China turns to tech for better and safer food.
With its huge population and history of famines, China’s food challenges in the past were centred on how to feed a multitude of people. The future will be more about feeding them well.
An unusual collection of players—from vegan evangelists to cultured-meat scientists, chickpea proponents, blockchain startups and venture funds—converged last week on the PwC Shanghai Innovation Centre, for what was billed as the country’s first food tech investment conference. The 2050 China Food Tech Summit—2050 is the year that the world population is expected to exceed 9.6 billion—was organized by Bits x Bites, a food-focused accelerator and venture fund.
“In the last five years, we have seen a shift from thinking about quantity to quality, with new technologies,” said Vincent Martin, China representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and a panelist at the meeting. “Whatever is done here in China will have repercussions for the rest of the world.”
Attendees came from across China and as far away as Germany, Switzerland, Israel, the United States, Australia and Singapore. Many were looking at China as a market and production base as well as a real-life test site for new ideas at significant scale.
But scale isn’t the only challenge. Food safety scandals in recent years have prompted new regulations in China as well as a wider rethinking of which food supply systems are sustainable. Consumers—especially those in top-tier cities—are increasingly health conscious and demanding more nutritious food with traceable origins.
“Millennials and flexitarians will be the driving force of the market in the future,” said Hazel Zhang, founder and CEO of VegPlanet, a vegan and sustainable living media platform in China with 330,000 followers on WeChat. “We already see this happening in the West. In China, it will be the same—they care not only about the environment, they care about their health, they care about their body. If we have plant-based protein that tastes really great and is hopefully cheap, I see this trend is really coming. The tipping point may come in 10 years.”
Others saw a more diversified market. “I see a place for cell-based, a place for plant-based,” said Rom Kshuk, CEO of Future Meat Technologies, a cultured meat startup. “It doesn’t have to be around ideology—vegetarian, flexitarian—people will just move from one to the other.”
Key trends in the day-long conference included:
While meat consumption has plateaued in the United States, it continues to soar in China. But raising livestock uses a lot of land and water—resources that China can ill afford.
Scientists have been experimenting with growing meat cells in labs for several years, but at very high cost. Future Meat Technologies has developed a way of dramatically cutting the cost of culturing meat cells in a lab—by combining a bioreactor with an artificial liver and kidney. Unlike earlier iterations of lab-grown meat, this version includes the all-important streaks of fat, the bits that sizzle on the grill with an aroma that can trigger the mouth-watering reflex in even long-time vegetarians, said Yaakov Nahmias, founder of the Jerusalem-based startup.
Future Meat Technologies received early funding from Bits x Bites and, in May, attracted $2.2. million in seed investment, co-led by Tyson Ventures, part of Tyson Foods, a Fortune 100 company.
Israeli startup InnovoPro has developed chickpeas as a protein-rich ingredient for food products and is targeting consumers who are looking for cleaner food labels, said CEO Taly Nechushtan. Chickpeas also act as an emulsifier and can take the place of modified starches and other additives. InnovoPro has developed a range of chickpea puddings, yogurts, egg-free mayonnaise, protein bars and savory snacks, and is looking for food companies as partners.
San Diego-based Triton is promoting green algae—Chlamydomonas reinhardtii—in powdered form as a protein-rich food ingredient. In May this year, Triton invited celebrity chef Brian Malarkey to cook a five-course meal for 120 diners, using the algae. The menu included nori algae butter, algae bucatini, algae pesto, algae lime cookies and a Chlamy Cocktail.
Whether any of these ingredients will take off in China depends on whether they can be adapted to Chinese cooking styles. “At the end of the day, food is more about culture than anything else,” said Kshuk.
Fresh is best
Chinese consumers buy more than 20% of their food online, the highest proportion in the world, said Thierry Garnier, President and CEO of Carrefour China. In Europe and the United States, the food e-commerce market is in the low single digits.
Carrefour recently openedits first Le Marche “smart store” in Shanghai, with digital innovations supported by Chinese tech giant Tencent, parent company of WeChat. Tencent also has a stake in Carrefour China. Shoppers have the option of scanning and paying online or at self check-outs. Tencent rival Alibaba has a chain of similar grocery stores in China under the Hema banner.
Digital bells and whistles aside, fresh food is front and center at Le Marche.
“You don’t go to a store only to buy, you have to go to a place and enjoy it,” said Garnier. “In France, I take pleasure in choosing cheese—maybe for you, it is crabs, or fish. Fresh is still a pleasure.” Stores are also places for shoppers to discover new products that they might not be actively looking for.
Freshness is also a focus for e-commerce startup 321Cooking, which delivers fresh, pre-packaged, ready-to-cook ingredients to Chinese homes.
“We take away the complicated and boring parts. We buy all the raw ingredients and wash them, and consumers keep the most enjoyable part—the cooking,” said Xiayue Pan, cofounder of 321Cooking. The brand’s customers are 75% female, aged between 25 and 35 years, and live in the first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, she said.
Consumers want fresh ingredients, which means a shorter shelf life, Pan said. At the same time, they don’t want additives or preservatives. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “An opportunity and a challenge as well.”
Food as medicine
Some food companies are tackling issues such as rising obesity and diabetes rates in Asia. Singaporean startup Alchemy Foodtech has created a technology that lowers the glycemic index of white rice to the level of brown rice, and has just received venture funding from Bits x Bites.
Selling a healthy option in China will require more than scientific facts and figures, said Loris Li, associate director of food and drink at Mintel. “You can’t just give stats. You need to provide an interesting story. Numbers are not enough to convince Chinese consumers, especially the elderly ones,” she said.
Finally, several panelists were asked to picture an ideal intersection of food, technology and health in the year 2050.
“In 2050, I’ll be in my 70s,” said Ryan Chaw, who leads technology acquisition for the APAC R&D team at Coca Cola. “I’ll be at home, wearing a belt that can measure my gut health. I’ll walk into my indoor vegetable garden, blend my own shake and consume it.”