apart from a stark drop in land use for livestock feed, cultured meat also holds the promise of huge water savings. This is of particular importance for the north of China, where drought and dropping ground water levels are most pressing, and agriculture takes up about a third of China’s water usage[10].

The increasingly serious manure surplus is another problem that could be solved by lab meat. Related to that is ground, air and water pollution, topics of high priority in China at the moment. This is for example also highlighted by the scandal of 6,000 floating dead pigs in the Huangpu River in 2013[11].

Related to this is the worldwide problem of anti-microbial resistance, sometimes referred to as the ticking time bomb of the 21st century. Anti-biotic resistance levels are highest of the world in China[12]. Cultured meat offers the possibility to eliminate or at least drastically reduce the use of anti-biotics.

The Chinese government is well aware of the harms of meat consumption, as highlighted by the advice of the Chinese Nutrition Society in 2016 to reduce consumer meat consumption by 50%.

If the government does at some point recognize the area of cultured meat research as one of strategic importance, it has shown that it is able to mobilize impressive amounts of resources into its development. This has happened with the aerospace and semiconductor industry. In these industries, the government has also shown that it is willing to invest in the long term. Another example are subsidies for electric vehicles, which have been a major boost for the industry. The Netherlands, with its expertise in this area, and agriculture and medical sciences in general, could be a valuable partner. This can lead to very interesting opportunities for business, investments and scientific funding.

 

Opportunities in the Chinese market

The prospects of the Chinese market will no doubt have a large influence on whether China will be at the forefront of this potential revolution in the meat industry. A variety of factors are important.

First is the size of China’s market, and growth prospects. China presently consumes more than a quarter of the world’s meat, averaging at 50 kg per person per year. There still seems to be space for growth however. China as a whole is often compared to Taiwan for future prospects, where 74 kg per person is the average. More than 60% of China’s meat consumption is taken up by pork, and after that comes poultry. Beef and mutton are consumed relatively little. Annual value growth rates are forecast at 11% from 2016-2021, allowing some space for the industry to accept new entrants. The growth is strongest for beef and poultry[13].

Another factor of importance is the difference in ethical and religious points of view between China and the West. Although it is yet to be seen if religious objections will put a halt on sales in Europe or the United States, China offers the biggest market of atheists in the world. Positive views on Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) methods have in the past led to loose legislation compared to other countries, leading to criticism, but also giving research a boost in some ways. Note that artificial meat production does not use GMO methods.

One disadvantage lies in the cost pressure for meat. Chinese are very price sensitive regarding their meat. Retail prices of beef and pork were both around 65% of the prices in the United States in 2015, although poultry was more or less the same[14]. Even though prices are rising with 5% per year, cultured meat is unlikely to be competitive without subsidy until it has become a lot cheaper. Then again, the Chinese government has shown, with electric vehicles for example, that it is willing to subsidize green technologies.

Another issue is the diet of Chinese. It is more varied in terms of structure of meat than in the West. Meat with bone or grizzle, as well as intestines are much more frequently consumed than in the West, and processed meat less. The best options for cultured meat are therefore probably in Western style dishes, as well as sausages and dumpling fillings. Western dishes are however still gaining in popularity.

All in all, the situation in China was deemed favorable enough by the Good Food Institute to pick the country as one of their three priority areas for raising awareness[15].

 

Conclusion

Cultured meat has the potential to solve many of the world’s problems, many of which are particularly pressing in China. This, together with market size, market growth and customer perception have already inspired an important cultured meat non-profit institute to focus on the country. However, research in this area worldwide, including in China and the Netherlands, is very limited. The first commercial products are only expected in four years’ time. It is unlikely that the sector will take off without support from the Chinese government. Investments in research are needed, and likely some sort of subsidy.

If the Chinese government does decide to support this field of research, as it has done with other green technologies like solar power and electric vehicle, it will likely lead to interesting collaboration opportunities for the Netherlands. The Netherlands has been one of the leading countries in this respect. Chinese involvement could help the field take off worldwide. This can also be a threat to the Netherlands, which has a large traditional meat industry. However, it is unlikely such a development can be stopped anyway. All in all, it would make sense to support Dutch researchers, companies, and initiatives like the Cultured Meat Foundation, in promoting their solutions in China. In turn, it would also be good to create awareness about China as a possible partner or initial market, instead of the obvious choice of Europe or the United States.

As is typical for the multidisciplinary nature of this field, there are multiple relevant instances in China. In this phase of development, the Ministry of Science and Technology, individual universities, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or the National Natural Science Foundation of China are probably good prospects for promoting Dutch cultured meat research. Next to that, the Chinese Nutrition Society has already shown it is very much aware of the problems that China’s meat consumption brings. The Ministry of Agriculture and the China Meat Association are also important in this field, although particularly the latter has little incentive to promote this field. The Dutch Meat and Feed Center Beijing can be a valuable partner for businesses since it already has a strong relevant network in China.

This article has also appeared (in Dutch) on the website of the Dutch Agricultural Network: http://www.agroberichtenbuitenland.nl/china/de-kweekvlees-revolutie-waarom-niet-in-china/

[1] Tuomisto, H. L. & Teixeira de Mattos, M. J. (2011) Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Environmental Science and Technology, 45 (14), pp. 6117–6123.

[2] Goodwin J N,Shoulders C W. 2013. The future of meat: a qualitative analysis of cultured meat media coverage. Meat Science, 95, 445-450

[3] By Mark Post, leading researcher of the first lab hamburger in 2013, originally on ABC news. See for example this link: https://www.sciencealert.com/lab-grown-burger-patty-cost-drops-from-325-000-to-12

[4] Benjaminson, M. (2002) In vitro edible muscle protein production system (MPPS): stage 1, fish. Acta Astronaut, 51(12):879-89.

[5] Data from Elsevier’s scientific publication database Scopus, counting articles that mention these terms in its abstract, 2011-2016. All scientific publication data in this article from Scopus.

[6] New York Times (2013), A lab grown burger gets a taste test. [accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/science/a-lab-grown-burger-gets-a-taste-test.html 06-10-2017]

[7] Searching for all aliases of cultured meat and food in the abstract, as well tissue engineering being mentioned in conjunction with meat or food.

[8] Using a list of author provided keywords and source titles in Scopus, having more than 10% overlap with keyword “tissue engineering”. This led to terms like “tissue scaffold”, “culture techniques”, “biocompatible materials”, “cartilage cell”, and journals like “Tissue Engineering Part B Review”, “Biofabrication”, “Journal of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering”. 2015-2017 are not taken into account because database is not complete yet for those years.

[9] See for example the import of soy beans, which now represents 87% of consumption, while in the 90s there was still an export surplus (PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2015), China’s Agricultural Challenges.)

[10] PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2015), China’s Agricultural Challenges.

[11] See for example CNN (2013), Chinese farm says it dumped dead pigs in river [accessed at http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/13/world/asia/pigs-china-river/index.html 07-10-2017]

[12] Zhang et al., 2006, Antibiotic resistance as a global threat: Evidence from China, Kuwait and the United States, Global Health, 2: 6.

[13] Euromonitor International (2017), Meat in China.

[14] USA data from National Chicken Council, China data from Euromonitor International (2017), Meat in China.

[15] Quartz Media (2017), The good food institute is taking lab-grown and plant based meat international to China, Brazil, Taiwan [accessed at: https://qz.com/955724/the-good-food-institute-is-taking-lab-grown-and-plant-based-meat-international-to-china-brazil-taiwan/, 8-10-2017]

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