The evolving Asian food market

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic set in, the Asian food market has been evolving. With nearly 60% of the global population, it is the world’s most significant market says PROFESSOR DAVID HUGHES. The numbers will keep growing.

With more people to feed, food, and agriculture industries around the world are facing plenty of challenges, particularly in dealing with the environment and sustainability. Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more demanding, not only about the quality and safety of the food they eat but also about how food is produced.

David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London, notes that there is a growing trend today towards climate-friendly and planet-friendly diet. The trend is being driven by younger consumers, the UN, and several of its agencies, some non-governmental organizations, and even individual governments. To address these challenges, innovations are coming in farming, processing, and even packaging.

While consumers will continue to shop online post-Covid19, they will continue to shop in convenience stores like 7-Eleven.

Climate and planet-friendly diet

These groups are urging dietary changes that include reduced animal protein consumption, noting that animal proteins are not environment-friendly to produce. They call for the production of healthier food by using increasingly scarce resources more responsibly and sustainably. This has pushed concepts like ‘plant-based’ protein and ‘fake-meat’ into the mainstream.

“This is no fad, and planet-friendly views will be reinforced in the aftermath of Covid-19. UBS, a conservative Swiss investment bank, opines that ‘the plant-based food category is expected to surge to US 85 billion over the next few years as people seek out alternative options to meat that are environmentally-friendly,” he said.

Does this spell doom for the animal protein industry? Not so, Dr Hughes remarked, adding that “global protein consumption grew by 40% between 2000 and 2020 and, over the next five years, it’s expected to increase by a further 15%.”

The number of megacities, especially in Asia, will continue to rise. These urban giants house at least 20 million people, the most influential of whom will be millennials.

In Asia, particularly its emerging markets, meat consumption is still relatively low. And while there are growing calls for more environment-friendly food, for the majority of consumers, cost and convenience are still the top considerations.

As such, chicken, pork, eggs, dairy, and fish will continue to be in demand. But innovations are continuously being developed and adopted to ring animal protein production closer to being ‘environment-friendly’ foods.

Among these are new protein sources based on insects, such as flour beetle and black soldier fly. Dr Hughes said this is an efficient way to produce protein feed for animal production. He added that in 5-10 years, insects will be an important component in poultry, livestock, and aquaculture production.

Consumer-driven

Another trend is the rise of megacities, and leading the way is Asia. These urban giants house at least 20 million people and likely more, already as big as some countries. The most influential consumers in these cities are millennials, who are between 20-40 years old.

Dr Hughes explained that these increasingly well-educated and globally-connected individuals are changing how they eat and what they want to eat.

The lockdown in various parts of Asia has prompted consumers to turn online for their food needs. In response, big and small retailers have increased their online presence and seen sales grow. Dr Hughes believes this trend will continue post-Covid.

“We have to listen to them,” he underscored. Increasingly, they are the ones who are calling for safer and more environment-friendly food.

As observed by Asian Agribiz, the current lockdown in various parts of Asia has led to changes in the way consumers are getting their food, turning to online shops and home deliveries. In response, big and small retailers have increased their online presence and seen sales grow. Dr Hughes believes this trend will continue post-Covid.

“Asia has been a great region for eating out of home, but because of the lockdowns, consumers have to eat at home. They are willing to buy fresh daily necessities and fresh products online. And they say they’ll continue to do so once the pandemic is gone. You can see this particularly in the Chinese mainland, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia, among others,” he said.

Nonetheless, while consumers are increasingly buying online, this does not mean they will no longer go out to shop.

“Even if they do shop online, they’ll continue to shop in stores, but more likely in convenience stores that are near to them,” explained Dr Hughes. “If you look at the success of 7-11 across Asia, you see huge growth. It’s kind of bipolar. On the one hand, I’ll shop online, but on the other hand, I will still shop next door to where I live.”

A return to basics

With the uncertainties brought about by the Covid pandemic, many analysts are forecasting a global recession. Dr Hughes believes that such a recession would likely last through 2021, although it might be less felt in Asia. This would have consequences on the food consumers buy, at least temporarily.

“I think Asian economies will recover quicker than those in Europe and North America. But irrespective, as household income decrease or fall under pressure, we will see increasing demand for staples like rice and basic foodstuffs, and decreasing demand for premium foods.”

Since the lockdowns began, Asian Agribiz has seen supply chain disruptions in various parts of Asia. These are caused by various factors including labor shortage in farms and plants, logistic problems both global and local, and panic buying, among others.

These problems will happen now and again, and food producers and consumers will adapt. What will not change is the consumers’ growing call for food safety and the need for food security. Developments in each country move at various paces, but there is no other way to go, but provide what is demanded.