Powered by plants: Hong Kong looks to future beyond meat

David Yeung asked meat-loving Hong Kongers to stop eating meat once a week. Ten years later, his Green Monday movement is transforming the diet of people beyond the territory.

Barbequed pork bun, roast goose and braised chicken. Meat forms the backbone of Hong Kong’s rich culinary scene. Hong Kongers love meat so much they on average eat nearly double the amount consumed by the Swiss on a per capita basis.1

Try, then, telling Hong Kongers to stop eating meat once a week.

“We were treated like aliens,” says David Yeung, who launched the Green Monday movement in 2012 to reduce Hong Kong’s meat consumption.

Under the initiative, Yeung called for Hong Kongers to go meat-free one day a week.

“What I was talking about was just gibberish to most people.”

It is no surprise why Yeung got more than a few puzzled looks. Back then, Hong Kong’s vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian communities combined made up only 5 percent of the population.

A vegetarian himself, Yeung has always personally followed a plant-based diet.

But a turning point came for him in 2006, when he watched Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which highlighted the dangers of climate change and the impact that food – and the meat industry in particular – has on global warming.

“That was a major eye-opener,” he says. “In the case of sustainability, we are all part of the root cause of the problem, so we all need to be part of the solution.”

The key to slowing the tide, he felt, was a rethinking of our entire lives and lifestyles.

“The way we’re living today, the way we consume, exceeds the threshold of what the planet can support. We need to change the way we live.”
 

Vegan spam, faux fillet-o-fish and new era nuggets

As the burgeoning climate crisis raised awareness on the urgent need for us all to eat sustainably, Hong Kongers have started shifting their diet.

Currently, the territory’s plant-based communities make up around 40 percent, having risen eightfold in less than 10 years.

Riding on that wave, Yeung’s social venture start-up has also grown from those early days.

Today, the Green Monday Group has four separate entities under its umbrella: OmniFoods, a food-tech business with an R&D team in Canada, focused on creating alternative plant-based proteins; Green Common, a food and beverage retail and distribution company with a multinational footprint; Green Monday Ventures, an impact-investment arm; and non-profit Green Monday Foundation.

Yeung says his smart branding campaign that couples scientific facts around nutrition and the environment with aspects of sophisticated lifestyle marketing played a key role in the expansion.

“We cannot just go out there and lecture people, because people would resist that. We need to actually create something new that is even better, a new lifestyle that is even cooler, more aspirational, sexier. That’s how human nature works,” Yeung says.

The company has also capitalised on partnerships and joint ventures in order to quickly scale their production and distribution of food and beverages.

OmniPork, one of OmniFoods’ flagship products, is distributed in over 20 markets. OmniFoods is partner to many of the world’s top restaurants and retail chains including Whole Foods Market, Sainsbury’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s Hong Kong, Four Seasons Hotels, Grand Hyatt Hotels, IKEA and Pizza Express.

“Wherever food exists, we want to be there. There’s a reason we call ourselves Omni,” Yeung says.
 

We used to be a vegan-food desert... Now you walk into McDonald’s, a 7-Eleven or a Michelin-star restaurant, you’ll always find plant-based food.

Turning vegan desert into a non-meat paradise

Investors are also embracing the change and scouring the globe for companies that will lead the green revolution.

The USD240 million listing of US-based alternative meat producer Beyond Meat in 2019 makes a particularly relevant case in point. Beyond Meat became one of the most high-profile public offering in the food industry.

“The Beyond Meat burger was a game changer, for both the investment circle and just for the world in general," says Yeung, who is also an investor in the California-based company.

“It opened people’s minds about the possibilities of the plant space and blazed a trail for the whole sector.”

It may be Yeung’s turn to disrupt the food industry in Asia and beyond.

Green Monday Holdings, which includes Green Common and OmniFoods, raised over USD70 million in its first major funding round in September 2020, the largest for a plant-based food company to date in Asia. This extra capital is being used across every department to build manufacturing capacity, to boost R&D and build out a global team.  It is now planning to raise an additional USD100 million in funding.2

Yeung clearly sees the difference his movement has helped make in Hong Kong’s food scene.

“We used to be a vegan-food desert,” the entrepreneur says. “You’d walk into a supermarket and the only things you could buy were tofu, mushrooms, kale and bok choy. Now you walk into McDonald’s, a 7-Eleven or a Michelin-star restaurant, you’ll always find plant-based food.”

While Yeung keeps a realistic view that environmental problems will get worse in the coming years, he’s focused on finding a way to alleviate them.

“Firefighters don’t say ‘The fire is too big, so let’s not save anyone,’” he says. “I don’t overthink whether I can stop the entire fire. Let’s focus on saving this person now, then the next person, and then the next. That’s my mindset.”

[1] Average meat consumption per capita, measured in kg per year versus gross domestic product (GDP) per capita measured in constant international-USD. Source: Our World in Data

[2] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-12-01/swire-backed-green-monday-said-to-seek-100-million-in-new-funds

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