As human actions have warmed the planet for decades, it's only in the past two years that the discussion around the impact of industrial livestock and avenues toward sustainability has been ignited. Recently, reports of the Paris climate agreement nearing implementation and polar ice caps reaching their second-lowest level ever have been flanked by news warning of meat's deleterious path (again, again, and again). And in September, we officially passed the carbon tipping point, and big meat is one of the engines that got us there—the official UN FAO assessment for meat's contribution to total carbon emissions lands at 14.5 percent.
Today, the meat industry is an arena of mixed signals thanks to the globally interconnected nature of the business and the crop of innovators, governments, and influencers trying to curtail our dependence on it. And at the center of the meat chatter is China.
China has the ultimate ripple effect on the global food economy—feeding 20 percent of the world's population with only 8 percent of the arable land calls for significant trade agreements. With a middle class that's been quick to adopt a more Western diet that's reliant on processed meat, Chinese beef imports surged by 60 percent in 2015 (quadrupling the demand of the 1970s) according to the Global Beef Quarterly Report. And right now, former bans, like the 17-year-old Italian pork ban, are being lifted to usher more product into the country.
So with these trends showing no signs of cooling, foreign markets are answering China's call.
South America initiates extraordinary land destruction to supply feed for China. Brazil, for instance, shells out over 60 million acres for GMO soybeans. In the US, pork producer Smithfield Foods was recently acquired by the Chinese firm Shuanghui International, thus strengthening US-China pork exports. And more recently, six agriculture giants, including Monsanto and China National Chemical Corporation, testified in front of the US Senate Judiciary Committee to merge into three mega-companies, which would reshuffle global agriculture and strengthen big meat's ability to control prices and supply of cheap meat globally.
China wants to scale up at home, too. Last month, the government announced a $450 billion investment into the country's agriculture system, but the extent to which it will actually go toward creating a sustainable food system is unknown. Perhaps some of that money will go toward government programs to encourage vegetarian diets; after all, they did ask their 1.3 billion people to cool it on the meat. And almost simultaneous to that request, China announced the 13th Five-Year Plan, an effort that was praised by the UN last month, where the Chinese government emphasizes environmental health and a dedication to development through a low-carbon pathway. So, on paper, these are good high-level signs from China.
But not everyone is convinced.
"The worrying indicator for me is that we are still expanding factory farming and regarding it as the future of our food production," says Jian Yi, the filmmaker behind What's for Dinner, a documentary that has chronicled problems in China's intensive animal agriculture. "Instead of addressing the root of the problem—we are just eating too much meat—we are making it worse."
In China, the Americas, and Europe, the problem remains that meat consumption is simply not declining, despite the army of scientists, environmentalists, nutritionists, and activists warning of the dangers and urging distributors to buy into alternatives. In 2015, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released a 571-page report of nutrition advice that told Americans to cut back (the average American will put down 54.3 pounds of red meat this year—much more than the average Chinese person) and accentuated the environmental problems inherent in the livestock industry. This report was met with big meat lobbyists raring to discredit the findings.
The report was also followed up by a historic call to big players in retail food service. In late September, the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) implored 16 major food companies including General Mills, Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Kroger to disrupt the global meat supply chain by investing in plant-based proteins. It should be noted that some of the companies are already up to the task: General Mills started 301 Inc., which partners and invests in emerging food tech companies.
301 Inc. and other investors like Bill Gates with an interest in emerging meat substitutes—from plant-protein to insect-protein to cellular agriculture—have a growing list of companies to support. The question, however, remains: Who is poised to mass-produce their efforts?
In cellular agriculture, Dr. Mark Post's first iteration of lab-grown meat in 2013 garnered much attention. Erin Kim, the communications director of New Harvest, a company that partially funded the 2013 burger, told MUNCHIES, "We still haven't moved beyond the prototype stage. People are often shocked at how underfunded this area is, and the fact that a tiny nonprofit is basically moving this entire field of science forward… It could be anywhere from a few years to decades from now."
We also spoke to Shaked Regev, co-founder of The Modern Agriculture Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes research in cultured meat, who estimates that, "We will see the first commercial cultured beef in five to ten years." And when asked of the challenges of entering developing markets like China, he responded, "I don't see any specific challenges in China or other Asian markets. Obviously, it will be harder to get it to rural areas in general, as with any technology."
Beyond cellular, and certainly on a shorter timeline, are plant-based alternatives. One of the most notable among them is Beyond Meat, which aims to be the engine behind a global meat consumption cut of 25 percent in 2050. CEO Ethan Brown is keeping a sharp eye on China and other Asian markets as they seek to replace the inefficient cow with pea protein, complex chemical compounds, and an extruder.
Amid Western players eyeing China's middle class, there are also efforts afoot in the country itself.
BoyaLife, a company working out of a 200 million yuan (more than $31 million) facility south of Beijing, opened a commercial animal cloning center with the intention of providing 5 percent of China's meat. While the reception has been mixed, the FDA has said there are no complications unique to cloning.
To address China's over-ordering culture, the social campaign called Operation Empty Plate continues to spread virally on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, encouraging particularly young people to rein in food waste. Additionally, the Young Rural Returnees, a group comprised of urban-educated Millennials who were born in rural areas, are rejoining their villages with the goal of implementing independent organic farming practices and disseminating information on sustainable agriculture.
"There are these returnees in every province now and they have formed a community to support each other and educate the public," says Yi.
Lastly, online grocer Womai, a fresh goods importer, is garnering investment attention amid growing consumer worry over antibiotic use and contaminants from government-formed agriculture agencies that are rushing to process and distribute as quickly as possible.
And should Chinese organizations be looking for models of impactful pathways toward a future without food security concerns, they need only look to Hong Kong and Green Monday. Hong Kong has the highest meat consumption rate per capita in the world, and Green Monday's model introduces accessible diets to the mass population. The organization's mission to "make low-carbon and sustainable living simple, viral and actionable" is largely responsible for increasing the number of flexitarians in Hong Kong from 5 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2014 (equivalent to around 1.6 million Hong Kong people practicing a vegetarian diet for at least one day per week). They've also promoted the growth of vegetarian restaurants in the country (the number increased from 140 in 2013 to 240 in 2016) and more than 1,000 schools now offer vegetarian menu options.
It's a model that co-founder David Yeung sees as transferable to China where he notes that "the use of GMOs and antibiotics in agriculture are broadly known practices," and that it's "too early to say whether dietary guidelines to reduce meat consumption from 300g to 200g per day will work or not."
"We believe that pure government initiatives are not enough to change people's diet. The corporate and general public should also join hands to collaborate across platforms," says Yeung.
Green Monday hits on what will likely be the final crucible in a post-animal meat world—once mass-market alternatives are widely available to a global middle class—and that's cultural willingness to adopt a flexitarian approach. Can society recontextualize perceptions of where we get our protein?
This is a prime topic for Charles Duhigg, because we face a necessary habit shift; people need to connect the dots between meat and the environment, which, frankly, isn't showing signs of happening just yet.
As Annick de Witt, coauthor of a study on societal motivations, or lack thereof, to adopt low-carbon lifestyles by eating less meat, tells MUNCHIES, "We seem to be in dire need of an inspiring and empowering narrative about climate change and the impact of our diets."
She continued with an optimistic beat: "People pay more attention to the origins of their food, value their connection with nature, and generally show more concern for their health and well-being, including food habits and body awareness… We have the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, working in favor of us."
So as meat continues to pose the most momentous challenge for the future of food, supporting cross-sector efforts that span international borders will prove pivotal as China's middle class plateaus and others emerge in South Asia and Africa. And while the movement away from the animal hasn't found its global leader to carry the post-meat torch, signs lead to one emerging very soon.