Written by Ambika Hiranandani
François de la Rochefoucauld, the French author and moralist who was known for his maxims, said, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art”. These words have never been more relevant. While it is essential to eat intelligently to keep ourselves healthy, in the world of today, our food habits impact the survival of our species. As people get wealthier, they are consuming more and more meat. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14 per cent to 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions more than the entire transportation sector. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 80 per cent of the land clearing in countries which had Amazon forest cover can directly be attributed to cattle ranching. In fact, if one was to feed a chicken nine calories of food one would only get back one calorie by way of meat. These concerns coupled with the birth of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance emanating from industrial agriculture make for grim reading. The more one reads, the more one realises that the planet is unable to bear the burden of our food habits.
In 2050, the world’s population is going to be 10 billion and feeding this population with the current food system is impossible. Bill Gates in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster advocates for innovation in food technology and speaks of cultivated and plant-based meat. Cultivated meat is meat that is grown in a facility and not on an animal’s body. Cultivated meat is made from the same cell types arranged in similar structure as animal tissue and tastes, looks and feels like the meat people eat today. Plant-based meat is, like the name suggests, made from plants. It is made with various texturisation technologies, the most commercial one being extrusion. The technologies have the potential to make plant-based meat products like kheema or a chicken breast and even a fish fillet.
Gates encourages developed countries to move to consuming such plant-based meats while recognising that developing countries will take some time to develop such products. Data shows that cultivated meat uses 95 per cent less land, 78 per cent less water, causes 92 per cent less global warming and 93 per cent less air pollution. Cultivated meat has made great progress in the last six months; Singapore has permitted the sale of cultivated chicken meat. The Singaporean government has a “30 by 30” goal which is an effort to meet 30 per cent of the city state’s nutritional needs locally by 2030. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasted cultivated meat and went on to provide government support to the alternative protein sector. Canada has invested millions in the plant protein sector. Educational institutes in the Netherlands and the United States have developed university courses in this sector. The alternative protein sector holds great promise for the world. According to management consultants A T Kearney, the plant-based meat sector is expected to be $370 billion by 2030.
The sector solves different problems for different countries and certain major global issues like climate change. In India, the alternative protein sector can help us fight malnutrition sustainably. Over 34 per cent of children in India are stunted and 189.2 million people are undernourished. Harnessing the power of plant protein can help us combat malnutrition today and investing in research on cultivated meat can help us feed our growing population sustainably in the times to come. The alternative protein sector is being led by Indian minds worldwide. Uma Valeti, a medical professional born in Vijayawada, is the CEO of a food technology company which grows sustainable cultured meat. In 2018, Tyson Ventures, Tyson Food’s venture capital arm, invested in his company. A company that makes animal-free dairy products, is co-founded by Perumal Gandhi, an Indian engineer trained in Chennai. It recently raised $300 million to accomplish its mission. Both these companies are headquartered in the US.Sandhya Sriram, a biotechnologist-turned-entrepreneur trained at the University of Madras, co-founded an enterprise which is working to bring cultivated sea food to markets based in Singapore.
One wonders what India needs to do to catch up with this global race to develop alternative proteins. India’s agricultural biodiversity, ranging from pulses to pongamia seeds provide a large canvas for this sector. Products made from plant protein can be shelf stable and when nutritionally-rich, inexpensive products are devised they can be added into mid-day meals for children and help us in our fight against malnutrition. “The space race for smart protein is well underway. Whether it’s plant-based meats made from millets or cultivated meat produced directly from animal cells, these foods are transformative. India can be a global leader in this transformation with our talent, our agricultural biodiversity and our manufacturing industry. It is imperative that we capitalise on this opportunity to build a more secure, sustainable and just food system,” explains Varun Deshpande, director of The Good Food Institute, India (GFI).
The key catalyst for the sector will be government support. We will need to develop courses in universities that teach food technology students how India can harness the potential of its agricultural biodiversity to develop products from smart proteins, build collaboration between government research centres and biopharma companies and, perhaps, like Israel have a dedicated government board to oversee its growth and development securing India’s place as a leader and smart protein giant.
Ambika Hiranandani is strategic partnerships specialist at The Good Food Institute, India