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In India and China, consumers are eager for lab-grown meat. In the US? Not as much.

New market research finds Americans divided on meat alternatives — and consumers elsewhere hungry for them.

Impossible burgers on display at WIRED25, October 14, 2018.
Impossible Burgers on display at Wired25, October 14, 2018.
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Wired25
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Would you eat a burger grown from animal cells rather than a whole cow? What about a plant-based burger, once researchers finally pull off a perfect imitation of the texture and taste of a meat burger?

That question, believe it or not, might be one of the most important of the century. Modern meat production involves shockingly inhumane conditions, mass use of antibiotics with worrisome public health implications, and high environmental costs. And demand for meat is expected to rise 73 percent by 2050, expanding the scale of factory farming’s horrors while putting more strain on our food system.

With all that in mind, researchers are desperately working on better alternatives to meat. Some of them have developed plant-based products — like the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger, Just Mayo, and Just Egg — that imitate animal products increasingly well. Some of them are working to invent cell-based products — “clean meat” — that will be, on a molecular level, identical to meat but without the slaughterhouses.

That’s exciting — but it only works if consumers buy it. Will they?

That’s what a new study of consumer attitudes about plant-based meat and clean meat aimed to find out. Even more striking about this survey: It asked consumers in India and China, two of the largest markets in the world and two sources of growing demand for meat.

The results? Consumers in China and India are substantially more open-minded about clean meat than consumers in the US — and even in the US, many meat-eating consumers are intrigued by the idea.

Researchers with the University of Bath, the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit that pushes meat alternatives), and the Hong Kong Center for Long Term Priorities asked about 3,030 consumers — approximately 1,000 in each country — to fill out a survey that included questions about what they eat today; questions intended to test their “food neophobia,” or how willing they are to try new foods; and questions about what they’d eat in a world where clean meat, plant-based meat, and conventional meat are all available.

They found that consumers in India and China (from a disproportionately urban, educated, and wealthy sample) were much more interested in buying clean meat and plant-based meat, compared to Americans. In all three countries, though, there is clearly a sizable market for clean and plant-based meat:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The United States has by far the largest share of consumers who said they were not at all likely to purchase clean meat: 23.6 percent. (In China, that was only 6.7 percent, and in India, 10.7 percent.) The United States also had by far the smallest share of consumers who said they were “very or extremely” likely to purchase clean meat. In the US, 29.8 percent were very likely or extremely likely. In China, that was 59.3 percent, and in India, 48.7 percent.

The numbers for plant-based meat looked a lot like the numbers for clean meat, which is interesting. In general, the teams pursuing clean meat are doing so because they don’t expect plant-based alternatives to be sufficient to win over consumers. This survey, though, suggests that both might be attractive to the same groups of people. Fortunately, that’s almost all people — especially in India and China.

In America, eating a lot of meat predicted being less interested in alternatives. In China, though, the people who ate the most meat were the ones who expected to get the most out of plant-based and clean meat options. That suggests that while in America many people identify with their meat-eating and actively don’t want alternatives, that trend isn’t a global one.

That’s a big deal. China and India collectively contain more than 2 billion people — and research suggests that those people are a lot more excited about meat alternatives than Americans. India and China are both low in per capita meat consumption today compared to wealthier countries, but still important because they’re so large and rapidly growing wealthier.

Much of the work on plant-based meat and clean meat occurring today is happening in America. But if companies only market their products in America, they’ll fail to enter the biggest markets in the world, where meat alternatives may be even more important. Factory farming in the US is important — billions of animals are raised and consumed for food here every year. But activists, and entrepreneurs, should be aware of opportunities abroad.

How seriously should we take surveys like these?

The survey results are certainly encouraging, but there are certainly reasons to take them with a grain of salt.

When answering surveys, lots of people try to answer with what they think the surveyors want to hear — and, as the study notes, research suggests that this effect may be more pronounced in China than it is in the United States: “for example, Faunalytics (2018) observed that survey respondents in China were more likely to acquiesce to statements and were more likely to give responses in the middle of scales than respondents in the U.S.” It’s hard to guess how much that is a difference in attitudes and how much a difference in how respondents approach the survey.

And consumers seem especially likely to give idealistic answers that might not reflect their real purchase habits on surveys about factory farming. Past surveys, for example, have found that nearly half of Americans say they want to ban slaughterhouses. That’s a fairly striking result, and it’s hard to imagine an actual vote on banning slaughterhouses would be nearly that close (though votes for animal welfare measures do tend to pass overwhelmingly).

Even if people are trying to answer honestly, it can be hard to predict your own future behavior. It’s easy to think about it in theory, but would you actually buy a burger made from clean meat? It might be a decision you’d make in the moment, at the grocery store, hard to predict years in advance when clean meat is not yet commercially available.

And, as the report notes, there’s always the risk that people didn’t really understand the question. When describing complicated new ideas like clean meat, even with a highly competent translation team, it might be hard to get the idea across fully. “Although we were careful to develop and translate clear descriptions of the products,” the paper notes, “we also cannot rule out the possibility that some participants did not fully understand them.”

So there’s still lots of uncertainty surrounding this survey and attitudes toward clean and plant-based meat in general. But the findings, as reported, are no doubt encouraging. In all three countries, and especially in China and India, lots of people want more humane meat options. That’s a good sign for researchers hoping to end factory farming by inventing something better.

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