China is addicted to pork. Last year, the nation, home to half the world’s pigs, produced more than 50 million tons of pork. It’s citizens ate more of the meat than any other country.

But rising wages and population are boosting demand, and supplies were further pinched when 100 million pigs were put to death due to the spread of African swine fever. The country has taken steps such as releasing its so-called emergency pork reserves to deal with the shortage of the popular protein.

China’s love affair with the juicy meat comes at a price. The ammonia present in waste created by the pork industry is choking off oxygen in water, killing fish.

Enter China’s plant-based alternative meat movement. With ingredients like mushrooms and tofu, “alt-meat” mimics the standard taste, minus gristle and hair. Tasty, healthy, low-carbon and cruelty-free, it is now being presented to ethically minded Chinese consumers.

The movement has “tremendous power,” alternative meat producer Impossible Foods said in an emailed statement, highlighting China’s sheer population size and the slim footprint of the firm’s flagship product.

Impossible’s burger needs 96% less land to produce, generates 89% fewer greenhouse gases, and uses 87% less water than a beef burger, the company said. “Available to billions of consumers in Asia, plant-based meat can set the clock back on climate change, save water and reduce water pollution, and still support nutrition and China’s strong legacy of plant-based cuisine.”

A History of Meat Alternatives

In spite of its love of porcine products, China is the cradle of plant-based cooking. Buddhism-influenced mock meat dates to at least the 12th century. To satisfy monastery guests, ancient Chinese monks made alternative meat dishes that would become a cultural counterpoint to pork consumption. The industry is stepped in tradition.

Impossible Foods, with a market value of about $2 billion, and two other Californian brands, Beyond Meat and JUST, are making inroads into the Chinese market, keen to capitalize on the huge consumer base. In fact, China is Impossible’s priority meat-substitute market. Hong Kong-based Right Treat is taking its signature product, Omnipork, there, too. The Hangzhou -based pea-protein startup, Zhenrou, touted as China’s answer to Beyond Meat, holds home advantage.

The alt-meat pioneers apparently know the Chinese market, as consumers there are receptive. Almost 96% are “extremely” or “somewhat” ready to buy plant-based meat, a recent international study found.

Singapore-based Christian Cadeo, managing partner for mock meat-geared venture capital fund Big Idea Ventures, argues that fake meat will win broad acceptance because it resonates with Chinese consumers.

Moreover, he said, pork from pigs and  its plant-based substitute increasingly will taste the same. “But the pork from plants is not only healthier for you, but also cheaper: If that is the case, do you really need any persuasion?”

Statistics bolster his case. While Chinese pork’s cost soar, vegan meat is poised to undercut its rival protein. Across the board, mock meat is winning increasing investment. Over the past decade, it attracted more than $2 billion — more than half of which came in 2017 and 2018. Within 10 years alternative meat will be a $140 billion industry, Barclays estimates.

Skeptics Remain

Asian Scientist Magazine is skeptical. “Even by the giddy heights of Silicon Valley tech ‘solutionism,’ the assertions from alt-meat advocates can sound quixotic,” its July report says, then lists a litany of sustainability claims that smack of greenwashing. “It is unclear if alt-meat can ever win over mainstream consumers and change our very conception of meat production — or if it is destined to forever remain a vegan fad.”

Despite its Asian ambitions and claim to be the future of protein, Beyond Meat’s stock has dropped by about a third since late July, prompting claims the market has turned against it and that perhaps the company was wildly overvalued. Some critics say the sector is over-hyped.

Innovation consultant Mike Plishka says alt-meat has perceptual issues.

“There will be those people that — realistically or not — think that they will know the difference between alt-meat and real meat. And because of that, they just won’t try the alternatives,” Plishka says.

From a taste and “’mouthfeel’” standpoint, the reluctance is understandable. Meat contains muscle strands interwoven with fat and other tissues. For a more realistic alt-meat consumption experience, saturated fat must be added — a turn-off if buyers see it on the label, he says.

And, he added, “What about things like gizzards, brain and other organs that are also consumed — and even considered delicacies?”

Still, as with gluten-free bread, alt-meat’s caliber will likely improve tremendously, he says.  A more ethical eating option is attractive to many people, which suggests that it will make more headway in China.