Varun Deshpande• November 12 2018

Why India is a priority for plant-based and clean meat innovation

GFI Managing Director of India Varun Deshpande illustrates why India is such a critical market for plant-based and clean meat innovation and what the biggest challenges and opportunities are.

Every month between now and 2030, one million Indians will turn 18 years old. Our population is growing. Incomes are rising. And demand for meat, eggs, and dairy is increasing—with dire implications for the climate and long-term food security.

At the same time, India’s rates of malnutrition are among the highest in the world. Plant-based and clean meat present an unprecedented opportunity to address debilitating nutritional deficits sustainably and humanely, without the harms of conventional meat, eggs, and dairy.

Below I unpack why this is such a critical area for development and how, through the efforts I’ve led as Managing Director of India, GFI has been laying the groundwork for a vibrant ecosystem of plant-based and clean meat innovation.

1. Why India is a priority

With our growing population and low (but ever-increasing) per capita meat consumption, India is very much a ‘leapfrog’ economy. We can skip the inefficiencies and challenges of preliminary technologies and jump straight to a better-optimized system. In the case of meat production, by working with government and private industry, GFI can help India become one of the first countries to use markets and food technology to avoid the burdens of conventional animal agriculture altogether.

Moreover, I firmly believe that India can be a model for improving nutritional status in a massive population efficiently and humanely through plant-based and clean meat innovation. We’ve been very encouraged by co-operation and enthusiasm from the government, scientific institutes, and large corporations. I am convinced that through their involvement, we will make a huge impact on the future of protein both here and across the world.

2. Opportunities for impact

India’s young, English-speaking workforce and majority religious culture rooted in vegetarianism lay the groundwork for rapid plant-based and clean meat innovation. Taken with India’s strong biopharma industry and research institutes, significant government support for R&D, and growing venture capital sector, good food companies have a promising launch pad.

Simultaneously, there is a clear opportunity for Indian research institutes and biopharma companies to enter the clean meat sector—particularly as part of the supply chain, optimizing critical technology elements: cell lines, cell culture media, scaffolds, and bioreactors.

For plant-based products, millets and other indigenous Indian crops provide an excellent opportunity to diversify the global inputs for plant-based meats, eggs, and dairy. Using these crops would create lucrative markets for farmers and strengthen value chains into which the government is already pouring significant investment.

3. Challenges in the Indian market

India has historically performed rather poorly on ease of doing business indicators, though this has recently been improving dramatically. Unlike in more mature markets, entrepreneurs entering the sector in India not only have to work on product development and branding, but they oftentimes need to build out other layers of their ‘stack’ themselves, including manufacturing infrastructure, logistics, and delivery teams, etc.

4. Laying the groundwork for change

In my first year on the job (time really flies!), we’ve focused primarily on scientific research partnerships and government engagement. We’ve built excellent relationships with institutes including Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, and Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai—two of India’s finest research centers for tissue culture and food technology.

We also co-hosted the Future of Protein Summit with the Humane Society International/India and CCMB in August. Here, entrepreneurs, scientists, and political leaders from all over India and the world presented on their work and the promise of the sector. We were greatly indebted to the Honourable Cabinet Minister Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, who flew in from New Delhi to give the keynote speech!

Our focus on providing government at both the Central and State levels with the information needed to evaluate and support plant-based and clean meat, eggs, and dairy has already yielded rewards. And I’m confident that it will continue to do so. Stay tuned!

5. Transitioning sustainably to sustainability

My outlook on GFI’s work (in India and all over the world) is that we need to think on a timescale of decades. We must ensure not only that we accelerate the transition to a healthier and more sustainable food system, but that the transition is itself sustainable—not eventually lamented and overturned. To me, this means creating the platform for the next generation of plant-based and clean meat, eggs, and dairy to be optimized for sensory appeal and efficiency, as well as for nutritive value and cultural relevance.

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