Food

We Really Need More Sustainable Meat Alternatives. Singapore Is On It.

From jackfruit meat to shrimp grown in labs, here's a guide to the clean meat alternatives coming to Asia.

by Edoardo Liotta
06 May 2019, 7:41am

Left: Shiok Meats cell-based shrimp, Centre: Karana Jackfruit 'meat', Right: Life3 Biotech plant-based meat. Photo from respective companies

With the recent Friday’s For Future protests happening around the globe, we are reminded that there is no other time to act on climate change but now. From kids across the globe skipping school to protest, to supermarkets across Asia swapping out plastic for banana leaves, recent initiatives make us wonder what changes in our personal lifestyle we can adapt to make a difference.

One habit change that could have a major impact is decreasing our meat intake – if not ditching it altogether. If we seriously want to help the global environment, and our health, it’s time to reconsider our entire diet.

The World Health Organization classified processed meat as being carcinogenic to humans, and has drawn a link between meat consumption and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. Additionally, the animal agriculture industry produces more emissions than all transport combined and is responsible for 91% of deforestation in the Amazon and at least for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But giving up juicy hamburgers and thick steaks, we know, is far from easy. Unless you come from a family or culture that is vegetarian, it is likely that you have been raised eating meat multiple times a day. It’s in the traditional plates we eat on holidays, it’s served for dinner at our friends’ and families’ homes, and is the predominant ingredient used in most mainstream restaurants. Until recent years, not many questioned society’s wide-scale obsession with meat. It’s only when you consciously try to stop or reduce that you realize how it’s everywhere.

But what if you could have these dishes in the exact same way... except without the negative implications?

Luckily for us, we won’t have to say goodbye to our mother’s hearty home cooking and festivity dishes entirely. In Singapore, a country that prides itself on its meat-heavy street food, clean meat startups have surprisingly found ground to flourish on.

For resource-scarce Singapore, clean meat alternatives are a route to self-sustainability. Being one of the most densely populated cities, feeding the five and a half million people on the small island poses to be an increasingly hard challenge. Especially if this has to be done sustainably and ethically.

Because the region is still relatively sceptical to meat alternatives, these young entrepreneurs in Singapore don’t have it easy. Clean meat creators in Asia struggle with being boxed together with the mock-meats that are traditionally present in the region – when in reality, mock-meats do not compare nutritionally to the modern alternatives. Another stigma they are trying to dismantle is how meat is perceived as a sign of wealth. With the fast-growing population throughout the region, this has caused staggering meat consumption.

VICE spoke to three of these creators to find out what they make and how they make it.

Plant-Based Meat

plant based meat
Life3 Biotech's Plant-Based Meat Product. Courtesy of Life3 Biotech

The first and most common substitute that has been exploding worldwide with the likes of Impossible Food and Beyond Meat, are plant-based alternatives that look and taste like the real deal. Recent years have seen the creation of everything from veggie patties and hotdogs to meatballs.

Life3 Biotech, based in Singapore itself, is also producing meat alternatives that are based on legume and vegetable extracts. However, founder Ricky Lin says he wants his product to be seen as an ingredient, rather than a substitute. “If someone is a big meat eater, it’s hard to tell them to stop eating it completely. Rather, we want to suggest they slowly try incorporating plant-based alternatives into their meals and get the nutrients and proteins from them. Slowly they will realize that meat isn’t necessary,” he said.

For meat lovers, plant-based meat is life-saving, because if you once felt guilty for eating burgers, hotdogs and fried chicken, now you can eat alternatives that taste the same while feeling a little bit better about yourself. But there are alternatives that are also more natural and straight from the source.

Whole Fruit Alternatives

jackfruit meat
Karana's Jackfruit 'Meat'. Photo courtesy of Karana

There are also simple yet ingenious expressions of eating clean, like simply using whole fruits and vegetables in new and unthought ways as replacements. And not to mention the health benefits of doing so.

Karana, also a Singapore-based company founded by Daniel Riegler and Blair Crichton, curates jackfruit to optimise the way it can be used as a meat replacement in dishes. Daniel told VICE that he turned to jackfruit because “I wanted to look at all these incredible biodiverse ingredients that grow abundantly in Asia and that are already being used as natural meat alternatives. I like to know what I'm eating, I'm not a fan of processed food.”

Daniel pointed out that we don't necessarily need to revolutionize our food system from the base to eat sustainably. Rather, we can actually go back a few steps, and look at what we already have around us. “The number of actual ingredients and crops we use in our food is horrifyingly small. We use a tiny fraction of what's available to us,” said Daniel.

Although jackfruit is as wholesome as one can get, some people just can’t see themselves giving up meat. Soon, there will be a solution on the market for them too: cell-based meat.

Cell-Based Meat

cell based meat dumplings
Dumplings made with Shiok Meats' cell-based shrimp. Photo courtesy of Shiok Meats

Cell-based is lab-grown meat that doesn’t need an animal. Not only does it drastically reduce waste, it is also more ethical.

VICE spoke to Dr. Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats, Singapore’s first cell-based meat company that is currently focused on making shrimp.

Sandhya told VICE: “If you look at your meat or fish, what is it made of? It's muscle, fat, connective tissue, blood and a couple of other cells. What clean meat is doing is instead of growing the entire animal, feeding the animal plants to grow, then killing it for meat and only consuming a part of the animal, we are growing only that wanted part in the lab. So there is zero wastage.”

Although not readily available on the market, Singapore and Hong Kong are set to be the first countries to regulate cell-based meat. And the delayed international response doesn’t have [much] to do with safety, but politics and money. “In the US government, there are a lot of senators and governors who govern meat production. When the first concepts of cell-based meat came out, all the meat farmers came forward and said that it couldn't be allowed as it would put them out of a job. In Singapore, we don't really have farms or farmers, so the regulators are a bit more open,” said Sandya.

clean meat statistics
Chart by Statista.

When it comes to cell-based meat, consumers are warming up to the idea that their meat might be lab grown one day. Based on a survey conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland, 45% of participants said they would eat lab-grown fish. The number was much higher for lab grown beef, sitting at 71%.

With the alternative meat industry gaining traction, there is proof that the consumer food market is slowly warming up to sustainability in Asia. Whether these will succeed in the long run is still up to debate, especially since many of these are still in the testing phase. But it sure is good to know that there are up and coming alternatives.

Interviews with Ricky, Daniel and Sandhya were held at the Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit . DFSS is held yearly in Singapore and discusses alternative innovations in the food industry.

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