At the first English-language edition of Cloud Talk, Gen.T’s new webinar series, three experts explain how a handful of startups are changing Asia’s meat-loving ways

The term “alternative protein” only entered the public lexicon a few years ago. Today, the industry is worth about US$2.2 billion globally, with Barclays predicting this will increase to US$140 billion by 2030. By the start of the next decade, the meat alternative market will be worth 14 percent of the current value of the global meat industry. 

But what exactly counts as "alternative protein", why is it exciting investors so much, and how can it be a boost to both food security and the environment? 

These questions and more were discussed during the latest edition of Cloud Talk, a new webinar series by Gen.T where we bring together industry experts to provide insight on the blue-sky ideas that matter.

For our session on the future of alternative protein, we heard from Sonalie Figueiras, the founder of impact media platform Green Queen; Julian Ting, the vice president of alternative protein-focused fund Lever VC; and Nydia Zhang, who chairs the advisory council at The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific. 

Here are the key takeaways from the session.  

See also: Malaysia’s Youngest Hospital CEO On Fighting Coronavirus On The Front Lines

Tatler Asia
Above Impossible Patties. Image: Impossible Foods

Defining alternative protein

Alternative protein is an umbrella term for different types of meat substitutes. The most well-known is plant-based protein, which describes foods that come primarily from, well, plants. This includes nuts, fruits, vegetables and beans. This is the category which Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods fall under. 

Next, there is cultivated meat, which is also known as cell-based or lab-grown meat, and involves the use of animal cells to create alternatives for meat, seafood and dairy. There are currently no commercially available cultivated meat products in Asia yet, due uncertainty caused by a lack of regulation, but startups such as Singapore’s Shiok Meats and Turtle Tree Labs are working to change this in the near future.  

The third category is what Green Queen describes in its Asia Alternative Protein Industry Report 2020 as “whole food protein alternatives”, which uses existing plant or fungi to mimic meat-like products in terms of texture, taste and behaviour.   

Finally, the least-known category is insect protein, which isn't an option for those who wish to be fully plant-based, due to its non-slaughter-free nature. 

Tatler Asia
Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Green Queen
Above Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Green Queen

Asia’s hunger for meat is fast becoming unsustainable

The alternative protein industry could be the answer to food security in the region. “The numbers are showing that meat and seafood consumption in Asia will rise by 78 percent by 2050,” said Figueiras. “If everyone in Asia started eating the average American meat-heavy diet, we actually do not have the food systems available to supply that diet today.” 

But a growing acceptance of plant-based alternatives by non-vegans shows that there is hope. "What's really happened in the last couple of years that's quite exciting is that plant-based alternatives went from being kind of a concern for vegans and animal lovers, and people looking for cruelty-free lifestyle choices, to being a choice about sustainability and food security.” 

Above Gen.T Cloud Talk Vol 3: The Future of Alternative Protein

Eating less meat has a direct impact on the environment

When asked about the environmental benefits of consuming alternative proteins, Figueiras highlighted the successful marketing campaign of Beyond Meat. “They’re saying to you that if you consume a Beyond Meat burger, you’re looking at 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent less water [used] and 93 percent less land [used] than if you were consuming an equivalent beef burger.”

“What most people may not realise, and it’s really important to underline this, is that the number one thing you can do as a consumer in order to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce meat and dairy consumption. And this is in agreement with [what] hundreds of scientists and researchers worldwide [are saying].”

On what’s stopping people from shifting to an alternative protein diet, Figueiras said: “The biggest factor is [people’s] lack of awareness about the [carbon] footprint of their diet, followed closely by a misconception that [the plant-based diet] is more expensive or more difficult [to adopt]. That’s why it’s up to the brands, innovators and media like myself to make sure that people know that these options are delicious, affordable and accessible.”

See also: How The Gen.T Community Is Helping In The Fight Against Covid-19

Tatler Asia
Above Beyond Burger. Image: Beyond Meat

There's growing investor interest in the space

As the public’s interest in meat substitutes grows, investors are also paying closer attention to the industry and its potential growth. Influential private investors such as Li Ka-Shing and Bill Gates as well as investment groups like Singapore’s Temasek have already put their money where their mouth is, particularly in US "clean meat" companies such as Beyond and Impossible, as well as Memphis Meats.

At the time of writing, there has not yet been an Asian alternative protein startup that has raised its Series A funding. But that will soon change, said Ting, whose venture capital fund Lever VC focuses on investing in early-stage alternative protein companies. “For Lever VC, our earliest cheques for seed investments went out about six to eight months ago. So these companies would be raising their Series A funding in the next six months.” 

“In Asia, we’re lagging a bit [compared to the North American and Western Europe markets]. However, as we see more companies here get strong funding and more media [attention], the virtuous cycle begins. More capital will come in, allowing companies to attract more talent, which in turn allows them to create better products, which leads them to see more consumer interest, which attracts more capital into the space as a result.”

See also: Why Fake Meat Is The Future

Tatler Asia
Julian Ting, vice president of Lever VC
Above Julian Ting, vice president of Lever VC

Culture is influencing the alternative protein transition

Due to Asia’s cultural diversity, the receptiveness to alternative protein across the region has been varied. “When it comes to Asia-Pacific, we are seeing very different cultural contexts, habits and also political environments,” said Nydia Zhang, who chairs the advisory council at The Good Food Institute (GFI) Asia-Pacific, a not-for-profit organisation that works with industry stakeholders, from scientists to governments, to accelerate the growth of the alternative protein industry. 

Markets such as Singapore and Hong Kong, she said, have shown stronger signs of acceptance of plant-based alternatives. However, markets such as Mainland China and certain Southeast Asian countries have been less open to the idea. “The demand for meat is still strong, especially in developing countries, and that has a lot to do with their culture and how meat still holds a premium status in the hierarchy of proteins.” 

As a result, the GFI is taking different approaches for each market. For some countries, education is the first step, before an alternative protein startup is introduced into the market. And Zhang is hopeful that change will come. “It will take a few years, but there will be a shift in mindset.”

See also: How Impossible Foods Is Changing The World One Bite At A Time

Tatler Asia
Nydia Zhang, chair of advisory council at The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific
Above Nydia Zhang, chair of advisory council at The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific

The meat and alternative protein industries are not mutually exclusive

According to Zhang, one way to drive the alternative protein market forward is to bridge the gap between it and the traditional meat industry. “A lot of the work that the GFI is doing is working with some of the world’s biggest meat companies, like Tyson. And as some might know, Tyson is actually one of the biggest investors in Beyond Meat."

"We see it as important to make traditional meat industry leaders and companies see the potential of alternative protein, so they can, from their side, capitalise on opportunities in alternative protein. This way, we can have a more cohesive and inclusive dynamic in the entire food ecosystem.”

Cloud Talk takes place every week, alternating between Chinese- and English-language editions. Visit our Events page to learn about upcoming editions. 

Tatler Asia
© 2023 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.