In Southeast Asia, plant-based foods diets have historically been core to the local diet. Cheap to produce, versatile to cook with & high in protein; alternatives to meat like tofu & tempeh are still a common sight in the streets & hawker centers across the region.
The ‘meatification’ of the region has in fact been relatively recent, really accelerating in the last 50 years as the practices of industrial agriculture & intensive animal farming began to flourish in markets like China & Vietnam as they had in the West. Meat was democratized & the protein source has since flourished as the region became more interconnected & more affluent.
But now, across the world, people are pushing back on the current food system. A system that is unforgivably inefficient in how it generates proteins for humans. A system that generates alarmingly little food given the land it consumes & the emissions it generates. At first, businesses responded to growing ethical & environmental concerns by marketing vegetarian alternatives, but now science has stepped in. Backed by huge investment, innovators in laboratories across US & Europe are mastering the art of ‘meat-mimicry’ & its early successes have created a global market that is now estimated to be worth $450 billion by 2040.
Investors now hold out hope that Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people, will be the next hotspot. According to reports, between 2016 to 2020, the region saw a 440% increase in vegan & vegetarian plant-based product launches.
In 2020, among the 279,000 tons of alternative protein sold across 6 Southeast Asian nations, only 0.07% came from meat & seafood substitutes like plant-based meat.
However, analysis of trends in the region & developments in the category suggests that there is a large addressable market waiting to be uncovered. While alternative meats are a still a small part of total meat consumption they can steal share from animal-based meat as protein consumption in SEA increases coupled with the reduced availability of protein products worldwide
So when will the wave of plant-based meat products change Southeast Asian appetite? And if so, what are the steps to get there?
Reports suggest that 7 in 10 Southeast Asian consumers have recently tried an alternative plant-based food diet.
Where 53% of people who have tried plant-based foods have done so because they feel they are healthier while implementing the new diet, while 24% made the choice out of concerns for the environmental impact of livestock farming. Further, as per the Asia Food Challenge 2021 report., 43 percent of Indonesians & 37% of Thais claimed to become vegan or vegetarian within a year. So there is growing evidence that people in the region are eating less meat. That the ‘meatification’ of the region is shifting into reverse gear & that vegetables are playing a more prominent role in the diets of the average Southeast Asian consumer.
Many of the more prevalent concerns that drive the category are most deeply held by millennials & Gen Z. These are generations that are more globally aware, more health conscious & more likely to feel the full force of climate change. Naturally, proven benefits like improved sustainability, greater nutrition, food safety & animal welfare resonate powerfully.
“The younger generation (18–40s) understand the impact of their consumption on the environment and place more importance on their health and diet…hopefully in the next 5 years, at least 8–10% of the younger generation (18–40s) will consume plant-based foods at least 2–3 times a week”
Head of Marketing, Business Development Lead at The Vegetarian Butcher (Unilever Food Solutions)
While the environmental & food security benefits are encouraging, the key to widespread consumer acceptance will be price parity. Even if the taste & texture challenge is overcome, the cost must be either the same or less for the category to scale across markets, socio-economic groups & demographics.
Today, in Singapore, the price of Impossible meat is approximately 3.5x conventional minced Brazilian beef in local supermarkets but it is estimated price parity will be achieved within 2 to 3 years.
It’s estimated however that within the next 2–3 years, plant-based meats will reach price parity with animal meats. According to a study by Blue Horizon and Boston Consulting Group, first to achieve this status will be plant-based alternatives such as burgers, dairy, & egg substitutes made from soy, pea, and other proteins which will achieve parity in 2023, if not sooner. Alternative proteins made from microorganisms like fungi, yeasts, and single-celled algae will follow by 2025 & finally alternatives grown directly from animal cells will reach parity by 2032.
Plant-based meats are a triumph of science. The product of relentless experimentation in biotech laboratories. The businesses in the category that succeed will be those that keep this culture of innovation alive. Testing, improving, and scaling new ideas. A great example is insect-based protein. It has a far lower carbon footprint & far higher protein content. Compared to beef it requires 500x less water, 12x less feed & 10x less land — in the process producing 613x fewer greenhouse gases.
But in a region like Southeast Asia the game-changing innovation will arguably not be about ‘better mimicry’ or even ‘better than real meat’; it will be about localisation. Creating tastes, textures & formats that work for the local budgets, channels, palettes & dishes.
There are already encouraging examples of localization. Thai plant-based brand MEAT ZERO is available in ready-to-cook & ready-to-eat formats at modern trade & 7-Elevens across the country. Green Butcher, Indonesia’s first plant-based meat producer, has focused on ready-to-eat Asian formats like Chick’n Karaage & Beefless Rendang. Singapore-based Karana uses jackfruit as their hero ingredient, immediately localising the product in consumers’ minds.
Perhaps more compelling for the category is the move towards ‘less but better’ when it comes to meat. A love of the taste but not a demand for authenticity. Perhaps this lies in the fact that the Asian appetite for premium meat products lies as much in the status it conveys as the quality it delivers. Therefore if an alternative emerges that delivers the same acquired taste & texture…But is it really delivering yet? There is certainly a way to go.
Nothing is certain. The category is still young. The model is unproven. But the signs are positive. People are more health-conscious, affluent, ethically aware & outward looking all of which put wind in the sails of founders, investors & early adopters who have a deep passion for the product. It is a ‘category with a cause’ & that will undoubtedly stand it in good stead as it establishes a foothold in such a challenging — but endlessly exciting region.