Let’s face it, Indonesians love meat. Many of our traditional dishes revolve around it. Rendang from West Sumatra, rawon from East Java, konro from South Sulawesi, or satay. Just naming a few of these dishes is sure to make your mouth water.
We love meat so much that we slaughtered almost 400,000 heads of cattle during the celebration of Idul Adha, the Islamic Day of Sacrifice, last year. That said, Indonesian meat consumption is relatively low at 11.6 kilogram per capita, which compares to 25.8 kg in neighboring Thailand and 52.3 kg in Malaysia.
Besides, this may not be a competition we want to win in. Keeping up with this much demand for beef in the future is not going to be sustainable for the climate. The greenhouse gas emission intensity to produce 200 kcal of beef is 24 kg CO2 eq (equivalent), which is similar to burning around 8 kg of coal into the air. Imagine burning 8 kg of coal every time you eat a regular beef steak! For comparison, the emission intensity to produce an equivalent amount of chicken meat is much lower at around 6 kgCO2 eq. This data represents the results of a life-cycle analysis that tried to track the full range of emissions along the beef value chain (including transportation, feed, etc.).
According to the World Economic Forum, it is impossible for a global population of 10 billion people to eat the amount of meat typical of western diets without breaking the agreed Sustainable Development Goals for the environment and climate.
Since this is a global issue, we need to contribute to the effort of reducing beef consumption. One way is by keeping an open mind and stomach to plant-based meat. Plant-based meat comes entirely from vegetable proteins, and its greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower (around 2 kgCO2 eq per 200 kcal) than animal meat.
But plant-based meats would only be accepted by masses when it tastes and feel like you are eating animal meat. Plant-based products in popular fast food chains like Beyond Fried Chicken (KFC), and Impossible Whopper Burger (Burger King) still receive mixed reviews, with consumers saying it is too crumbly, a little bit dry, or just does not taste like real meat. However, I strongly believe that in the future this will not be a problem anymore.
In academia, universities are awarded millions of dollars in grants and sponsorships to conduct research on various vegetable proteins, natural flavors and processes to make the perfect meat mimic. Who is to say that proteins from Indonesian local produce such as kacang koro, or young jackfruit, cannot be a potential ingredient? Research shows that the protein content of kacang koro is higher than soybean (a common protein isolate in plant-based meat), whereas young jackfruit already has that fibrous texture of chicken meat.
A collaborative research effort from Indonesian universities and companies is needed to determine these type innovations properly. This is currently a very sexy research topic that could easily be patented or published in scientific journals.
Another challenge to overcome before plant-based meat will be accepted by the masses is for the price to be competitive with animal meat. As long as plant-based meat remains a premium product aimed at the upper class, it will not gain too much popularity. Nevertheless, this is the right way to start, before more players and technology comes into the market to drive the prices down.
Plant-based meat in Indonesia can be a unique business opportunity in itself. Whereas in the West, companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Food cater for steak cuts, beef patties, or ground meat, plant-based products for an Indonesian market could cover entirely different dishes, like plant-based rendang, dendeng (beef jerky) or bakso (meat ball). Some start-ups in Indonesia are already driving down this road.
Indonesians are no strangers to plant-based meat. According to a survey, 78 percent of Indonesians stated they have consumed plant-based alternatives to animal-based products. Although I doubt the survey made a clear distinction between the different categories of plant-based alternatives, since there are also other categories of meat alternatives and replacers that are not meant to mimic meat. Nevertheless, this survey tells us that Indonesians are quite open to accepting these types of meat alternatives.
Finally, a common misconception is that people think plantbased meats are targeted for vegetarians and compete with meat alternatives like tempeh or tofu. I have heard Indonesian critics favoring tempeh over plant-based meat. In reality, the main competitor of plant-based meat is animal meat itself! The main purpose of plant-based meat is to provide an alternative for nonvegetarians who wish to reduce their meat consumption, without losing the experience of eating meat.
Plant based meat is the biggest food revolution in recent years, driven by a noble cause and powered by innovation. We should try to embrace this idea and benefit from its opportunities, for the sake of the environment, and for the love of meat.
A PhD candidate in the Lab of Food Technology at KU Leuven, Belgium
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.