One person that falls into the second camp is Matilda Ho, an impact investor who has made it her mission to transform agricultural practices and consumer tastes in China for a more sustainable future.
“A lot of people (have) said that it seems like impact investing is not going to give you any profit,” she says. “But I always believe in karma — I believe that doing the right thing will always end up making us even more money.”
One area of focus for Bits x Bites is protein alternatives and cell-based meat. China already has a high percentage of plant-based diets per capita, Ho claims, citing a 2,000-year-old relationship with tofu. But the nutritional value of some plant-based products is lacking, she says, and meat alternatives are often expensive.
“The price point is just way too high,” says Ho. “If you go to Starbucks, the plant-based beef sandwich is even pricier than the actual beef sandwich.
“Twenty years ago, Chinese customers (could) finally afford to eat meat, and now we’re asking them to buy a veggie option, but it’s more expensive than meat.” It is, she adds, “counterintuitive.”
“(People) are worried about not being able to buy affordable pork every day, so now they need to find alternative solutions,” says Ho.
“Food security … was the key driver for them to first try (plant-based alternatives) out,” she adds. “The bigger challenge is how can you really convert that first, novelty experience into a repeat purchase.” The key there, she says, is flavor: “If you don’t make a tasty product, then why bother?”
Though Bits x Bites doesn’t impose a timeline on these companies to enter the Chinese market as a condition of investment, it does work with them on strategies to do so and helps prepare them for regulatory approval, says Ho.
She also appreciates that not everyone will be ready for these products yet. “Chinese consumers today still have very low awareness of how their food choices will impact their health and the environment,” Ho says.
“If you look at Beyond Meat and Impossible, it took them five years to educate the American market to adopt plant-based for their health and for the environment. And it will probably take some time to educate the China and Asia market as well.”
No ‘silver bullet’
“There will never be a silver bullet to being (able) to really solve the food security problem,” she says. Better, then, to have a wide arsenal of solutions in the company portfolio.
Artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in agriculture, Ho says, given China’s aging farming population and a shortage of farm workers that she describes as a “crisis.”
“China represents 15% percent of the world’s population, but only has less than 7% of the land,” says Ho. “How China is going to feed our own population in the next two decades will have very important implications.”