Taste test: a Good Food Fund chef promotes sustainable eating at an event in Suzhou

For Jian Yi, founder of campaigning organisation the Good Food Fund, China’s understanding of food systems is where its awareness of the environment was a decade ago. Initially mundane discussions on how to clean up litter or avoid the harmful impact of smog rapidly grew into a broader debate about building sustainable ecosystems. 

The award-winning documentary film-maker sees a similar turning point approaching for food in China — with a pivot away from narrow concerns about food safety, sparked by scandals involving tainted milk powder, “gutter oil” and rotting meat, to how to transform food systems. “We are currently trying to connect the dots for people to convey that this is a global problem that requires a solution in China,” he says. 

The pandemic has spurred scrutiny of China’s wildlife trade and urban markets, where the novel coronavirus virus first appeared, and prompted Chinese environmentalists to call for a wider reflection about humans’ relationship with nature.

China’s leadership has also prioritised food and the environment. In August, President Xi Jinping stressed the need to strengthen food security as he relaunched “Operation Empty Plate”, a campaign to tackle waste. In September, he surprised the UN by pledging that China would be “carbon neutral” by 2060.

Campaigner Jian Yi thinks China is nearing a turning point in its attitude to food

A key task for advocates of food sustainability like Mr Jian is to make policymakers appreciate the relationship between these currently siloed issues. Last week, his three-year-old organisation held its fourth annual summit, where 30,000 online attendees could hear lectures on the relationship between food systems and climate change, and watch livestream footage from organic farms in southwest China.

The event also included the launch of the Good Food Pledge, where partners including local governments, restaurants and companies set sustainability goals in line with the UN’s by 2030. Participants’ efforts are recognised through a certification scheme. “We want to help partners find an incentive,” Mr Jian says.

The Good Food Fund operates under the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, a government-backed non-profit. That gives it a degree of influence within the country’s political system.

Diners in a Beijing restaurant. President Xi Jinping has urged consumers to avoid food waste © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Meat or veg?

Pushing for change at the institutional level, rather than making grassroots efforts to change consumer behaviour, is a relatively new approach for China’s food sustainability movement. Mr Jian previously worked more with China’s vegan communities and released a documentary called What’s for Dinner?, an uncomfortable exploration of livestock farming.

While a vegan himself, Mr Jian has attempted to build a bigger audience for his organisation. One idea he has had is to tap into China’s national obsession with food, working with top chefs to design plant-based menus. He is also following in the footsteps of US universities such as Yale to bring food sustainability into China’s elite educational institutions.

China’s traditions and social norms are not always helpful. Vegetarianism and veganism are still relatively uncommon compared with more developed countries. Although many regions have traditionally used meat sparingly in their cooking, animal protein is still frequently seen as essential to a healthy diet, while ready access to expensive meats confers social status. 

A worker in Sichuan pushes butchered pigs into a cooler. About one-third of the world’s meat is eaten in China © China Photos/Getty Images

The country accounts for nearly a third of global meat consumption, and the per-capita amount is growing — an ominous development, given the meat industry’s contribution to carbon emissions and other environmental harms.

The government has been encouraging the population to cut down on daily meat intake, with dietary recommendations last updated in 2016 recommending a total of 120-200g of animal protein per day. What may help is that consumers appear to be receptive to alternatives, with one survey finding that 62 per cent are open to buying more plant-based meat.

This openness may come in part from the influence of a sizable Buddhist community that, in striving not to harm animals, has popularised the use of fungus- and soya-based meat alternatives. Tofu is also a common part of Chinese cuisine, often appreciated in its own right rather than merely as a meat substitute. Meanwhile, plant-based milk alternatives — derived from soya, walnuts, almonds, coconuts and peanuts — have found a vast market, owing to a high incidence of lactose intolerance.

Data provider Euromonitor estimates that China’s plant-based meat market had sales of about $10bn in 2019, a figure projected to reach nearly $13bn by 2023. As a result, US-based Beyond Meat has entered the Chinese market to take on local rivals like Shenzhen-based Qishan Foods (or Whole Perfect Foods in English) and start-up Zhenmeat (Treasure Meat).

Matilda Ho, managing director of Shanghai-based agriculture and food tech venture capital fund Bits x Bites, says the real opportunity lies in bringing novel alternative protein sources such as chickpeas to Chinese consumers, as interest in moving beyond traditional soy-based products has blossomed in the past year.

“A lot of existing [plant-based protein] brands under-deliver on nutrition,” she says. “A lot of them are really rich in sugar and fat, which does not appeal to the younger generation that is looking for healthier alternatives.” She expects compound annual growth for the sector to continue at about 10-15 per cent over the next decade, a rate maintained since 2014.

For Mr Jian, the excitement around plant-based meat helps raise awareness but can only be a part of the solution. “People in China have long accepted the centrality of plants in their diet,” he says. “We just need to give them the tools to act upon that belief.”

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