Original Article: Bloomberg
David Yeung, the Hong Kong businessman behind Omnipork, is trying to convince a billion people to embrace a climate-friendly meat replacement.
For a guy in the food industry, David Yeung talks a lot about how gross food can be. Specifically, pork, the most popular meat in China. Industrial hogs are bred in harsh conditions—packed together in pens, sometimes eating contaminated garbage—and the 43-year-old Hong Kong businessman and restaurateur was not surprised by the massive pig die-offs triggered last year by the swine fever epidemic.
“The pig is also a huge source of carbon emissions and water pollution,” he says on a recent morning, sitting in a pink chair in one of his restaurants, Kind Kitchen. “The unsustainable manufacturing, the exponential growth, the hormone injections, the cramming into unlivable environments,” he says.
Obsessed with climate change, Yeung spends much of his time organizing events, delivering speeches, and making media appearances across Asia. It can sometimes seem as if he’s on the campaign trail, and in a sense, he is: He’s running on a platform of eating fewer pigs, and he wants people in China to vote with the $118 billion spent each year in the planet’s biggest pork market.
Yeung is a pioneer of a new kind of protein, a plant-based product called Omnipork that tastes like pork. “We’re looking at a collective survival issue of the planet,” Yeung says. “Pork today becomes a very urgent issue.”
He’s not trying to convert anyone, at least not abruptly. He wants to gradually turn pork lovers into “flexitarians” who are open to cutting meat out of their diet at least one day a week. His startup is called Green Monday. “You’re trying to shift behavior and diet habits,” he says, leaning back in a chair at his eatery. “It’s much more than just innovating a new chicken nugget.”
While Yeung’s shops do sell chicken-free nuggets, Omnipork is his big bet. His scientists spent two years developing a proprietary mix of soy concentrate, soy isolate, palm oil, something called “shitake fermented pea,” and a bunch of other thickeners, anti-caking agents, and natural coloring. The exact recipe is secret intellectual property, and Yeung declines to name the mysterious Asian-Canadian alchemist who is his top food engineer.
He calls the startup a “social venture model.” The Green Monday group has an advocacy arm, a for-profit company with hundreds of restaurants and supermarkets selling the products across Asia, and a line of around 50 products, which it sells in stores and online. The food innovation arm is called Right Treat. While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are focused on creating plant-based meats, and both include sausage in their product lines, Yeung’s group is trying a vertical play that has a hand in the products’ retail and distribution, in addition to their designs and manufacture.
Now comes the big test: China. Yeung has partnered with Alibaba Group’s e-commerce website Tmall to start retailing his Omnipork online and in brick-and-mortar food chains. He also landed its first deal in China with a fast food chain—Taco Bell is now selling Omnipork tacos in Shanghai. He wants not only to win taste tests but to change minds, he says.
It’s not a small challenge. Research published in Nature in 2018 found that a global shift to a flexitarian diet is needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone to 1.5 degrees, the target of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To get there, the average citizen will need to triple consumption of beans and to quadruple consumption of nuts and seeds, while eating 75% less beef, half as many eggs, and 90% less pork.
In China, people are eating more meat than ever. Average meat consumption per person has tripled since 1980, when China still had fewer than 1 billion people. The country devoured some 55 million tons of pork meat in 2018, the flesh of about 450 million pigs.
“In Asia, food isn’t necessarily a cultural symbol, like a cowboy eating a steak in America, but it’s a status symbol,” Yeung says. Consuming shark fin soup is a way “to show off your affluence, because it used to be that only the emperor could eat that food.” Vegetarian fare, Yeung says, carries cultural associations with the asceticism of Buddhist monks. “They think you’re, like, a hermit,” he says. Green Monday is trying to raise the social status of something that’s not made from meat.
Vaclav Smil, the Canadian scientist who has written extensively about climate change—including a book called Should We Eat Meat?—doesn’t think fake meat will be a “meaningful global solution of anything.” Meat is one of the first things people buy when they emerge from poverty, he points out; people have a strong attachment to it. “Rich folks can look down at meat,” he says, but “they should talk to poor folks in China or Nigeria.”
Yeung has heard skepticism before. But he and his rivals are betting on the new generation: Chinese millennials who never experienced hunger and were brought up on social media, where they learned about climate change, health trends, and quality consciousness. But is Yeung’s socially conscious, business-savvy charm—and his team of crack food scientists—enough to persuade millions of people to cut the pork out of their pork buns and dumplings?
David Yeung arrived at Columbia University in New York in 1994 as the scion of a family that was a dominant player in Hong Kong’s garment industry. He graduated and soon became an evangelical vegetarian. Friends were skeptical at shared meals, thinking he was “an alien,” Yeung says, though he was content to do no harm personally without trying to “impose that type of practice on other people.”
Then he watched Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, read that year’s landmark UN report on climate change, and decided it was all right to impose himself. “That’s when I thought eating meat is the same as burning coal, driving heavily-polluting cars, or smoking,” he says. “It’s not just you controlling your life. You’re affecting other people.”
Beef is the most emissions-intensive meat. Compared with pork or chicken, it takes 28 times as much land to produce, 11 times as much water, and leads to five times as many climate-warming emissions, researchers found in 2014. The pork industry is a big offender, too, and has become a health hazard in some places. Hundreds of low-oxygen “dead zones” afflict rivers, lakes, and seas, while pink-colored lagoons of pig waste are a particularly nasty threat when they overflow.
Yeung didn’t go after the pork industry right away. First, he authored some Chinese books on Zen philosophy, with titles such as Stand-up Zen and Mindful Working. He also launched a couple of startups, including an optical business and a multilabel fashion shop. It wasn’t until 2012 that he created the Green Monday campaign to get people eating vegetarian once a week. It involved a guide for green eating, selected ambassadors to influence eating habits, and deployed surveys and media blitzes. Soon he was getting offers from investors to back what would become his company.
Much of the manufacturing of Green Monday’s meat is done in Thailand, and the research and development team is located in Canada. Making Omnipork involves a “very light process,” he says. It likely involves some fermentation and machinery to make concentrates, but it doesn’t require the heme that gives the bloody color and taste to the Impossible Burger. Like a campaign that makes no promises, the Omnipork packaging focuses more on how it’s not made than how it’s made: “Cruelty-free, vegan, Buddhist-friendly and non-GMO. … No cholesterol, added hormones or antibiotics.”
One of the group’s first backers was the Lee family, a $17 billion Asian dynasty now in its sixth generation. Since the founder of the Lee Kum Kee group invented its renowned sauce by accidentally overcooking oysters 130 years ago, the group has gradually evolved into direct sales of health products, real estate, and venture capital.
The Lee Kum Kee group’s venture capital arm, Happiness Capital, led an investment round in Right Treat, the food development part of Green Monday. Eric Ng, Happiness Capital’s managing director, says he believes in the startup’s supply chain ecosystem, which can shift with diet trends to bring in suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers, much as textile empires now update product lines to get ahead of fast-fashion styles. It’s a lesson Yeung’s kin would have learned in building Glorious Sun, their textile group. (Yeung’s late father, a co-founder, was survived by his uncle, known colloquially as the “King of Pants.”)
“Not one single product can really stand very long, so you need a platform,” says Ng. His group has also invested in Beyond Meat, which aims to have production running in China this year, and a French insect protein company. “People can copy things very quickly now. You need an ecosystem, so everyone is buying into the same concept.”
Yeung has also persuaded James Cameron, Susan Rockefeller, and Hong Kong pop singer Kay Tse to invest in his Green Monday group.
Cameron, like Yeung, drew inspiration for a plant-based lifestyle from film. The Avatar filmmaker says he was moved to action by Forks Over Knives, a 2011 documentary that made the case for removing meat and dairy from the dining table.
Barry Didato, a senior adviser for the Cameron family office, said the “undeniable” evidence of climate change has brought the alternative meat sector a boom like that of the internet in the 1990s. “Everybody has plant-based foods on their menus now.”
The mood at Food’s Future Summit, a gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists held in a Hong Kong auditorium last October, bounced between utopian visions of a sustainable food cycle and dire warnings that food scarcity will affect billions of people by 2050. Waiters served espresso with soy or oat milk between tastings of plant-based sausages, “happy” nuggets, and something touted as the “world’s first molecular whiskey.” Panelists discussed the right price range for fish maw cultivated from stem cells and the anomaly of fermentation-based proteins that require little land but need big loans for large-scale manufacturing labs.
Vince Lu, who runs the Beijing food startup Zhenmeat, wanted to talk about the need for regulation of plant-based meats in China. He said he hoped a legal framework will come into place this year. Zhenmeat’s meat-like products rely heavily on peas, of which China is the world’s biggest producer.
Zhenmeat and Green Monday seem to be allies in the fake meat struggle at this point, but they could eventually become rivals. “There’s a trend for young people who like light foods, less calories, less fat, less animal consumption,” Lu said. “The biggest challenge is that we’ve been consuming meat for so long.”
Yeung appeared on stage at the summit to rally his movement. He said climate change, rising pork prices, and African swine fever were all creating momentum to push people away from meat. He ended with a crowd-pleasing snub of a certain global-warming skeptic: “I hope I don’t need to get into the details of climate change to prove that it’s not fake news,” he said.
Outside the convention, in the retail shops of Hong Kong, there are signs of an emerging market among prosperous urbanites, who now look down upon dairy milk and beef. Mana, in the city’s hipster-friendly Sheung Wan neighborhood, is one of a growing number of vegan cafes whose menus shun dairy and meat. Customers funnel in from a yoga studio next door, sipping vegan lattes from biodegradable cups that they are politely asked to recycle. It’s the kind of place that makes for an awkward encounter when straight-laced bankers wander over from the business district.
“It staggers me,” says Simon Powell, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Jefferies. “I like to drink Earl Grey tea with cow’s milk. I go to any capital city and ask for that: ‘I would like full-fat cow’s milk to go into my Earl Grey tea, please.’ They look at you like, ‘Where are you from?’”
Still, Powell’s own research estimates that the alternative meat market will grow to $240 billion over 20 years, as new technologies develop, and consumers tweak their diets. The “great protein shake-up,” as he calls it, could see faux meat reach a 9% share of a $2.7 trillion global meat market by 2040, Powell forecasts, from less than 1% now. One of the biggest debates in the food world these days is the potential size of the plant-based meat market, with estimates ranging from $10 billion to as high as $140 billion.
“The meat industry is massive globally, and it’s one of the few that hasn’t been disrupted,” he says.
Alternative meat remains an incipient idea, he says, but imposing taxes on meat could give it a boost, as could changing attitudes toward climate change, a backlash against animal cruelty, and China’s urbanization and tech booms.
In China, swine fever slashed the pig herd by half, according to some estimates, and the epidemic has revived sanitary concerns about China’s pork industry. National pork production may drop by as much as 20 million tons this year, Powell calculates.
“It’s not coal, where you can just dig up more,” he says. “It takes 300 days to grow a pig.”
A three-way battle for market share is taking place among plant-based alternatives such as Omnipork that already have commercial products, the cellular-based lab-meat developers that are still trying to bring products to market, and traditional meat producers trying to hold onto market share while investing in alternative meats.
The plant-based meat market has grown faster than cellular-based alternatives because venture capitalists are wary of regulatory issues that face cellular-protein producers, Powell says. Impossible’s genetically engineered ingredient heme, which gives soy protein its meaty flavor and color and led to regulatory hurdles in the United States, will have to navigate China’s own restrictions on genetic modifications. After bringing its products to Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong, Impossible unveiled its own fake pork and is moving the group’s international division head to Hong Kong. The company said it wants to launch in mainland China as soon as possible, but provided no specific plans. Among its backers: Li Ka-Shing, Hong Kong’s richest man. Beyond Meat, which is available in dozens of countries, said it plans to have production running in China before the end of 2020. (Yeung’s Green Monday sells a variety of Beyond dishes, from Beyond striploin to Beyond Sausage with kimchi).
Omnipork is well-positioned with its base in Hong Kong, but will it be able to scale up fast enough? Yeung will need to expand quickly if he is to gain significant market share, and competition will be fierce. Powell says it may be only a matter of time before the government offers business incubation or some other way to enable domestic rivals. China has shown, most recently with electric vehicles, its ability to stoke a market through subsidies and incentives.
Taste, of course, is the other factor that can make or break a plant-based meat startup. Unlike fake beef that can be popular in burger form, Omnipork struggles to stand alone as a patty or pork chop. It’s a bit too crumbly, dry, formless. At a recent sampling, an Omnipork “pork chop bun” sandwich fell apart like a wilted sloppy joe and tasted like a parched legume.
It works well as minced “meat” mixed in with noodles and broth. But it is perhaps most promising when stuffed inside dough with leeks or spices; the result is almost indistinguishable from gyoza dumplings.
It crosses over well, too. Taco Bell in Shanghai uses it as taco meat; Tsui Wah restaurant, the 24-hour diner chain, puts it on top of spaghetti Bolognese; another restaurant makes a Kimchi fried rice with it.
Yeung’s Kind Kitchen in protest-ravaged Hong Kong also experiments with Omnipork, stuffing it in French rolls for a vegan banh mi or sprinkling it on top of pizza. But even at Yeung’s restaurant, tear gas can be a more pressing issue than greenhouse gases, putting even more pressure on Yeung to speed up international expansion. Kind Kitchen opened to rave reviews by local foodies but has had to close its doors on some afternoons while police clashed nearby with activists.
—With assistance by Deena Shanker