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Why Singaporeans have a taste for lab-grown meat -1

Why Singaporeans have a taste for lab-grown meat -1

By SMU City Perspectives team

How can you change a 2.6-million-year-old habit?

That’s when humans first added meat and marrow to their diet, providing us with a rich (and delicious) source of protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins, as well as essential fatty acids.

But this monumental shift was more than just about taste. Without meat, the human race might not have become the modern, vocal and intelligent folk of today, according to a study in Nature. Researchers suggest that using tools to slice and pound meat into manageable pieces and eating it led to the decrease in the size of humans’ teeth and faces. That allowed us to produce speech and possibly changed the size and shape of our brains.

A bone of contention

However, some might argue it’s time for our species to turn our backs on animal flesh-eating. After all, meat consumption has “significant environmental and health consequences for the planet”, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. These negative impacts, they say, offer convincing reasons for change on a global societal level. A systematic review of the research shows consumers are aware of meat consumption’s impact on the environment.

But is that enough to change old habits and replace them with something else?

Alternatives to animal-based proteins are vegetarian and vegan diets. But there is also “lab-grown meat”, also known as cultured meat, cell-based meat, in vitro meat, clean meat, even synthetic meat. They give similar sensory and nutritional benefits to conventional meat, but use less water and arable land. They also bode well for food security and animal ethics.

Researchers from the Singapore Management University (SMU) recently compared what motivates people from Singapore and the US accept lab-grown meat. Their study, “A cross-country investigation of social image motivation and acceptance of lab-grown meat in Singapore and the United States”, published in the peer-reviewed Appetite journal, also explored consumers’ motivations to present themselves positively in social contexts. Further, it assessed the persuasive power of celebrities and expert social media influencers to overcome a habit of nearly three million years.

A cultural trait is the key

A cultural trait is the key

This research is thought to be the first peer-reviewed research comparing Singaporean and US consumers’ acceptance of lab-grown meat. And its findings deliver insights to emerging food industries on how to successfully brand and promote their products, through media coverage and ‘firsts’ in their product lines.

For the study, Associate Professor of Communication Management (Practice), Mark Chong from SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, teamed up with Associate Professor of Psychology Angela Leung and their student Verity Lay, both from the university’s School of Social Sciences. They surveyed 616 Singaporeans and 759 Americans from July to August 2021.

Why compare Singaporeans to those from the US? The latter is potentially the world’s largest market for alternative proteins as well as being ‘representative’ of Western meat eaters. Both are developed countries and there was little research about the rule of culture in acceptance of novel foods.

Prof. Chong and his team found Singaporeans per capita were more accepting of lab-grown meat than those surveyed in the US. This finding held despite gender, ethnicity, age and household income are taken into consideration. The researchers’ work hinged upon understanding consumers’ motivations around eating lab-grown meat, such as:

  • Trendiness
  • Looking good in front of others
  • Others like it
  • Standing out from the crowd, and
  • Considering lab-grown meat to be special.

Singapore, spanning a mere 720sqkm, doesn’t produce its own beef. So had their appreciation of “beef miles” – the environmental impact of getting meat onto their plates – helped sway their preferences? As the study didn’t consider consumers’ appreciation of the environmental impact of meat consumption, this would be an interesting question for future research.

Kiasu and lab-grown meat

This was not the key reason, though. Researchers found the clincher is Singaporean culture – its people want to portray themselves as trailblazers.

“The Singaporean cultural trait of kiasuism, which is exemplified by the fear of losing out or being left behind, may explain Singaporeans’ motivation to project an image of being ‘trailblazers’ (vis-a-vis other nationalities) by expressing a higher acceptance of novel foods such as lab-grown meat,” said the study team.

And, indeed, the city-state is a trailblazer in the meat space. In 2020, it was the first country to approve lab-grown chicken for sale and consumption. Besides its early adopter status, what bolsters kiasuism is Singapore being predominantly a collectivistic society rather than an individualistic one like the US.

As the study states: “Because collectivistic, consumers are more concerned about saving and gaining face, they will be more driven to present a desirable impression of themselves or to gain higher prestige by also using or endorsing a product that is visibly popular among others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995)”.

But as much as individuals with collectivistic tendencies are more likely to focus on social image concerns, there was no significant difference in consumer acceptance in both the US and Singapore regardless of whether lab-grown meat was touted by celebrities or expert social media influencers (SMIs). That said, the researchers used fictitious celebrities and expert SMIs in the study, therefore future research can consider combining the study of real-life SMIs and experimentally manipulated SMIs to further test the reproducibility of the current findings.

Rethinking how to market lab-grown meat

Rethinking how to market lab-grown meat

Prof. Chong says that to increase market share, alternative protein companies and brands could prioritise their product launches in collectivistic countries such as Singapore.

“This is especially true if the visibility of a product’s usage to others is high or portrayed to be so, such as when social media coverage can make the use of the product highly visible to people’s followers.

Companies could promote their brands using media coverage and social media about innovations in  global production lines or technological breakthroughs. Such an approach would resonate in markets with high social image concerns, he says.

Overall, the SMU researchers’ findings could help address global meat supply and environmental challenges and guide us on how populations can change a very ingrained habit.