During the second day of the 28th Conference of Parties, December 1, 2023, as momentous climate dialogues and notable commitments continued to unfold in Dubai, GFI India and UNEP in India orchestrated a virtual panel exploring the current practices of India’s agricultural sector – including the negative impact of environmental stressors on agricultural productivity and nutritional security. Moderated by Arghadeep Saha (Policy Manager at GFI India), the panel included policymakers, climate experts, food scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs. This unique and timely conversation that linked India’s agricultural strengths with the country’s potential to emerge as a key player in the global supply chain of alternative proteins welcomed over 50 attendees working in the alternative protein sector and environmental action.
While there was a global acknowledgment of the importance of sustainable food systems through a dedicated ‘Food Day’ at COP, it is pertinent to note that coordinated action needs to align with region-specific evidence and priorities. As Reuben Gergan (Project Officer for the TEEB Initiative at UNEP) explained, systems such as rice-wheat cultivation and crop burning that emerged during the Green Revolution in India continue to be high greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, and there are little to no incentive for smallholder farmers to diversify crops. Climate change has sharply affected farming livelihoods and incomes, impacting cropping patterns and subsequently leading to increased migration to urban centers.
Moreover, the smallholder farmer lacks access to information about modern climate-resilient technologies, as Dr. Kunwar Singh (Director of the Indian Institute of Soybean Research under the Indian Council for Agricultural Research) underlined. He emphasized that farmers would be a lot more open to diversifying their crops and adopting more sustainable methods if they saw a clear market demand. Technological adoption through training programs could further facilitate this transition.
In the same vein, advocating for crop diversification, Dr. Saikat Dutta Mazumdar (Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the NutriPlus Knowledge Program, Agribusiness and Innovation Platform (AIP) at ICRISAT Hyderabad), championed the cause of bringing back forgotten climate-resilient crops. While addressing emerging trends in food and agri-tech innovation, he wove a narrative linking agriculture, nutrition, and health under the expansive umbrella of smart protein. Excited about the prospects of crop diversification in revolutionizing the smart protein sector — from plant-based meats to alternative egg products — he emphasized the critical importance of innovatively designing products using these crops.
Based on the experience from the Odisha Millets Mission, Arghadeep highlighted the challenges of promoting millets consumption beyond traditionally millets-consuming populations. Echoing this sentiment, Dr. Saikat underpinned the need for creativity in product design as critical to broadening the appeal of indigenous crops such as millets and enhancing their acceptability among diverse populations. Beyond millets, Dr. Kunwar also noted the potential of protein-rich byproducts of oil industries — (such as soybean meal, mustard meal, and others) for smart protein applications.
Poised to become one of the world’s worst-affected countries by rising global temperatures, India’s role in addressing climate change and food insecurity necessitates a fundamental shift in the production and type of food cultivated. Vinay Singh (National Project Manager and Food Security Expert at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)) unraveled a crucial insight: the twin titans of accessibility and affordability stand as formidable challenges in the path of nutritious food choices in India. Vinay underscored that the triumph of the smart protein sector hinges on its ability to conquer these challenges, with a keen focus on cultural acceptance. In addressing these pivotal aspects, smart protein could truly revolutionize the Indian market.
India needs to perform better on a wide range of nutritional indicators due to inadequate consumption of high-protein, nutritious foods. “How do we feed our growing population with protein-rich foods that are resource-efficient for the next 20–40 years?” asked Prasad Nair (Head of Strategic Alliances and Partnerships at String Bio). With deep insights into StringBio’s pioneering work in fermentation-derived foods, he delved into the essence of producing sustainable proteins, advocating for the use of a diverse array of feedstocks and the innovative utilization of sidestreams and by-products. Ashish Korde (Co-Founder of Proeon) echoed Prasad’s concerns about the widespread nutrient deficiencies, especially protein, in our diets. With extensive experience creating clean, high-quality, and sustainable plant-based proteins, Ashish further illuminated the vast potential of smart protein products in India, painting a picture of a future rich with nutritional possibilities.
There is overwhelming evidence pointing to the need to invest catalytic capital in smart protein for the benefits of the sector to trickle down to the masses. Aadil Chitawala (Senior Associate at Peak Ventures) brought a fresh perspective, revealing a growing investor appetite for alternative protein. He shared investors are increasingly pondering the challenge of feeding burgeoning populations with rising incomes and seeking efficient solutions beyond animal protein. Smart protein is rapidly moving from a niche interest to a central pillar in investment strategies, reflecting a seismic shift in investor perspective of food and agri-tech solutions for a sustainable future.
Signaling the significant potential of smart protein for environmental impact, economic benefits, and employment opportunities, The Government of India has officially recognized the role of smart protein in India’s bioeconomy. Dr. Niloo Srivastava (Principal Scientific Officer at the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India), highlighting India’s twin challenge of climate change and rising population while serving the growing demand for food, reiterated a key announcement, “The Department has constituted a committee where GFI India is our knowledge partner. We have the capacity for innovation—that’s why the government has recognized the sector.”
Thanking all the panelists for their expert insights, Arghadeep concluded that innovations like alternative proteins will be critical to meet the demands for protein-rich food of a rapidly growing population and propel the country’s transition to a sustainable food system. Moreover, with its unique strengths, India can replicate its success as a global supplier of pharmaceuticals and vaccines by charting a similar path for alternative proteins. As noted in UNEP’s latest What’s Cooking Frontiers Special Issue report, “Governments have numerous policy options to explore and support the potential of novel alternatives, including support for (open-access) research and commercialization and just transition policies. If supported by appropriate regulatory regimes and governance instruments, novel ASF (Animal Source Foods) alternatives can play an important role, likely with regional differences, in a shift towards food systems that are more sustainable, healthier and less harmful to animals.”
For an in-depth understanding of the discussions and insights from the panel, you can watch the entire session on GFI India’s YouTube channel here. For a comprehensive overview of the environmental benefits associated with alternative protein, we encourage you to explore our dedicated Resources webpage here.