This past January, China’s agricultural ministry said one of its priorities over the next five years was to develop cultivated meat — meat grown from animal cells, sometimes referred to as “lab-grown” meat. About a month later, President Xi Jinping made comments in a speech suggesting his support for the endeavor as well.
The decrees can be traced back, in part, to Ryan Xue, co-founder and head of the China Plant Based Foods Alliance, which brings together government agencies, researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors to build out the alternative protein industry in China.
The governmental commitments to investing in the alternative protein field were cast as opportunities to increase food security — African swine fever has decimated the country’s pig populations in the last few years and, more recently, the Ukraine war led to a spike in global grain prices. But they were watershed moments for the global community of cultivated meat startups, scientists, and advocates motivated by concerns over animal welfare and climate change: Now, one of the most powerful governments on the planet was throwing its weight behind their mission.
Though meat alternatives like tofu and seitan have been on people’s plates in China for centuries, Xue says that the global interest in higher-tech alternative protein over the last five years has spilled over into his country, where dozens of homegrown plant-based and cultivated meat companies have started up in recent years. American companies, like Beyond Meat and Eat Just, are also eager to grow their market share in China. Xue’s alliance started with 30 members but now has 400, and the organization has deep support from the Chinese government.
The importance of the Chinese government’s five-year plans can’t be overstated — they set the economic and social priorities for the nation, and thus the future of 1.4 billion people. The inclusion of developing cultivated meat and other alternative protein sources in the country’s five-year agricultural plan could also determine the fate of countless animals. Approximately one out of every seven land animals raised for food is in China, and about one-third of the world’s seafood is caught or farmed in the country.
Xue has a busy five years ahead of him, ensuring the momentum for alternative protein accelerates. One way he plans to do that, he told me, is to bring China’s climate action community into the fold; he says reforming agriculture is the “missing piece” of China’s decarbonization efforts.
“For the next five years we’re going to be focused on that — connecting climate and agri-food,” Xue said. “And hopefully make the protein transition happen faster.”