Can lab-grown meat solve China’s food safety and shortage problems?

This might be cleaner in a lab.
This might be cleaner in a lab.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

China’s problems with food safety—as well as worries about the food supply meeting its population’s needs—have prompted a number of solutions, including creating a new regulatory body and investing millions in biotechnology. Another, more novel approach is on the horizon: synthetically made meat.

Earlier this month, Asia’s wealthiest man, Li Ka-Shing, announced that he had led at $23 million investment round in a Silicon Valley startup that makes plant-based egg substitutes and eggless mayonnaise. The company, Hampton Creek, is getting ready to expand into Asia. “Everyone wants a clean and sustainable world,” Li said at the time.

As we’ve pointed out, worry about the world’s meat consumption is one reason why research and business ventures related to synthetic food, like last year’s first lab-grown burger made with cow cells, and meat substitutes have started to take off. In China, where meat consumption is already double that of America’s and still growing even as available arable land shrinks, synthetically made food could be even more relevant. According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, China already consumes 30% of the world’s eggs.

Food safety is another reason why synthetic food could benefit China. The country’s agriculture and food supply chains are difficult to regulate, stretching across 200 million small farms and almost half a million food processing companies, with few financial resources to maintain safety standards. Lab-cultivated meat and eggs like Hampton Creek’s could also help protect against viruses like avian flu that have cropped up because of close human contact with live poultry in cities. China’s on-and-off food scandals have eroded consumer trust and hit firms hoping to cater to them, like Yum Brands, whose KFC chain is still struggling to win back Chinese eaters after reports of excessive antibiotics.

The UK and the Chinese government have launched synthetic biology research exchanges and Chinese biotech firm BGI now runs the world’s largest pig cloning center. It may not be that long before we see Chinese lab-grown pork.