We are at a point in history where it has become clear that a paradigm shift in how we produce food is non-negotiable — if we plan to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without breaking the planet. A better food system is especially urgent in countries like India, which is home to one-sixth of this global population, and contrary to popular misconception, is not predominantly vegetarian.
According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-21, over 77% of India’s 1.3 Billion people self-identify as non-vegetarian. Heavy dependence on animal agriculture accounts for over 60% of the global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions from agriculture and stands to disproportionately impact our most vulnerable communities. Moreover, it takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to produce just one calorie of meat, making farming animals for food inherently inefficient. Producing food in this manner diverts massive quantities of crops away from direct human consumption thereby exacerbating existing levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, and water stress.
As the global population continues to rise, food systems need to become more resilient, environmentally sustainable, and capable of addressing the escalating demand for meat. The youth of our country, the largest of anywhere in the world, therefore, must be front and center of this pivotal transformation. We need a bold new vision that creates space for young Indians in the food systems conversation and we need it now.
A planet-friendly path to India’s growth
There is one emerging area of food technology that can positively influence planetary health while contributing to the country's growth — and that’s smart protein. Also known globally as alternative proteins, smart protein consists of next-generation foods that are viable alternatives to animal-derived protein. They look, taste, and cook like traditional meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood - perfectly replicating the sensory and cultural experiences these conventional animal-based foods provide. Smart protein offers a path to achieving a food future that mitigates some of the most fundamental challenges of our lifetime while creating several socio-economic opportunities across the value chain. Making meat from plants, from cells, or using microbes is not only a lot more sustainable, but can, in turn, promote farmer welfare, improve India’s biodiversity, and ability to be food secure.
The need to create opportunities for the youth
A recent economic analysis by the Good Food Institute India and Deloitte India shows that with the right interventions, the smart protein sector is poised to create an economic opportunity (domestic and export) worth INR 33,194 crore (USD 4.2 billion) and up to 4 lakh jobs by 2030. This highlights the need for investing in creating opportunities for the Indian youth in new and emerging roles across R&D, manufacturing, venture building, and other value-add industries. To prepare a new generation of talent for the smart protein industry, we need education and incubation programs that provide them with the necessary skills.
As smart protein is a multidisciplinary field, job opportunities and training cannot be developed in isolation. There are multifaceted gaps in building a dedicated workforce - such as the need for relevant coursework, infrastructure for hands-on training, impactful hiring from training initiatives, and knowledge building to help individuals from related sectors pivot to smart protein careers.
Last year, in a landmark move towards building a dedicated workforce for the smart protein industry, the job role and eligibility criteria for a ‘Plant-based Food Technologist’ was officially developed, recognized, and displayed on the government’s public record in the National Qualifications Register (NQR). In addition, to address the talent bottleneck in the smart protein industry, the world’s first alternative protein challenge was launched in 2020, called the India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge (ISPIC). This comprehensive program provides practical experience and training to new innovators in the emerging field of smart protein, empowering them to build their careers through expert mentorship and extensive learning.
Nurturing young talent to foster cutting-edge innovation
Engaging industry veterans as trainers in skill development initiatives remains critical to further nurture young talent and encourage them to pursue careers in the sector. Startups, larger food industry players, and equipment manufacturers must come together to support initiatives at their production facilities. In this way, the lack of access to practical knowledge, research, and manufacturing infrastructure, will no longer be a bottleneck for those looking to work on cutting-edge, smart protein innovation.
The focus on scale-up
In terms of manufacturing scale-up, the industry will require significant financing, capacity building, and technical optimization to meet the 2030 projections. A dedicated focus on creating green field smart protein projects to help scale up cultivated meat and precision fermentation technologies is the need of the hour. While facilities for research and prototyping are available, the large-scale infrastructure for production will need more innovation and investment, which is scarce right now. Most existing biomanufacturing infrastructure and workforce experience in India come from the high-margin life sciences industry and are over-engineered and/or too expensive for food production. So, reworking existing production infrastructure, inputs, and workforce for food applications calls for exciting innovation opportunities for India.
Ultimately, transformative foods are our chance to provide affordable, sustainable, and delicious protein across the socio-economic pyramid - pivotal to the global fight against food insecurity and climate change while vastly reducing the public health risks of meat production. As the smart protein sector in India continues to grow and evolve, individuals with a unique blend of scientific expertise and entrepreneurial spirit are needed to drive its advancement. Motivated individuals who possess these qualities will be crucial in leading the change and shaping the future of this emerging industry.