Would you like to notice if the cubed meat in your cup noodle was not “real” meat? If so, would you do it? What if the future of our meat supply depended on it?
“Veganism is not for everyone,” said Yuki Hanyu, founder of IntegriCulture Inc., a Tokyo-based start-up that aims to bring laboratory foie gras to the top restaurant market. of the country next year. This is particularly true in Japan, where only 2.1% of the population is vegan, compared to 5% of the country’s 30 million visitors in 2018.
Globally, veganism is on the rise, largely due to a growing awareness of the negative environmental impact of meat. Globally, livestock is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. At current consumption levels, the global emission reduction targets of the Paris Agreement will not be met, but the sector is experiencing unprecedented growth.
The global picture is the story of Japan as a whole. In 2005, meat surpassed fish as the main source of protein in the Japanese diet. Since then, demand has exceeded domestic production, with the domestic meat industry expected to reach 2.6 trillion yen (about $ 23 billion) by 2023. In Japan, which has a food self-sufficiency rate of only 37 percent did not escape the notice of the government. note. In 2019, he formed a “Vege Council” made up of politicians and representatives from vegan-related groups and non-political organizations and contributed to a $ 2.7 million investment in “cell farming” – aka laboratory-grown or cultured meat.
Make the “meat” dominant
Cultivated meat, like that made by IntegriCulture, is made from cells extracted from an animal and grown on a culture medium – a mixture of water, salt, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and nutrients that cells use as food. The manufacturers claim that it tastes like the “real thing” and that it can be produced on a fraction of the ground with a fraction of the energy.
Meanwhile, according to Vege Council member and Tokyo Vegan Meetup co-founder Nadia McKechnie, the Council has mainly focused on educating tourism businesses on the specific requirements of vegetarian and vegan diets. Done right, awareness of the need to meet food restrictions could help the nation take advantage of the multi-billion dollar global plant market and achieve its climate goals.
Cellular meat has not yet been widely recorded on Japan’s public radar, where, according to Hanyu, “acceptability in Japan comes out in much the same way as in American or European studies.”
In a joint survey by Nissin Foods Holdings and Hirosaki University in 2019, when respondents who had little knowledge of the industry asked, “ Do you want to try cellular meat? ” only 6% responded “strongly agree”, 21% said “somewhat agree” and 44% either “somewhat” or “strongly” disagree (29% had no opinion) . But among those who already had some working knowledge of cellular meat, the percentage of those who really wanted to try it rose to 20%.
But that is not enough for Hanyu, who says that “investigations like this have been done so many times everywhere, but they lack one critical thing: the real product.”
The creep of cultivated meat may have escaped Japanese consumers, but it’s the flavor of the moment for global companies, governments and investors. It has even received considerable attention from megaliths in the meat industry, such as Tyson Foods, the second largest meat production company in the world.
In Japan, beef producer Toriyama Chikusan Shokuhin, meat and seafood supplier Awano Food Group and the aforementioned Nissin are just a few of the companies involved in the industry. Others, such as Otsuka Foods, Mitsui & Co. and Nishimoto Co., are doing everything they can to develop “new vegan meat substitutes” based on plants, along the lines of popular products like the Impossible Burger.
Even though company-wide research and development takes place behind the scenes, Hanyu is determined to make the product a mainstream.
A local movement
By day, Hanyu from IntegriCulture is a clever CEO, but at night, he lets his passion for cell farming tear apart. Alongside IntegriCulture, he heads the Shojinmeat Project, a non-profit organization that aims to put cellular farming in the hands of many people. The ambition: to increase consumer acceptability. The strategy: to draw on Japan’s deep love for cartoons.
Shojinmeat organizes weekly “meetings” in open access and distributes the recipe for meat grown in cells that everyone can prepare at home in the form of manga.
“As far as I know, the best way to reach Generation Z in East Asia, and there are 500 million, is anime and manga,” says Hanyu. “It’s about transmitting the joy of DIY biohacking and imaginative thinking.”
While the meetings welcome many young science buffs and manga fans, they also attracted government officials from the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). After six months of presence, JST has allocated $ 20 million to various cell-based meat production projects. Hanyu attributes this to the relaxed nature of the encounter, which leaves room for imaginative and expansive thinking.
“Only a tiny fraction (of the funding) went to IntegriCulture, but the most important is that it is the first multi-million dollar government funding specifically targeted to cell-based meat with marketing insights,” said said Hanyu. “It’s not just academic.”
The Cambridge University doctorate in chemistry first installed the bioreactor necessary for cell growth between his parents’ toaster and microwave. “Conventionally, large companies and universities are the engine of the development of new technologies,” he says. “I said to myself:” It’s boring, it’s funnier if a citizen movement leads. “”
Hanyu sees a future in which IntegriCulture CulNet System bioreactors exist at home, in the community and on an industrial scale. Owners will be able to “design” their own meat, changing the taste and nutritional profile to create signature dishes.
Although Hanyu recognizes the growing interest in low-meat diets, he does not think it is a “necessary option for everyone”. Especially in Japan where, he warns, “vegans are seen as arrogant. They give the impression that they are morally superior. “
Yuki Daniels, owner of Hallogallo, Tokyo’s first vegan bar, thinks the opposite. She is not sure that Japan needs a new supply of meat: she prefers that vegetables get decent public relations. Where Daniels agrees with Hanyu is that it’s hard to go against the grain, especially with the Japanese culture of sharing dishes.
When Daniels and his partner go out with friends, they often give up food for convenience. However, it’s not an option when dining with colleagues, says vegetarian and aspiring vegan Yumi Fujisawa.
“When you say you are a vegetarian, people are like” Errrr, “” says Fujisawa. “They have to find a restaurant with a vegetarian menu. … I was secretary for five years and I had to attend many dinners with my boss. I couldn’t say (I was a vegetarian) because it’s not supposed to happen. People wouldn’t take me to the restaurant. “
McKechnie is also concerned about the number of people in Japan who find it difficult to tell others that they are vegan. This gives the illusion that there is little domestic demand, which means that the industry is not responding.
“There are Japanese people who don’t want to eat meat, but they’re in the closet,” says McKechnie. “People don’t realize there is a huge market in Japan. Nobody talks about veganism in the press, there are few data and few products. “
Taken together, the emerging vegan movement in Japan, the desire for meat and the willingness to experiment with new technologies are at the height of Hanyu. Add land shortages and ongoing funding interest to the mix and the stage can be set for its desired future. But the barriers to cultivated meat are as real in Japan as they are elsewhere. Even if costs are expected to fall and acceptability is expected to increase, it remains to be seen whether the technology can supply large-scale and compete with new meat substitutes. In the short term, Japan will need to focus on diversifying its protein sources.
Hanyu is not discouraged: in fact, he agrees with industry experts who argue that new vegan meat substitutes will support the long-term transition to cultivated meat. “In three years things will not be much different from today,” he said. “In 10 years, there will be many more herbal alternatives. The cells will represent less than 0.1% of the market. (But) after that, change is expected at a brisk pace. “