It’s lunchtime in Shanghai’s leafy former French Concession, and every table is crammed at David Yeung’s new café and grocery, Green Common. Office workers and shoppers huddled against the January chill are wolfing down plates of katsu curry, noodles and spicy dumplings.
For Yeung, the popularity of his first outlet on the Chinese mainland is a source of considerable pride, given that its doors opened barely two weeks earlier. But he’s more pleased by its other distinction: no animal products grace the menu at all. Instead, plant-based alternative proteins, sourced from China, Korea and the U.S., are used in these traditionally meat-based dishes. “The idea is to showcase some of the best products from around the world so that people can enjoy a mind-blowing vegan meal,” says Yeung, who is also the founder of the Hong Kong plant-based protein firm OmniFoods.
The buzz around Green Common is another sign that China is on the cusp of a plant-based-protein revolution that has investors as well as diners licking their lips. China came by its love of meat only recently; in the 1960s, the average Chinese person consumed less than 5 kg of meat annually. But as in comes soared following Deng Xiaoping’s market-driven “reform and opening” of the late 1970s, consumption rose to 20 kg per capita by the late 1980s and has now reached 63 kg. Today, China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, including half of all pork.
But as in rapidly modernizing societies everywhere, today’s Chinese are embracing healthier lifestyles, not least following health crises like the coronavirus pandemic and African swine fever (ASF), which wiped out half of China’s hog herd between 2018 and 2019. China’s market for plant-based meat substitutes was estimated at $910 million in 2018—compared with $684 million in the U.S.—and is projected to grow 20% to 25% annually. KFC has begun selling plant-based chicken nuggets. Yeung’s pork substitute OmniPork is now on the menu across China at thousands of Taco Bell and Starbucks branches, where it is used to make everything from tacos to salads. Competitor Z-Rou—rou is Mandarin for meat—is offered by supermarkets, restaurants and two dozen school canteens.
The implications could be transformative not just for China but also for the world. More than any other nation, China has the ability to leverage economies of scale. It has done so many times before: some of China’s richest entrepreneurs positioned themselves at the vanguard of breakthrough technology slated to receive huge state backing, such as solar panels, mobile payments and electric vehicles. Li Hejun, dubbed the nation’s solar-panel king, rose to become China’s richest man in 2015 with a fortune worth $30 billion by riding a wave of renewable-energy subsidies that also caused prices to plummet and spurred widespread their adoption. State backing for AI unveiled in 2016 helped spawn top tech firms including TikTok parent ByteDance, the world’s most valuable unicorn, worth some $100 billion.
Could the state do the same for meatless meat? Just as international food conglomerates like Nestlé, Unilever and Cargill are plowing millions into plant-based protein, Chinese competitors are jostling for market share in anticipation of huge state contracts and government perks like tax breaks and free factory space. David Ettinger, a partner at Keller and Heckman LLP’s Shanghai office, says now is “the most exciting time” of his two decades specializing in food law: “Rather than managing things, I think China will let the industry lead.”
The largest impact may be not on the economy but on the environment. China has already pledged to see carbon emissions peak by 2030 and make the world’s worst polluter carbon-neutral by 2060. As livestock farming produces 20% to 50% of all man-made greenhouse gases, finding alternative protein sources is crucial to meeting these targets. Halving China’s animal-agriculture sector could result in a 1 billion metric-ton reduction of CO2 emissions. Crucially, state action could have real consequences—China’s authoritarian system enables it to dictate commercial priorities and consumer behavior across its 1.4 billion population. While Donald Trump disparaged global warming as “an expensive hoax,” Joe Biden has called it “an existential threat.” Whether the superpowers can work together on this issue may ultimately define whether the world can meet its emissions targets over the next decade. “You can’t do anything on climate change unless you bring China with you,” says professor Nick Bisley, dean of humanities and social sciences at Australia’s La Trobe University.
The ripple effects would be felt globally. Apart from reducing carbon emissions, water consumption and the risk of zoonotic pathogens entering the human population, switching to plant-based protein can help safeguard rain forests cleared for the cultivation of animal feed and protect people against the heart disease, cancer and diabetes associated with heavy meat consumption.
There’s still some way to go before China eagerly embraces novel proteins. The higher cost and un-familiar taste of meat substitutes may prove to be obstacles to turning plant-based protein into an everyday staple across the world’s largest population. Regulators also need to give the industry sufficient room to flourish. But entrepreneurs like Yeung say it’s getting easier to make a case to bureaucrats and consumers alike. “After the last few years, it’s no secret that meat production is infinitely risky,” he says. “Disease and extreme climate issues are sadly not going to change unless we make a change first.”
Until recently, the primary motivation for people to shun meat was concern for animal welfare. Not anymore. Today, broader concerns about the environment and health are energizing millennials and Gen Z globally to embrace flexitarian lifestyles, where animal products are purged from diets at least some of the time. As in the U.S., China’s cosmopolitan cities are leading the way. In 2008, just 5% of Hong Kongers classified themselves as vegan or flexitarian, according to a Hong Kong Vegetarian Society survey. Today, it’s 40%.
Following the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected in China, governments and consumers around the world are more cognizant of the swelling risks posed by industrial farming and reliance on imported food. But COVID-19 wasn’t the only, or even the first, alarm bell. The ASF outbreak that decimated China’s pig population in 2019 resulted in national pork output hitting a 16-year low. In December, Japan suffered its worst avian flu outbreak on record, which led to the culling of 5 million chickens. Vince Lu, the founder of Beijing-based alternative-protein firm Zhenmeat, says the pandemic, the trade war and environmental degradation are galvanizing interest in plant-based proteins. “China urgently needs an alternative meat supply,” he says. “It’s about national security.”
Signs are building that the state will put its weight behind plant-based meat. China’s government has published guidelines to cut meat consumption in half by 2030 to reduce pollution and combat obesity. In August, President Xi Jinping launched a “clean plate campaign,” calling food waste “shocking and distressing” and highlighting the need to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security” in China. For David Laris, an Australian celebrity chef and environmentalist who has had restaurants in New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and London, “It’s just a matter of time before Xi says we’ve all got to eat less meat in a big way.”
Culturally, the Chinese are perhaps better placed to embrace plant-based protein than Americans indoctrinated by a powerful meat lobby and a founding myth built around cowboys and beef ranches. (Even so, many Americans are fast changing their eating habits; alternative milks like soy, oat and almond accounted for less than 1% of the overall U.S. market a decade ago. Now it’s 12% and growing.)
In China, by contrast, “mock meat” has been popular with Buddhists, who often do not eat meat, since the Tang dynasty, with tofu a substitute for fish and taro for shrimp. Fried dough sticks dunked in soy milk—records of which date back 1,000 years—remain a popular breakfast across the Middle Kingdom. Vegetarian restaurants are commonplace near Buddhist temples and shrines. Every Chinese supermarket stocks a dazzling array of bean curd and substitute meat products made with gluten.
This kind of familiarity is helping plant-based protein go beyond the purview of “tree huggers,” as Yeung puts it. In January, Chinese fried-chicken franchise Dicos—a KFC rival and one of China’s top three fast-food chains—swapped the real egg in all its breakfast sandwiches with an alternative derived from mung beans made by California-based Eat Just. At the BrewDog pub in Shanghai, customers quaff craft porters and pilsners over games of shuffleboard while ordering nachos and burgers from a menu that proudly offers both meat- and plant-based options. “Around 30% of sales today are plant-based,” says general manager Gabriel Wang. Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick, who recently opened his first foreign office in Shanghai, predicts that by 2030 the majority of eggs, chicken, pork and beef consumed by urban Chinese won’t require animal ingredients. “It’s going to happen a lot faster than people realize, and Asia will lead the way,” he says.
But popularizing plant-based meat beyond China’s cities might be a greater challenge. Government guidelines promoting plant-based proteins for factory canteens and school cafeterias would play an enormous part in reducing costs and raising public awareness. Some private schools are already electing to feed students with meat alternatives; for example, Dulwich College high school in Shanghai serves weekly meals prepared with Z-Rou. But as budgets for lunches in government-run schools stand around 7 rmb ($1.08) per student, state intervention in the form of subsidies and mandatory quotas may be necessary to make plant-based options feasible across the board. Given the potential size of school contracts, this could be transformative—and also familiarize the next generation with meat alternatives. “If we want to win a customer for life, students are a great place to start,” says Z-Rou founder Frank Yao.
The fact that plant-based proteins are currently priced considerably higher than their animal equivalents is an undeniable hurdle for notoriously thrifty Chinese consumers. Yet this is expected to change as competition and scale drive down costs. Moreover, snowballing agricultural crises like avian flu and ASF can make meat prices extremely erratic. Pork prices more than doubled in China in 2019 following an ASF outbreak, making it extremely difficult for restaurateurs to both keep customers smiling and turn a profit. That plant-based proteins are largely immune to such fluctuations—and help mitigate disease outbreaks that cause spikes in meat prices—is a huge boon across the industry.
The biggest barrier to plant-based meats might be its most elemental: taste. While the industry has come on by leaps and bounds over recent years, elderly Chinese so obsessed with freshness that they trawl wet markets that sell meat and fish could prove a stumbling block to widespread adoption of processed, packaged alternatives.
That will change over generations, for sure, although now the race is on to engineer plant-based meat products specifically to Chinese tastes. Whereas the popularity of ground beef in the West makes it the obvious starting point, Chinese diners typically have far wider tastes, including meatballs for hot pot, filling for dumplings or strips of meat for stir-fries. Zhenmeat is even working on a plant-based shrimp substitute. “Right now, the technology’s not ready for plant protein to make the texture of a chunk or slice of meat,” says Zhenmeat’s Lu. “It will require investment and patience.”
Still, the technology is so undeveloped that there is endless potential to improve taste and cut costs. There are existing protein-synthesis techniques—incorporating fermentation, micro-algae and insects—used in cosmetics, biomedicine or industry processes that could potentially be repurposed for food. “We’re starting from scratch here,” says Yao of Z-Rou. “So why can’t China create brands and have a seat on the table for what the future of food is going to be?”
Albert Tseng, co-founder of impact investment firm Dao Foods, is backing 30 startups that focus on the Chinese plant-based-protein market, including established player Starfield. One venture is utilizing cell-based meat, or animal protein grown in a laboratory. Although more controversial than synthesizing meat from everyday plant materials like soy or wheat, the technology is growing fast. In 2017, China signed a $300 million deal to import cultured-meat technology from Israel. At last year’s Two Sessions annual parliament, Sun Baoguo, president of the Beijing Technology and Business University, argued cell-based meat alternatives were a matter of “strategic importance” to “guarantee China’s future meat supply.” For Tseng, “there are the talent, resources and capital in China to really build this industry.”
It’s already happening elsewhere. In November, Eat Just, the maker of Just Egg, became the first firm anywhere to receive regulatory approval for selling cultivated meat, after being given the green light in Singapore for its lab-grown chicken. With the coronavirus galvanizing anxiety over the fragility of food supply chains, the tiny city-state has set ambitious new targets to produce 30% of its food domestically by 2030. But given that less than 1% of Singapore’s 270-sq.-mi. area is agricultural land, innovations like vertical farming and cellular meat will be key. Many other governments are becoming more accepting of alternatives. “In places like China and Singapore, there’s less of a fixation about what happened yesterday and more on what makes sense for today and tomorrow,” says Tetrick.
There would be losers in a major shift toward meat alternatives. Beyond the disruption to China’s $82 billion meat market, there’s also the fact that 60% of soy grown across the world is currently shipped to China, mainly for animal feed. The success of plant-based protein may decimate crop demand and prices worldwide, upending markets and roiling politics. The question for all, says Yeung, “is do the collective wins outweigh the losses?”
Given the weight of scientific evidence, it’s growing ever harder to justify eating meat as simply a personal choice. Much like smoking in public, Yeung says, eating steak and bacon every day has collateral environmental impact that jeopardizes the future of everyone. China, like the world, is waking up to the risks of asking our planet to support 7.7 billion people as well as 677 million pigs, 1.5 billion cattle, 1 billion sheep and 23 billion chickens. “The reality is that industrial livestock farming isn’t sustainable,” says Yeung. “We don’t have a choice. We have to change.”
With reporting by Madeline Roache/London
This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.