Could Cultured Meat Take Off In China?
Over the next five years, China will become the largest market in the world for protein. As a result, the future of global meat consumption largely hinges on the choices of Chinese consumers. The authors of a recent paper explored this audience’s views on cultured meat, a product that is grown from animal cells separate from the body of a living animal, eliminating the need for slaughter. Cultured meat could be a key component of the effort to meet Chinese consumers’ growing demand for meat, while also limiting the negative environmental, health, and ethical impacts of the conventional meat industry.
The authors conducted 17 interviews with stakeholders in the cultured meat industry, including meat industry representatives, investors, cultured meat start-up founders, experts from food think tanks, and academics. One of the key themes the authors identified from these conversations was the possible rapid growth of the cultured meat industry in China. Although the industry is not currently as developed in China as it is in the West, it could quickly expand if the Chinese government were to provide enthusiastic support. Another theme the authors identified is the difference in attitudes toward alternative protein sources between Western consumers and Chinese consumers, for whom mock meats and plant-based protein sources such as tofu play a much more established cultural role. In addition, Chinese consumers were identified as having a growing preference for convenience. They were also said to prioritize the safety, price, and quality of food, and to deprioritize environmental and ethical impacts when compared to consumers in the West.
Informed by these stakeholder interviews and trends in the existing research on perceptions of cultured meat, the authors also conducted a survey of Chinese consumers. The survey asked about respondents’ current meat consumption habits, as well as their willingness to try, purchase, and substitute cultured meat products. 70% of survey respondents were willing to try these products and 58% of respondents were willing to purchase them. Only 34% of respondents indicated that they would be willing to substitute a cultured meat product in place of conventional meat. Prior to the survey, less than half of respondents had prior knowledge of cultured meat. After reading descriptions of it, 85% of respondents indicated they were interested in learning more.
The respondents saw several advantages to cultured meat, with sizable majorities believing it was better for animals, the environment, and society, as well as comparable or preferable to traditional meat in terms of safety, health, and nutrition. However, respondents also viewed cultured meat as more costly and less natural than conventional meat. Respondents indicated that they would be most likely to purchase cultured meat as an alternative to processed meat, a finding the authors suggest could be because processed meat is already considered less natural.
The authors also presented five different framings of cultured meat to better understand Chinese consumers’ current preferences and to inform future marketing efforts. Respondents generally responded more positively to cultured meat when its health, ethical, and supply benefits were highlighted. The least positive results were seen when overseas popularity and the technological components of cultured meat were emphasized.
As Chinese consumers’ role in the global food market grows, their preferences for different sources of protein become more important for animal advocates to understand. Because cultured meat could end up playing a key role in future diets, awareness of the preferences of the largest group of consumers in the world can provide valuable insights into how to affect changes in consumption. The authors also suggest the route China takes to meet the demands of its consumers could be followed by many other parts of the world. This point highlights the importance of the awareness of cultural differences in order to advocate effectively on behalf of animals. Animal advocates would also benefit from playing an active role in shaping the narrative around new advancements in food-related technologies before they become staples of global diets.