The monochrome, broad-stroke paintbrush used by the media to generate polarizing headlines about alternative protein is lazy, irresponsible and limited. More than ever, we need geographically wider, more diverse, and more inclusive content voices as we fight an ever-worsening climate crisis and an insatiable demand for animal protein.
It’s been a rough few months for the alternative protein industry, particularly for plant-based meat. Heck, it’s been a rough year. Article after article decries the death of the category, as swiftly as they welcomed the plant-based product boom a mere 24-36 months ago. The data is unimpeachable, scream the headlines. Consumers are buying the products once and not coming back.
What the headlines (don’t) say
I’m not here to refute these headlines. It’s true that plant-based meat sales are flat in the US, UK and some of Europe. It’s true that many (most) of the products on supermarket shelves are mediocre — they don’t taste great and they are not inspiring repeat purchases. It’s true that consumers are concerned about how processed these products are. And it’s absolutely true that the alt-protein industry is the victim of its own echo chamber. Plant-based brands are too busy chasing VC hype (sorry folks, that party might be over!) and patting themselves on their metaphorical, highly-valued backs to do the necessary and hugely important work of brand building. As branding expert Adam Hanft put it in a brilliant op-ed for this very publication, “Whatever marketing was done, it was all based on the amazement of arrival: plant-based meat is here.”
Our industry has not spent enough time understanding its audience. Brands need to do a lot more “empathy work,” including listening to climate-conscious consumers, engaging with busy, budget-balancing retail shoppers and creating helpful resources aimed at home cooks looking for healthy, sustainable meal ingredients.
Undoubtedly, the still-nascent plant-based meat industry has made some key mistakes. And it’s likely the doom and gloom headlines will continue for some time. The headlines are not completely wrong. They are, however, one-sided. (I fear this is now the table stakes for all media, but just to expand a little here, the fundamental WHY of plant-based meat has not changed: we need alternative sources of animal-like protein because we don’t have enough natural resources to meet the rising demand for animal protein.)
Crucially, the headlines are also incomplete. Here’s what they are missing: geographical context.
In the US, where plant-based meat has a partisan issue (regen ag folks and Big Meat lobbies are warring against the vegans and the “effective altruist food-techno bros”), the decline in sales and revenues is real. (See: Beyond Meat’s terrible year.)
In the rest of the world (ROW), Asia particularly, it’s an entirely different story. And almost no one is telling it.
Beyond the ‘happy cow’ myth
For one thing, Asian consumers tend not to have grown up with what I like to call “the happy cow myth,” some version of a mental image that involves a happy brown or black-spotted white cow grazing in a bright green field on a sunny day. This image is connected with delicious, nutritious foods such as healthy, high-calcium glasses of creamy milk and marbled, iron-rich steaks. Not to mention umami-filled cheeses of every persuasion. It’s very likely that the average Global North, European-ethnic consumer has a meat or dairy farmer in her family tree.
This is not the case in Asia. We do not have childhood memories of long car drives surrounded by pasture-feeding happy cows. We have other agricultural memories, of course. Think verdant rice paddy terraces, lush coconut groves and fragrant banana trees. But no happy cows.
We Asians are more likely to live in urban, tech-forward, densely populated cities, away from farmland and food production. It is not uncommon for an average Asian city dweller to have never visited an actual farm.
The issue of whether our diets should contain dairy milk and beef protein is not (yet) a highly politicized matter (with the exception of India, where cows occupy an entirely different but no less significant role). The alternative protein industry, whose mere existence feels to many ranchers and farmers in the global North like a direct attack on their livelihood, their motherland, and their very identity, does not inspire the same jolt of anger across Asia.
Asian consumers are very different from their Western counterparts in many ways, and particularly in our motivation for purchasing the new generation of animal-analog products. Animal welfare and saving the planet do not rank among the top reasons for us. Beyond price and taste, both of which are first priority, our focus tends to be on health (low-cholesterol, for example) and food safety (food scandals remain an unfortunate reality of life).
These are only some of the differences between us and Western consumers. And this is only for plant-based meat. We haven’t even gotten to attitudes towards synbio foods like animal-free dairy or cellular agriculture foods like cultivated seafood.
The future is Asia
At this point, you might be thinking, “why does any of this matter?” Well, Asia is where the action is, folks. Over 60% of the global population lives here. That’s close to 5 billion people. The region is also home to the most skyrocketing socio-economic mobility ever witnessed in history. In just 50 years, China and India combined have lifted over 1 billion people out of poverty and will likely lift another billion by 2050.
Those newly urban folks have developed an ever-growing appetite for animal foods. Problem is, we’ve only got one planet, and Asia contains a mere 20% of total agricultural land, not to mention that the climate crisis will be felt most acutely here. Our collective global fate is tied to the fate of the region and its ability to feed its citizens.
As I argued last month, “there’s nothing alternative about alternative protein. We need more solutions for protein production because the harsh reality is that, due to the growing demand for high-status animal protein from a burgeoning world population in regions where hundreds of millions are middle-class ascendant, we will need existing industrial animal protein production plus the food tech-powered alternatives.”
But while most of us could probably write a 1,000-word essay on the average American consumer, we are mostly ignorant about the average Asian consumer. And even generalizing Asians is a mistake. For example, the average Thai grocery shopper and the average Indonesian consumer are quite different.
We need a better grasp on non-Western consumers: their habits, their cultural identity, their needs, their motivations. We need to create products they want to buy so we can fill the demand gap that climate change and industrial agriculture have wrought.
This is why, every year since 2020, Green Queen Media has published an APAC Alternative Protein Industry Report in which we chronicle the future of food in the world’s most populous continent. We’ve just released our third edition and it’s packed with expert insights, unique data and in-depth sector analysis. We believe it’s our responsibility to tell the Asian protein story because we believe that the Asian protein story is the world’s protein story.