Start-ups and investors in the lab-grown meat segment received a massive boost last month when Singapore approved San Francisco-based Eat Just’s cell-based chicken bites. 1880, a members only restaurant in downtown Singapore, became the first eatery in the world to serve Eat Just’s lab-grown meat last week , a development that industry players hope will lead to more jurisdictions allowing the sale of such meat products as early as 2021. Among them is Carrie Chan Kai-yi, the co-founder of Avant Meats, Hong Kong’s first lab-grown meat start-up. Chan had expected the first regulatory approvals in 2022. “This is exciting news for all of us, from start-ups to investors. We have developed and invested in something that was previously not allowed to be sold. The [Eat Just] approval makes everything real,” she said. The nod for Eat Just’s cell-based chicken bites is significant because cultured meat and meat substitutes are expected to disrupt the multibillion-dollar global meat industry over the coming decades. A study conducted by US consulting firm AT Kearney late last year suggests that traditional meat products will become less significant, with a market share as low as 40 per cent, as alternatives – cultured meat and novel vegan meat replacement – grow to make up 60 per cent of the market in 2040. Cultured meat has evolved in recent years and represents meat that is created through exponential cell growth in bioreactors, from cells extracted from living animals. It is identical to conventionally produced meat. Novel vegan meat replacements – such as that made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – are made completely from plant-based inputs and feel more like meat than classic vegan meat replacements. A report by Barclays last year forecast the global alternative meat market, currently valued at US$14 billion – or about 1 per cent of the estimated US$1.4 trillion meat industry – could be worth 10 times more at about US$140 billion by 2029. A study by US-based Polaris Market Research released in November shows that the global plant-based meat market was expected to be worth US$35.4 billion by 2027, after registering a compound annual growth rate of 15.8 per cent between 2020 and 2027. “More money was invested in alternative protein this year than any of the previous years. The trend will continue to grow in 2021,” said Nick Cooney, managing partner of global alternative protein venture capital fund Lever VC, which has raised US$23 million in capital commitments so far, with substantial support from Asian family offices. More than US$1.5 billion was raised in this sector in 2020, said Cooney, who also co-founded the Good Food Institute, a major non-profit organisation that tracks the alternative protein industry. He has been an investor in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats, JUST, Aleph Farms and other leading plant-based and cultivated meat and dairy companies. Plant-based meat, which has a longer history, will continue to grow quickly, while cultivated meat has started slowly because it comes from a high price point. But Cooney said it too will grow quickly in the longer term, when prices come down. “The United States is likely to give regulator approval for the sale of cell-based meat in 2021, and one or two other countries in Asia as well,” he said. Meat alternatives are expected to gain popularity in Asia too. The market for such products in Asia-Pacific was worth US$15.1 billion in 2019, up 3 per cent from the previous year, according to Euromonitor International. But the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated its growth , and the sector is forecast to expand by 7.9 per cent to US$16.2 billion this year, it added. Avant Meats’ Chan is in discussions with Singapore’s food regulator and hopes to obtain an approval for the sale of the company’s cell-based fish maw, or swim bladder, a high-value seafood ingredient used in traditional Chinese cuisine. Josh Tetrick, Eat Just’s chief executive and co-founder, said the company viewed Asia as a major market on account of its eggs and protein consumption. On average, protein intake in the region will rise from 5 grams to 85 grams a day, mainly because of an increase in consumption of dairy products and meat, according to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020-2029, a joint report released in July by the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Meat consumption will rise by 1.5kg per capita to an average consumption of 35kg per capita per year in the region, the report said. It added that there would, however, be a large divergence within the region. Founded in 2011, Eat Just counts Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and Horizons Ventures, the private investment unit of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, among its backers. The approval for commercial use of cell-based meat will bring about a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable food system in society, Tetrick said. There are, however, some barriers to the spread of meat substitutes in Asia, such as price and product availability, Euromonitor International said. “With most countries in Southeast Asia expected to see negative GDP growth in 2020 due to Covid-19, purchasing power will worsen, and the impetus and affordability to consume such alternatives will be pushed back further,” the market research firm said in a report released in August.