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Asia

Sieren's China: Test-tube-grown Peking Duck

The Chinese government hopes to restrict climate change and illness with the help of artificial meat. It's a bold move. But will the population go along with it, asks Frank Sieren.

Exploding watermelons. Duck passed off as beef after being marinated in goat's urine. Chemical-laced artificial eggs made from resin. There was once a time when food scandals from China hit the headlines all over the world almost every week. China's critics said that the country's penchant for pirating didn't even have the decency to stop at food.

However, Chinese consumers themselves protested. Now, the government is under immense pressure to improve safety standards in the food sector.

At the same time, the government is a huge advocate of "clean meat" and it has earned the backing of several environment activists. 

Big investment in Israeli start-ups

In a recent deal signed with Israel, China agreed to invest over $300 million (250 million euros) in start-ups that are producing fake meat in laboratories. The meat is made from stem cells and grows in a germ-free solution. There is no need for antibiotics. Advocates of this fake meat say the taste and consistency are just the same as the real thing. Apparently, even consumers who wouldn't go near ersatz meat made from soy products are now convinced by this "clean meat."

"Clean meat" has huge potential, says environmental and animal protection activists. Not only does it mean animals don't have to be slaughtered, but it's also much better for the planet. It would mean less water consumption, no deforestation a reduction of greenhouse gases. Moreover, it offers a humane alternative to the mass industrial production of meat that is now criticized by more than radical animal activists.

Bruce Friedrich from the Good Food Institute, which conducts research into "clean meat" and plant-based alternatives to meat, welcomed the deal between China and Israel, saying that it offered "a colossal market opportunity." The funds might propel a still specialized technology out of its niche.

Whether China is hoping to set trends by cultivating meat in labs and transform its image as a polluter is questionable. However, what is certain is that the future of the country is being decided here. Last year, Beijing launched a campaign to reduce meat consumption among the population by 50 percent. This is an ambitious goal that doesn't seem attainable at the moment. Since the rise in economic growth there has been a massive rise in meat consumption.

When the markets opened up in 1982, the average Chinese consumer ate 13 kilos (29 pounds) of meat per year. This has soared to 63 kilos. The increased meat consumption (as well as of sugar and of alcohol) has also lead to a huge increase in diabetes. There are 10 times more incidences of the disease today than 30 years ago. Some 114 million Chinese citizens are diabetic - that's proportionally more than in any other country in the world.

"Clean meat" is touted as being comparatively lower in cholesterol and fat and generally much healthier.

Beijing could not only help solve some of its climate goals and help to improve the health of citizens through this alternative to meat; it could also lessen its dependence on meat imports from Australia, the US and Germany. China currently imports $13.5 billion worth of meat each year and this figure continues to rise.

Citizens don't want this meat

The problem for the government is that many people don't want this fake meat just quite yet. The online critics say that it's not natural so it can't be healthy. The government, however, is banking on pragmatism. It hopes that if the meat is cheap but still tastes good, it will be eaten.

A newspaper recently posed the question: Imagine a future in which you have two products that are identical in taste, but one is cheaper and doesn't trigger any emissions whereas the other is the result of slaughter. Which do you opt for?

Presumably there will be meat producers and restaurant owners that will try to keep quiet about the origin of the meat they're selling. But that way of doing things didn't work with the fake resin eggs. Then again, they were extremely damaging to the health of those who ate them unwittingly -and they didn't taste nearly as good. 

DW correspondent Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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