It’s no longer a question of whether or not we can make meat without the animal. We can, and there are taste tests to prove we can do so and still make it taste and feel like the real thing. What is still up in the air is what this new product will be called, when exactly you’ll be able to buy it, and where it will be available.
The “where” is getting clearer: Asia. JUST, the San Francisco-based company racing to be the first to bring cell-based meat to market, announced in a CBS San Francisco interview last month that they would debut their first product — a cultured chicken nugget — in Asia sometime this year. The exact country was not specified.
This news surprised me. The majority of startups developing cell-based meat are in Silicon Valley, Europe, or Israel, so I naturally assumed cultured meat would launch in one of those spots.
But when I sat down to think about it, there are actually quite a few good reasons why Asia is the ideal launch grounds for this new food.
Asia is an up-and-coming hotspot for cellular agriculture, the technology behind cultured meat. These past few months alone we’ve seen a flurry of new cell-based activity in the geographic area:
- Shiok Meats, a startup based in Singapore, is developing cultured crustaceans, like shrimp and crab. Co-founder Dr. Sandhya Sriram told us last year that the company is planning a taste test of its cultured shrimp later this month in Singapore and will roll out its products in Southeast Asia in a few years. The startup also just became the first cell-based meat company to be accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator.
- In Hong Kong, Avant Meats is in the early stages of developing a cultured-fish product. In an interview with the Good Food Institute (GFI), Avant Meats founder Carrie Chan said their product will be “tailored for the preference and consumption behavior of consumers in China and Asia,” and will likely launch there.
- Japanese biohacking hobbyist club Shojinmeat is enabling anyone to grow their own meat by open-sourcing cellular agriculture technology. It also has a spinoff startup, Integriculture.
- A few weeks ago, the GFI announced they would partner with the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) to set up a research center for cellular agriculture in Mumbai. They plan to set up a lab in the city by 2020 and construct a larger facility the following year.
This recent uptick in cellular agriculture activity in Asia isn’t out of the blue. In fact, there are a couple of reasons why Asia is a more fertile launching ground for cell-based meat than, say, the U.S.
Before cultured meat can get to our plates, we need to figure out how to regulate it. In fact, regulatory clearance — the official stamp that cell-based meat is safe to eat — is probably the biggest hurdle to getting clean meat to market.
In the U.S., we have a path in place — mostly. The USDA and FDA decided last year to jointly regulate cell-based meat. However, the two organizations left a lot of things open-ended — including the question of labeling. Until labeling is sorted out, cultured meat won’t be approved by the FDA and can’t be legally sold in the U.S.
Of course, cell-based meat will have to pass muster by regulators in Asia as well before it can be sold. But in a phone interview, Shiok Meats’ Sriram told me that “Asia seems to be pushing the regulators within to come up with a framework sooner than the West.”
In particular, Hong Kong seems a likely spot for the launch of cultured meat. “Hong Kong is … a free market where many industries are not heavily regulated, including food,” Elaine Siu, GFI’s Managing Director of Asia-Pacific, told me in an interview. While the regulatory landscapes of the E.U. and China are extremely stringent, Hong Kong is comparatively more flexible — at least for the moment.
A 2018 study from Kadence International showed that 66 percent of Americans would try clean meat, as would 75 percent of people in Belgium and the Netherlands.
There’s less data out there on Asian consumers’ openness towards cultured meat. However, one study by Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems cites higher levels of consumer acceptance in China and India than the U.S. — almost two-thirds of Chinese people were very or extremely likely to purchase cultured meat. Indeed, Sriram seems confident that there’s more demand for clean meat in Asia than in the U.S. “People in Asia are super interested and intrigued by the concept of clean meat,” she told me.
She referenced the recent launch of the Impossible burger in Singapore as a use-case for the demand for meat alternatives. “1000’s of people queued up for a taste of it!” she wrote to me over email, referencing the “bleeding” vegan burger. Plant-based meat is less controversial than cell-based meat, sure. But the success of Impossible in Singapore backs up a report from Allied Market Research which cites Asia-Pacific is the fastest-growing market for meat alternatives.
GFI’s Siu also noted that, at least in Hong Kong, people are “comfort[able] with trying new products” and have a wide-ranging and diverse palate. That, plus the relatively high spending power of Hong Kong inhabitants, could make its population the perfect test ground for cell-based meat.
In order to continue developing better iterations of cell-based meat — better texture, cheaper production methods, etc. — researchers need some serious capital.
So far a wide variety of investors have gotten involved in the space, from celebrities like Bill Gates and Richard Branson to major meat companies like Tyson and PHW Group (one of Europe’s largest poultry producers).
In certain Asian countries, the government is eager to get involved. The Singaporean government has “publicly announced its interest and investment into the cell-based agriculture space,” according to Siu. She told me that Japan has also expressed interest. Having government support could not only be a financial boon, but could also help cellular agriculture companies expedite the tricky regulatory process for cultured meat.
One thing might make investment tricky though, at least in China. In 2017 the country signed a $300 million agreement with Israel promising that the country would import cell-based meat from Israel companies SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future. That could hinder China’s ability to invest in/import clean meat from nearby Asian countries, though it wouldn’t necessarily quench Chinese investors’ thirst for meat alternatives.
One of the obvious advantages of producing clean meat in Asia is its wealth of manufacturing resources. They have the necessary production infrastructure in place to scale clean meat, making it affordable and more widely accessible faster. According to Deloitte, five Asia-Pacific nations are expected to be in the top 10 global manufacturers by 2020.
This might not be relevant to producers in the immediate future. For now, cultured meat production is happening on a relatively small scale, usually in research labs. But as cellular agriculture technology improves and demand increases, as I assume it will, manufacturing for cell-based meat will scale up quickly. At that time, Asia’s wealth of production facilities — and manufacturing prowess — will become a huge help.
Despite the recent uptick in cellular agriculture activity in Asia, as of now there are many more cell-based meat startups in the U.S. and Europe. “But if we are looking into a few years from now, then the answer may be different,” Siu predicted.
That’s not to say that there won’t be any cellular agriculture developments in the U.S. or Europe. There will be. But if JUST indeed launches its first clean chicken nugget in Asia, I believe that that’s where we’ll see some of the more exciting cultured meat innovations over the next few years. Critically, it’s also where we’ll get the first data points about consumer reactions to cultured meat.
All this to say that when it comes to the future of cellular agriculture, I’d spend less time watching what’s happening in Silicon Valley, and more time watching Hong Kong.