Jack Yap struggled for years to attract meat lovers to his chain of vegetarian restaurants in his native Malaysia. He offered discounts, spent more on marketing and worked closely with in-house chefs to introduce creative dishes to the menu, like a vegetarian Philly cheesesteak.
After four years of toiling away "without making a penny," Yap began to accept the reality: Conventional vegetarian food was not persuading Malaysia's carnivores to reduce their meat consumption or dine at his restaurant. What would make that happen, he eventually realized, was a product that looks, tastes and smells like meat.
Jump ahead to 2019, and Phuture Foods, a company that makes plant-based "pork" is born. Yap, 30, co-founded the company with fellow vegetarian and former real estate professional Jin Yin Lim. This month, the company pressed forward with a soft launch of its inaugural alternative meat product in Singapore despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Singapore into a partial lockdown and infected more than 2 million people around the world. It can be ordered through apps with food delivery services including Singapore's Grab for now.
A plant-based alternative for ground pork, the Phuture Mince 3.0 product is made of more than 20 ingredients, including shiitake mushrooms, chickpeas, soy, peas and rice. It's available in a handful of restaurants in Singapore, where it's prepared in dishes like dumplings and a traditional Asian noodle dish in a peanut broth known as dandanmian. But it can be used in any recipe that calls for ground pork.
Phuture Foods is part of a growing wave of startups worldwide racing to create alternative meats to persuade carnivores to eat less meat, or even ditch it completely for a plant-based lifestyle. Phuture Foods -- like its well-known American rivals Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat -- markets its products as more sustainable and environmentally friendly than conventional meat. This is especially important to consider during the coronavirus pandemic, Yap says.
"COVID-19 has done so much harm over the last few months, and has disrupted global food supply chains," says Yap, who also serves as Phuture Foods CEO. "We hope plant-based meat can help to cut down the production of animal meat. Rather than using up precious land resources to house animals and cultivate crops to feed animals, crops can be our new source of food to create plant-based meat."
As well as an ongoing pandemic, Phuture's launch comes amid a grim backdrop in the meat industry. Major meat processing plants across the US have been forced to shut down as workers get infected with the coronavirus. Their closures mean farmers are left with an excess number of hogs with nowhere to send them for processing. At the other end of the supply chain, grocery stores grapple with a shortage of meat.
Cutting down on livestock farming
One of the main goals of many alternative meat advocates is to cut down on livestock farming, which is linked to a range of environmental issues, including the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, water depletion and deforestation, experts say. Livestock accounts for nearly 15% of yearly greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Cows release a greenhouse gas called methane when they digest their feed, while deforestation to clear land for agriculture adds more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
"For people who object to eating meat on moral, ethical or environmental grounds, I can see that these [meat-free] products solve a problem," says Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "To me they appear as just another ultra-processed techno-food."
In addition to concerns over environmental damage and animal farming and slaughter, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a spotlight on the threats the meat and wildlife trade industries pose to public health. After all, the coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, is believed to have originated from a live animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last December.
"Animals bred to achieve unnaturally high output level and raised in extraordinarily high population densities with unnatural diets and living conditions create the perfect seedbed for zoonotic diseases," says Elaine Siu, managing director of The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit that works to accelerate growth of the plant-based and cell-based protein alternatives industries. "It's a matter of chance when or which of these diseases take the leap to the human species."
Read more: Jane Goodall says COVID-19 arose from our disrespect for nature
Carving up alternative proteins: Plant-based versus cell-based
There are two major types of companies in making alternative meats: plant-based and cell-based. Plant-based food startups like Phuture Foods, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat study animal products at a molecular level, and source plants with similar proteins and nutrients to create "meat." Meanwhile, "clean meat" companies grow meat in a lab from the cells of a live animal, such as a pig, which still results in 100% real pork, but eliminates the need for animal slaughter and livestock farming.
The exact recipe of Phuture Mince 3.0 is secret intellectual property, which the company says took more than a year to develop with a team of food scientists in the US.
"Pork is made of fat and lean meat. Using our proprietary processing technology of incorporating rice into our Phuture blend, it gives a nice fatty, juicy mouthfeel to the product, while maintaining a low-fat product," said Alfred Cheung, chief science and technology officer at Phuture Foods. "The difficulty lies in replicating the fatty mouthfeel."
According to Cheung, Phuture "used a mixture of thermal processing, natural umami flavors and reaction flavors to give our product a really nice aromatic, crackling pork fat flavor," after studying minced pork at a molecular level.
Along with not killing animals and simplifying the meat supply chain, advocates of alternative proteins say it's less taxing on the environment. According to the nonprofit Good Food Institute, plant-based meats like Phuture Foods use less land, less water and emit up to 90% less greenhouse gases than traditional meat processing would.
"The primary ingredients for plant-based meat have very low greenhouse gas emissions, and additional processing accounts for only 13%–26% of plant-based meat's climate impact," according to the GFI's website.
Bigger appetites for alternative meat
But as investment and research around the alternative meat industry grow, it has drawn skepticism from some environmental scientists who argue that while alternative meats are better for the environment than red meat, their production may emit more carbon than an unprocessed plant diet.
"Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it's the most climate-friendly thing to do -- that's a false promise," Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, told CNBC.
Any way you slice it, the alternative meat industry appears to be booming, with estimates pegging its value at $140 billion within the next decade, according to Barclays. It's expected to take up a larger share of the broader $1.4 trillion dollar meat industry, fueled by a growing population and larger appetites for meat.
In a 2018 report published in Nature, Springmann and a team of international researchers warned that a global shift toward a "flexitarian" (sort-of vegetarian) or primarily vegetarian diet is needed to sustain a healthier planet. A 2019 report from the UN climate panel also called for reduced meat consumption to aid in the fight against climate change.
The Phuture Foods founders say they have ambitions to roll out their meat-free product across Asia, particularly in China, using Singapore as a springboard into the rest of the region. While beef and chicken are popular in the West, pork is essentially the king of meats in Asia, and is by some estimates the most widely consumed meat globally, driven by demand in China.
"People like meat too much to give it away completely," Yap says. "Therefore, I think this could be a game-changer."