“Animal agriculture uses more than 45% of the global land surface, more than 25% of the freshwater, and produces more greenhouse gases (GHG) than the entire transportation industry. If we transition to a plant-based ecosystem, we can flatline greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the next 30 years. [Yet] globally, food and agriculture have been a really small part of the conversation, but that is changing.”
That’s Nick Halla, SVP of International at Impossible Foods, who was speaking on a panel alongside Sonalie Figueiras, Founder & CEO of the award-winning sustainability media Green Queen, Dr. Sandhya Sriram, Group CEO & Co-founder of Singapore-based Shiok Meats, and moderator Mai Bach, Co-founder & CEO of the plant-based café chain Ooh Cha Cha.
The panel was part of the APAC Food & Beverage Innovation Summit 2021 hosted by Foodland Ventures, the food tech VC and accelerator, on the 25th of November. As a way to assemble the AgriFood Tech innovators in APAC, and address critical challenges and highlight future trends in the region, 7 panel discussions were organized during the event. With the discussion from leaders in alternative protein, the summit posed the question: What’s the future of food in Asia? And what will we eat for the next decade?
Their conversation ranged from plant-based proteins to cultivated meats, global trends to local quirks, but converged on a few developments that are reshaping Asia Pacific’s food landscape – and the fate of our climate.
1. Things are changing in APAC, and changing fast
The panelists agreed on an observation: Asia started slowly, but once it did, the pace of change has been stunning.
“Hong Kong was the first Asian market that we launched, in 2018,” Halla recalled: “At first it was like ‘why are you here? What is this for?’ And now we’re in over a thousand restaurants in Hong Kong, over a hundred retail doors, and we see a lot of other companies. Same in Singapore.”
In Singapore, Dr. Sandhya Sriram of Shiok Meats had the same experience: “We started in August 2018, and for the first six month, the government wasn’t talking about anything about food tech. Then in November 2018, Beyond Meat launched in a restaurant. Then Impossible came along. And that’s when the big boom happened. There was this long line around the block, and my husband was in that line, too.”
At first, investors challenged Shiok Meats’ decision to be in Singapore. But after their successful launch and Singapore’s “30 by 30 Mandate” (30% of nutritional needs met locally by 2030), those same investors came around.
“When we started, it was literally nothing. And now there are over 100 companies just in cultivated meat, and a lot of them are in Asia,” Sriram added.
“This is something that’s so unique about APAC,” said Sonalie Figueiras of Green Queen: “When we take something on, it goes really fast. San Francisco did not become a tech city in 18 months. In Asia we can do things so fast.”
This, the panelists observed, stood in stark contrast against the public sector’s lack of attention for food and agricultural tech.
“Every morning I open LinkedIn, and all I see is the great innovation in the food and agri tech sector… There’s so much that it takes me an hour just to digest what’s happening. And then I see the climate summit, and they’ve never spoken about food there,” observed Sriram: “And you know what? We as innovators and entrepreneurs, we’re already doing it, we’re already there.”
2. Younger Generations are Demanding Change
Halla shared a remarkable evolution in Impossible’s market research: “When we launched in the US five years ago, we did a survey on why consumers buy plant-based, and number one was always taste, number two was nutrition, and I think number 15, right at the bottom, was sustainability.”
“Three years after that, sustainability was number three.”
From a media vantage, Figueiras believes a lot of that has to do with the younger generations of consumers.
“The Gen Z generation, and to some extent millennials, their activist culture has spread across the world. They’re much more united, whether they’re in Nigeria, France, or Singapore. They’re asking the brands they invest in to do better. They’re demanding it, in fact, on social media. Gen Z is not consuming the media. They’re consuming TikTok media. They’re on channels that the mainstream media has not penetrated yet.”
Sriram has seen the same trend: “We have people as young as 8, 12 years old writing to us saying: ‘I found you on social media, I’m so interested in sustainability, can I come intern for you? Can I be your brand ambassador?”
And the same thing is happening at Impossible, according to Halla: “When we put out job opportunities at Impossible Foods, we’ll get hundreds or thousands of applicants very quickly. Compared with past jobs I’ve had, the old industry, when they put the same jobs out, how many applications are they getting? The passion of the new generation for sustainability, for food, for changing the system, is super, super high. And we can see it in all the interviews we’re doing.”
3. “Experience” is Key
With Gen Z and Millennials driving a paradigm shift away from animal proteins, we should be well on our way to a sustainable food future, right? Not necessarily. The panelists agreed that we’re not quite there yet. And one key is “experience”.
“One thing that’s a commonality across all of the markets is what we call ‘plant-based anxiety’,” Halla shared: “When people have food from plants that don’t taste good, don’t deliver on that experience, or are super expensive, it just makes it uninteresting to a lot of consumers… So for us, it’s all about having that memorable experience that’s cool and fun.”
One problem has been brands launching too quickly, before they were ready to deliver on that experience. “It’s like start a company, and the next week you put a product into the market,” Halla observed: “And it makes things harder. Because many consumers are hearing about all these new companies making delicious products, but when they go try something, it’s ‘Ughh, this isn’t what I’m looking for.’”
Creating experiences that are unique to each market is important as well.
Sriram shared Shiok’s experience: “One thing we’ve noticed in Asia is, in each country, people are like: ‘Would this fit into our cuisine? Can I make sushi out of your shrimp?’ So your meat has to work in every cuisine that you’re working on. So something that our development team works on is making sure that every cooking method works, fried, steamed, grilled, etc.”
Impossible saw the same thing happen in Hong Kong: “one of the biggest things was versatility: different cuisines, different dishes, different heat levels, mixing with sauces and spices. It was a huge enabler of how we were able to spread in Hong Kong and Singapore.”
4. Future: The Alternatives Go Mainstream
Let’s say plant-based and cultivated meats are able to hit parity with conventional meats – or even superiority – what then? What happens next?
“Hopefully it’s not called ‘alternative proteins’ anymore. It’s just meat, just food, just shrimp,” said Sriram. And she shared a compelling vision.
“My vision is, and I sleep on this every night, that one day, my grandchildren will walk into the supermarket, and there will be three sections: cultivated meat and seafood, plant-based meat and seafood, and then this very, very small section of conventional meat and seafood.”
And the urgency must be there, according to Figueiras: “What many people don’t think about is, if everyone in China started eating animal proteins the way Americans do, we’d need seven planets. So alternative protein isn’t a choice. It’s happening, whether you like it or not.”
Halla agreed: “Every day matters.”