China gets serious about cell-cultured meat

Evolving food production systems such as cell-cultured meat and novel uses of fermentation ‘are being combined with an entirely new model of production we call food-as-software,’ says RethinkX co-founder Tony Seba.

In Agri Investor’s first Weekly Letter of the new year, we took a look at some areas that could be in line for a big 2022 – top of the pile was cell-cultured meat.

It hasn’t taken long for some head-turning news from this fledgling industry to hit the headlines because last week, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced that cultivated meat and “future foods” (other alternative proteins such as plant-based, for example) would be part of its five-year agricultural plan for the first time.

This is big news because it means China is factoring the novel food production method into its national food security plans, and it could accelerate the timeline to regulatory approval as well as catalyzing investments.

Cell-cultured meat is also referred to as cultivated meat and involves ‘growing’ meat and fat fibre in a bioreactor from animal cells, to arrive at a product that is genetically identical to conventional animal products.

“China’s strategic support for modern food technologies can be a major accelerator for the development and adoption of leading protein technologies like precision fermentation and cellular agriculture,” says Tony Seba, co-founder of think tank RethinkX. Seba co-authored a 2019 RethinkX report on how food production systems will evolve between 2020 and 2030.

“These technology advances are being combined with an entirely new model of production we call food-as-software, in which individual food molecules engineered by scientists are uploaded to databases – molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design proteins and food in the same way we design apps,” Seba told Agri Investor.

“Effectively, this means that design and development of food can happen in China, with production taking place in fermentation or bioreactor farms located in, or close to, towns and cities around the world.”

While this may well be how things play out in the future, at present, only Singapore has given regulatory approval for cell-cultured meat products. US-based Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats) and BlueNalu were tipped to clear the hurdle last year but fell short, so those firms could get the green light this year. Europe might not achieve the same goal until 2025, and China’s announcement represents its first real nod to cell-cultured meats.

Nevertheless, there is plenty brewing under the surface to suggest investors interested in the Asian food market need to take a long, hard look at the alternative protein opportunity on the continent, if they haven’t done so already.

There is a very obvious reason, for example, why California-headquartered plant-based egg producer Eat Just partnered with Proterra and expanded into Asia ahead of any other region after it secured a foothold in its native US – the continent is home to some of the biggest egg consuming nations per capita such as China, Japan and Malaysia.

Add to the mix the fact Asia needs to find new and sustainable food production systems, given that it will have 17 of the 25 largest cities by population by 2030, and the macro drivers become even more obvious.

BlueNalu, meanwhile, has signed partnership agreements with South Korean food company Pulmuone, Thai global seafood producer Thai Union and Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation, all of which aim to explore commercialization options for cell-cultured fish across Asia.

If Seba’s crystal ball gazing is correct, “Chinese leadership in modern food technologies […] could have dramatic global economic and geopolitical implications on a par with China becoming ‘the world’s factory’ over the last few decades.”