On September 25 – 27, businesses, investors, legal and technology experts, along with service providers and stakeholders representing the entire value chain attended the 3rd Future Food Forum in Shanghai. This high-profile gathering of the plant-based food industry has put a spotlight on the market’s future in China .
Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, though absent from attending due to COVID-19, sent a greeting video for the forum’s opening. In his greeting, the leader of the highest-ranking plant-based food business expressed his expectations and aspirations for the industry:
“China is committed to averting disasters of climate change and improving public health and nutrition. And there is another very important benefit: that is, a huge improvement of food security.”
Brown further noted that action from the plant-based food industry will relieve pressures coming from the shortage of agricultural resources in China. Additionally, this will help develop a China-based industry to provide much greater food security for the Chinese people.
Sharing Best Practices
In the beginning of 2018, alternative protein products were rarely seen as a category in Chinese supermarkets. But by last September, there have been more than 50 brands of plant-based products in the domestic market. According to Tmall (TMIC), a new product innovation center, some brands such as Oatly saw their businesses in China increase exponentially!
The landscape of the plant-based food industry first began to show promise in 2019. This began with Beyond Meat, the first plant-based food company, launching in May of that year. By 2020, the market was in full swing and began to be embraced by Chinese customers. This became especially true after the swine fever in Africa and the onset of COVID-19.
Oatly is held up as one of the best examples of company branding, promoting, and positioning in China. It effectively accomplished all of these within three years of entering the mainland market. Zhang Chun, Oatly’s president for Asia, shared the company’s strategies for breaking into the Chinese market.
Yao Wei, Corporate Innovation & Development Lead at Syngenta Group China, (known as the best state-owned enterprise in China), gave presentations regarding capital, the market, technology, and investment prospects related to new proteins. Other businesses such as Youkuai Group International also shared their success stories.
Future Food Forum at Work
A collaboration of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition Guidance of China National Food Industry Association, the State Food and Nutrition Consultant Committee, and the China Plant Based Food Alliance, Future Food Forum (FFF) is a high-end forum for plant-based industry and market in China. Each forum has attracted more than 200 representatives from domestic and foreign government departments, research institutions, industry associations, investment institutions and food companies to discuss topics relevant to developing alternative proteins.
The previous two Forums were co-hosted with Veggieworld in December 2018 and again in November 2019 in Beijing.
“Our goal is to coordinate both the industry and its voice, while at the same time orchestrating all resources for the best interest and social governance of the industry,” said Ryan Xue, secretary-general of the China Plant Based Food Alliance.
As a professional platform to help stakeholders learn, communicate, and collaborate, the Forum has one signature function in China’s plant-based industry. This function is to vigorously promote the development of China’s plant-based industry towards standardization, specialization, and scale. The regulation and certification organization has also been working to map out the principles that are applicable to the entire industry.
The industry ecosystem indicates China’s market boom at the initial development stage for plant-based food. During this phase, a multitude of stakeholders joined to bring creative ideas and vitality to the new market.
Currently investors have shown interest in a few new types of proteins including plant-based protein, fermentation, and cell-cultured protein. The first scope is most invested, while the others typically only allow start-ups to remain in the phase of technological development and experiments.
Start-up companies such as Zhen Meat who are navigating the waters of a new industry are most likely to stand out with an excellent team, quality management, and a collective vision. Technology is also a key to draw capital, but long-term goals are what appeal most to investors.
Some traditional sectors will also transform themselves to adapt into the new market. While the vegetarian diet in China’s history can be traced back over a thousand years ago to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it is quite different from the modern concept of alternative proteins.
Nowadays, there is a great demand for innovation to create food that is geared for Chinese eating habits. Emerging plant-based food, created mostly from soy and other fibrous proteins, require more complex technology to safeguard the texture of products and to make is similar real meat. “It is the very technology that needs to go from 0 to 1,” said Wu Qi, director of the Food Science and Processing Research Center at Shenzhen University.
Apart from taste and texture, the focus of the industry’s operation must be transformed as well. Jennifer Lee, executive director of U.S.-China Agriculture and Food Partnership stated, “The production chain at the moment is very long in the industry, which may become an obstacle to the development.” Lee noted that in the upcoming three years, however, plant-based food will be increasingly more welcomed in the world.