WorthWhile

Good Food Institute is a global network of non-profits focused on building and accelerating the alternative protein sector. This is a very exciting endeavour pioneering meat, eggs, and dairy made from plants or cultivated directly from animal cells, rather than the inefficient and environmentally damaging system of raising and slaughtering animals at a large scale.

WorthWhile is built on the belief that the new generation is committed towards their contribution to real, lasting change. And our conversation with GFI helps us understand how our food choices can be one of the easier and quicker ways to participate in the global climate revolution.

For the first year, it was just me (Varun), so I focused on scoping the market, building important government and university partnerships, and building a strategy and ecosystem which was fit for purpose in the developing world – a uniquely challenging, diverse context which would likely not be addressed with a copy-paste model from the United States. We had some early big wins during that period, including a couple of world-leading research agreements from the Government towards research on cultivating meat directly from cells.

Fast forward to two and a half years later, and a great deal has changed. We’re now a group of eleven people spread out between Corporate Engagement, R&D, Policy, and Science & Technology. The global shift towards sustainable consumption has enabled our own mission to enter warp speed – we see hundreds more inbound requests every week now from entrepreneurs and businesses interested in entering the space, investors keen on finding India’s Beyond Meat, and scientists who want to conduct path-breaking research in the future of protein. Covid-19 slowed down the market launches we were expecting from exciting companies like Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh’s Imagine Meats, but the global sales and investment landscape is proving that plant-based foods are a juggernaut, so the wave is coming sooner or later

Protein consumption in India is constrained by income and cultural factors. While 71% of the population – over 900 million people – identifies as non-vegetarian (a definition which includes eggs), our per capita meat consumption is vastly lower than in wealthier regions like the U.S., Europe, and China. Our cultural background, the guilt associated with eating non-vegetarian on religious days and, most importantly, the fact that many cannot afford to eat animal meat as often as they may want to – all these factors contribute to our protein deficiency.

We have to also account for our immense diversity and complexity, as well as the fact that the future may look very different; the Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations predicts that South Asia will account for the most significant piece of growth in demand for poultry meat over the next decade. It’s a story which plays out over and over again – rising incomes lead to greater meat consumption. And unfortunately, the cries of ‘eat chickpeas, not chicken’ will very likely fall on deaf ears, which could be incredibly damaging for the planet. Chickens emit 40-60x more carbon dioxide per calorie of protein than lentils, and scaling up poultry production in India will likely lead to future public health crises in the form of antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases, and future pandemics. We need to figure out better ways to fulfill that rising meat demand and plug that protein deficiency – replacements for animal sourced foods need to taste the same or better, and cost the same or less in order to succeed.

Plant-based meat actually has the potential to be cheaper than animal-sourced meat, because it is vastly more efficient – a chicken takes in nine calories of input for every one calorie of output it gives you in the form of meat. The animal meat industry has a decades-long headstart in the form of scaling up, accessing incentives and subsidies, and generally taking food production to its logical endpoint. It can’t get much more efficient than it currently is. But plant-based meat producers like Impossible Foods went from Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and San Francisco to countrywide releases in fast food chains like White Castle and Burger King within a couple of years of their launch – imagine what they could do with more time and investment!

Of course, India is a very complex proposition. We eat differently across the length and breadth of the country, and perhaps don’t have a single ‘hero’ dish in the way that Americans eat burgers. The homogeneity in the U.S. allows companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to scale very rapidly and tackle a very large problem without a complex product mix. And that scale in turn yields huge sustainability gains – if you replaced one out of the three beef burgers that Americans eat on average every week, it would be equivalent to taking 12.2 million cars off the road or powering 2.3 million additional homes! In India, we’re looking forward to seeing a slew of companies bring delicious kheemas, kebabs, and biryanis to market – products which meat eaters know and love, but which are still constantly evolving with the rise of digital food technology players like Swiggy and Zomato and cloud kitchen juggernauts like Rebel Foods. 

As those companies scale across the length and breadth of the country, we have every reason to believe they will be able to price similarly to their animal-derived counterparts and present consumers with a diversity of choice. Our cross-country research reveals 62.8 percent and 56 percent of Indian consumers would be very likely to regularly buy plant-based and cultivated meat respectively. These are very encouraging signs that there is a group of early adopters in the country – people who care about eating for the planet and public health, and who will drive the sector forward initially. But will the sector be able to tap a broader base of consumption among middle and lower-income eaters in the future? That hinges on when companies bring products to market that compete with animal meat on taste and price. Nothing beats the age old mantra of making stuff that people want and can afford to buy!

GFI India’s goal is to make ourselves obsolete by 2050. We’d like to usher in a more healthy, sustainable, and just food system, where consumers, farmers, and businesses are able to produce and enjoy meat, eggs, and dairy without all the negative externalities on the planet. Taking animals out of the food supply is a critical piece of the future of our planet. If we succeed, we will have played a major role in staving off climate change, antimicrobial resistance, future pandemics, and food insecurity. But we’ll need all the support we can get.

Global prognoses from the likes of A.T. Kearney, UBS, Jeffries, and McKinsey all say that a large portion (over 60%) of all meat eaten by 2040 will either be made from plants or directly from animal cells, without the terribly inefficient and damaging system of animal slaughter, but we can only get there with concerted effort. To that end, our goal is to help governments, businesses, and investors in India and across the developing world to invest in the alternative protein sector. We believe that the current decade is India’s crucible moment – if we are going to balance the sometimes competing propositions of economic growth and sustainability, we need bold, visionary leadership. We need thousands of crores of investment in research & development, talent pool development, infrastructure at the university and industry level, and of course in the entrepreneurs with whom we work to bring these foods to market. We will continue to educate and work in partnership with people across sectors to make this a reality. 

For example, we are currently working with multiple groups to set up accelerators and investment funds specifically focused on our sector and provide catalytic capital nurturing early stage founders – an initiative which will likely increase the number of high quality companies founded in this space by 100x over the next five years. We are also working with research institutes to analyse and unlock the potential of indigenous crops like millets and pulses – work which can drive income to farmers and food processing, by making these sustainable crops viable, lucrative inputs into the growing plant-based foods market. All in all, we’d like to build a platform for a thousand alternative protein companies to launch and scale in India, for millions of jobs and billions in economic activity to be generated and supported by the sector, and for our most vulnerable populations, including farmers and those affected by undernutrition, to thrive in the future food system.

Like all transformative innovation, the alternative protein sector will initially be nurtured with catalytic investment – support for research, infrastructure, talent pools, and industry development which ensures that everybody is brought forward into the future of food. We’ve seen this sort of visionary investment from governments in Canada, Israel, and Singapore, with huge potential gains in food security, safety, and environmental footprint. We’re focused on inspiring similar efforts in India. 

Policies to support plant-based and cultivated meat would include the establishment of university innovation hubs and labs to support research and commercialization; industry manufacturing parks and incentives to help scale up those foods; and talented scientists and entrepreneurs to enter the space and drive this sustainable protein wave. 

We’re calling this our Mission for Smart Protein – a call to build the protein supply of the future, where Indian farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are at the vanguard of an incredibly exciting and soaring international sector. Intelligent government investments in the alternative protein sector would create an industry worth billions and jobs in the hundreds of thousands. Covid-19 has underscored that we need to create more resilient and safer food systems – the Indian government can play a key role in that transformation

The most pervasive myths or questions we’ve had to contend with are related to whether Indians would even want a meat alternative and whether the alternative protein sector is for ‘vegetarians’. To reiterate, we’re actually a less vegetarian country than most may think, and even more so over the next decade as more people are able to afford eating the meat and eggs they crave. And of course, products which taste, smell, sizzle, and even bleed like meat are definitely not meant for vegetarians! And that’s okay as the entire enterprise of alternative protein is to offer consumers who wish to eat meat the option of doing so sustainably. Large-scale, predictable change in this direction will not occur unless we offer a simple switch rather than a sacrifice – which is why somebody who wants to eat chicken is unlikely to be satisfied with chana. 

As far as health is concerned, different plant-based meats have different nutritional profiles. Most plant-based meat has about the same protein content as meat from animals while also containing complex carbohydrates and fiber, both of which are entirely missing from animal meat. Many plant-based meats have lower saturated fat and absolutely no cholesterol. For these reasons, a Stanford study has just found that replacing animal meat with plant based meat from Beyond Meat reduces cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, and also lowered weight in the participants. This is of course despite their being processed, and in addition to all of their benefits in food safety and public health because they do not involve slaughter, antibiotics use, or the attendant bacterial infection and viral outbreaks.

Podcasts: 
If I had to recommend just one, I’d say our podcast Feeding 10 Billion is a great place to start! We take an India-first lens on the alternative protein sector and food innovation more broadly.

Books:
Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro, which lays out the case for making meat directly from animal cells. 

Social Media:
Plant-based meat, egg, and dairy companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, JUST, Oatly, Ripple, etc. are always sharing delicious photos and updates on their exciting progress, and we’re sure to have similarly inspiring companies formed in India over the next months and years.You can also subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on LinkedIn/Twitter to keep up with our work!

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