China’s appetite for meat fades as vegan revolution takes hold

Concerns over carbon emissions and food crises are fuelling a move away from meat consumption as a symbol of wealth

A person walks past an advertisement for plant-based products at a KFC store in Hangzhou
An advertisement for plant-based products at a KFC store in Hangzhou. International and domestic chains are expanding their range of meat alternatives. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

Crystal ReidTue 9 Mar 2021 05.07 EST


The window of a KFC in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou hosts the image of a familiar mound of golden nuggets. But this overflowing bucket sporting Colonel Sanders’ smiling face is slightly different. The bucket is green and the nuggets within it are completely meat free.

Over the last couple of years, after many years of rising meat consumption by China’s expanding middle classes for whom eating pork every day was a luxurious sign of new financial comforts, the green shoots of a vegan meat revolution have begun to sprout. Although China still consumes 28% of the world’s meat, including half of all pork, and boasts a meat market valued at $86bn (£62bn), plant-based meat substitutes are slowing carving out a place for themselves among a new generation of consumers increasingly alarmed by food crises such as coronavirus and African swine fever.Advertisement

China’s most cosmopolitan cities are now home to social media groups, websites and communities dedicated to meat-free lifestyles. VegeRadar, for example, has compiled comprehensive maps of vegetarian and vegan restaurants all across China. According to a report by the Good Food Institute, China’s plant-based meat market was estimated at 6.1bn yuan (£675m) in 2018 and projected to grow between 20 and 25% annually.

Yun Fanwei, a 25-year-old student from Shanghai, is one of a new breed of vegetarians hungry for more options. “I buy some of these fake meat products and a lot of them are pretty good. They don’t necessarily taste like meat, but it makes a nice change from tofu,” she said.

Eating meat has been closely connected with the growing affluence of China. In the 1960s, the average Chinese person consumed 5kg of meat a year. This had shot up to 20kg by the time of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” of the late 1970s, and to 48kg by 2015.

A woman removes her mask to smell the meat at a farmer’s market
A woman smells meat before buying it at Xihua farmer’s market in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. After the coronavirus outbreak China brought in new regulations on the trade and consumption of wild animals. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA

But in 2016, as part of its pledge to bring down carbon emissions, the Chinese government outlined a plan to cut the country’s meat intake by 50%. It was a radical move, and so far very few other governments around the world have included meat consumption in their carbon-reduction plans.

The new guidelines, which called on citizens to consume just 40-75g of meat a day, were promoted with a series of public information adverts featuring the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron. Since then there have been few other concrete steps taken, other than the president, Xi Jinping, last August launching a “clean plate campaign” aimed at reducing the “shocking and distressing” 40% of food that goes straight from Chinese dinner tables into the bin. Some commentators speculated that asking Chinese citizens to reduce their meat consumption was felt to be particularly unpopular.

But alternative proteins are seen as a possible route forwards. Last year at the annual “two sessions” parliament, Sun Baoguo, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, called for more investment in and regulation and promotion of artificial meat.

Some of the biggest international chains operating in China have been quick to bet on the growth of alternative meats. KFC is now selling vegan chicken nuggets, Burger King is offering an Impossible Whopper, and Starbucks is serving Beyond Meat pastas, salads and wraps.

But domestic companies are setting up shop too, betting that state backing will come soon, not least because the government may see alternative proteins as a way to let citizens continue to have the “luxury” of meat while also moving towards its carbon-reduction goals. That optimism has led to several Chinese competitors entering the market alongside international powerhouses such as Cargill, Unilever and Nestlé, as well as the vegan meat poster-children Impossible and Beyond.

Packets of plant-based omnipork on sale at a grocery store
Packets of plant-based OmniPork on sale at a Green Common plant-based grocery store in Hong Kong. Photograph: Getty Images

OmniFoods, which launched in Hong Kong in 2018, is one of a band of regional startups jostling for market share, having recently opened a multi-brand vegan shop and restaurant in Shanghai and secured its signature product, OmniPork, in McDonald’s in Hong Kong and Aldi, White Castle and Starbucks on the mainland. The company, which plans to operate in 13 countries this year, also just completed its UK soft launch for Veganuary, during which OmniPork was turned into everything from scotch eggs to Korean bibimbap at participating restaurants.Advertisement

The OmniFoods founder, David Yeung, hopes the opening of a China-based factory next year will help bring down the price of his products. Plant-based proteins currently cost much more than their meat counterparts, a major barrier when it comes to getting China’s notoriously thrifty shoppers to make the switch. “Obviously minimising logistics and middle parties and creating economies of scale will have a big impact on the value chain. As we cut these expenses in China, we foresee a significant price drop,” Yeung said.

Shanghai-based Z-Rou produces a plant-based mince substitute which is already in the canteens of some of China’s top international schools, hospitals and businesses. Its CEO, Franklin Yao, is targeting opinion leaders and middle-class consumers who can afford to make conscious choices. “They would even be willing to pay more as they know they’re getting a healthier product that’s helping ensure the future of the planet their children are inheriting. That’s priceless.”

A chef makes spaghetti bolognese with plant-based OmniPork as David Yeung, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Green Monday, looks on at the Kind Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong.
A chef makes spaghetti bolognese with plant-based OmniPork as David Yeung, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Green Monday, looks on at the Kind Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong. Photograph: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Other China players include Zhenmeat, which makes plant-based beef, pork and crayfish, and Starfield, whose seaweed-based mince alternative has been turned into dishes at some of China’s leading restaurant chains.

Yao admits the industry is still very small in China but he thinks meat-free substitutes will become mainstream very soon. “Chinese consumers are actively looking for more sustainable products. While the link between meat and the environment is still weak among the majority of the population, the interest is there and China learns fast.”

But weaning people off meat may prove harder than some of these companies would like to think. “I’ve tried a vegetarian braised pork dish before but it’s not the same as real meat,” said 64-year-old retiree Bao Gege.

Bird flu gives wings to the demand for plant-based meat in India

Written by Monika Ghosh Published on 4 Mar 2021  •  7 mins readShare

Big Idea Ventures (BIV), a US-based venture capital firm plans to launch an ‘Alternative Protein Fund’ and an accelerator exclusively for Indian entrepreneurs.

In 2008, when faux fish was served during a religious gathering of strict vegetarians, people got angry at the sight of fish on their plates, and in no time, chaos ensued. The customers failed to understand how fish could be plant-based, said Harish Jadhvani, co-founder and CEO of Ahimsa Food.

“We had to explain to the clients that the product was completely plant-based, but there was a lot of anger among the gatherers,” Jadhvani told KrASIA.

Over the years as people got aware of what mock meats are and their benefits, the 12-year-old Delhi-headquartered company managed to earn its customers’ trust and respect.

Ahimsa Foods is one of the few brands that offer plant-based meat dishes to users who are trying to eat healthy by avoiding non-vegetarian food. The wave of people turning vegans has also been catching on in India, fuelling the migration away from animal meat.

This trend has resulted in a major innovation in the food and restaurant industry that is now trying to appease such clientele with plant-based dishes that taste like chicken, fish, or mutton.

Similar to Ahimsa Food, Rajasthan-based Gooddot sells ready-to-cook vegan meat dishes, while its quick-service restaurant subsidiary Gooddo sells plant-based dishes that look like meat. The company said its raw plant-based meat has been perfected to match the texture of real meat, while the end taste is derived from the cooking style. For instance, to make Thai Green Curry, the startup has partnered with chefs and culinary experts from Thailand to ensure it has its authentic taste.

These companies use a combination of protein rich ingredients like chickpeas, soybean, and other similar legumes.

“Most people are drawn to meat for its texture,” said Abhinav Sinha, vice-president of Strategy, Gooddot.

“There’s a big difference in the overall philosophy of food between the West and the East,” said Sinha. In the West, the meat itself is considered to be the most important ingredient and the recipes involve preserving the integrity and freshness of the meat, he said. But in India, meat is simply a textural component that carries different flavors, which are the most important aspects of an Indian dish, he added.

Read this: China’s answer to Beyond Meat predilects local cuisine: Inside China’s Startups

Although India was slow to adopt an alternative animal protein diet, things have changed over the decade. And with bird flu quickly emerging as the new pandemic threat, people are looking for alternate options to animal meat for their protein intake. Europe and Asia are battling their worst outbreak of bird flu and as of February 12, 14 Indian states have confirmed avian flu outbreaks with Maharashtra being the worst affected.

Even last year, while the COVID-19 pandemic was raging on, the faux meat market in India gained prominence amid fears of disease transmission. During the pandemic, Sinha said, “We saw an almost 50% jump in our overall sales, queries, as well as website hits.”

Ahimsa Food, however, experienced a decline in sales due to logistics disruption and restaurant shutdowns amid the nationwide lockdowns, although its online sales increased. The startup is yet to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now followed by the bird flu outbreak, awareness of alternative protein products was seeing steady growth, albeit slowly. “The Western culture has been significantly moving away from animal meat over the past five years, and there is a similar follow-on effect in India,” said Sinha. There has been an increase in awareness, acceptance, and purchase intent for plant-based meats in India, he added.

A 2018 report said the plant protein market of India captures around 10% of the Asia-Pacific plant protein market. It said the major drivers of this market are the rising purchasing power of middle income and lower-income families, growing youngsters, and the middle-aged population interested in lactose and gluten-free products. By 2023, it said, the plant protein market will be worth USD 565.1 million, registering at a CAGR of 8.6%.

Increasing popularity

India is misconstrued to be mainly a vegetarian country as nearly 70% of the country’s population consumes animal protein. But the demand for plant-based protein is coming from both sides of the food habit spectrum. “I think about two-thirds of our customers are non-vegetarians and about one-third are vegetarians,” said Sinha.

Even strict vegetarians are now looking at plant-based protein for health reasons.

While talking to KrASIA, Mumbai-based plant-based alternative protein startup Evo Food’s co-founder and CEO Kartik Dixit reminisced about one of the conversations with a prospective customer.

“A 65-year-old man from Haridwar who is a purely spiritual man and has never consumed any kind of animal-based product in his life, reached out to us saying that he wanted to try plant-based eggs for his dad because of his protein requirements.” Haridwar is a small Hindu pilgrimage city where the sale of meat and eggs is prohibited by law.

Keeping the health-conscious customer base in mind, Evo markets its product as a plant-based alternative to egg, with the same taste, color, and texture, but with nutrition as its prime focus. Evo has ensured that its product has zero cholesterol and is infused with amino acids and Vitamin D.

The startup has been testing its liquid egg in the market over the last six months and is preparing to launch it commercially by next week. Dixit believes focusing on an egg alternative gives Evo a better chance at gaining a foothold in the fast-crowding mock meat market.

“Companies are really not playing in this area of plant-based eggs so we want to be dedicated to that,” said Dixit. Besides, “egg is a sort of protein source for most people, that they are not really that much passionate about. People really love chicken and mutton recipes, but an egg is sort of functional protein-based food and people with different kinds of religious beliefs eat it,” even a subset of vegetarians, he added.

Egg scramble made of plant proteins by Evo. Photo courtesy of Evo.

Evo has signed agreements with 20 brands to introduce Evo egg as a part of their menu in restaurants. However, once the product becomes well accepted, the startup plans to also sell through online channels as a raw ingredient that can be cooked as per choice, said Dixit.

Alternative animal proteins have gained traction in metropolitans as well as semi-urban areas. And the customers come from both upper and lower-middle-income groups.

Gooddot sells its products through restaurants, direct sellers, and its online website. Its subsidiary Gooddo sells its faux meat-based dishes through QSR outlets across Mumbai, Udaipur, and Jaipur.

The startup partners with culinary experts to ensure the authentic end taste of its dishes. Ultimately, Gooddot’s main focus is to create an impact by lowering animal cruelty and slaughter, said Sinha.

According to him, Gooddot’s partnership with RCM, an FMCG direct selling company with an extensive network of stores across India, along with Gooddot’s relatively low-price points has helped the startup generate significant sales volume from the low and middle-income segments.

Market outlook

The total plant protein market, which includes dairy and egg substitutes apart from meat, was estimated to be worth USD 374.1 million in 2018 and is expected to grow at 8.6% CAGR to USD 565.1 million by 2023.

Both Ahimsa Food and Gooddot have grown steadily over the years. Ahimsa Food has witnessed a 25% to 30% year-on-year growth since its inception. Gooddot has been growing 100% year-on-year and currently sells over 15,000 packets of ready-to-cook mock meat dishes every day.

Investors are also bullish on the plant-based protein market in India.

“There is great potential for the faux meat market in India because of the country’s long-established history with plant-based foods and vegetarianism,” said Andrew D. Ive, General Managing Partner of Big Idea Ventures (BIV), a US-based venture capital firm that focuses on food-tech companies. “We think that faux meat strikes a chord with Indian millennials who are particularly keen on eating healthy and ethically-produced food.”

Last year, BIV invested in Evo, which went through its accelerator program. In October last year, BIV also announced its plans to launch an ‘Alternative Protein Fund’ and an accelerator exclusively for Indian entrepreneurs. The Mumbai-based accelerator is set to accept applications this year, while it has started raising capital for its USD 25 million fund.

According to Ive, “The alternative protein sector is in a phase of rapid global growth, and India is one of the most promising markets for an ecosystem of world-class startups to emerge. The conditions in India are ripe for innovation in the alternative protein space,” he said. That’s because India has the largest vegetarian population in the world, and Indian consumers have indicated a strong willingness to try more plant-based products for health and environmental reasons.

With the growing demand for meat and the need for sustainability in the face of climate change, plant-based and other faux meat and animal protein substitutes are not just a choice, but also a necessity. However, adopting a strictly vegan diet may be difficult, and hard to sustain.

Therefore, “We are not telling people to become 100% vegan. The first step is to become a flexitarian. If you’re flexible, you eliminate one day of eating meat, and you substitute it, and slowly get used to the diet,” said Jadhvani.