A lot of people believe that India is a predominantly vegetarian country. Well, that isn’t entirely true. According to the survey, more than 71% of India’s 1.3 billion people self-identify as non-vegetarian, and that number will only keep growing. Indian per capita meat consumption is increasing rapidly. The demand for poultry meat in the country is projected to increase 850% by 2040 (from 1.05 to 9.92 million tonnes annually), representing one of the steepest increases any region in the world.
While it is good to hear that the demand for protein will rise in a severely protein-deficient country and plagued by malnutrition, we need to ask ourselves one fundamental question. Will our current sources of aspirational protein, relying largely on the large-scale, industrial farming and slaughter of animals, provide a sustainable and secure food supply?
The answer is easy enough to arrive at, considering conventional animal agriculture significantly contributes to some of the world’s most pressing problems, all of which disproportionately affect countries like India.
Climate change and environmental degradation
Animal agriculture is a leading driver of ecosystem loss and environmental degradation worldwide. Meat and dairy use 83% of the world’s farmland and are responsible for 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Closer to home, India is currently the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. The country is experiencing immense pressure on its natural resources — including the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million Indians living under high to extreme water stress, according to NITI Aayog.
Public health and food safety
Human health is influenced more by food than any single factor, and farming animals for food exacerbates health and safety concerns. For example, contamination in animal-derived food products can result in foodborne illnesses at the cost of individual wellbeing and community health and disproportionately affects low-to-middle-income communities. Overuse and reliance on antibiotics within animal agriculture threaten our ability to treat infectious and non-infectious diseases as levels of antimicrobial drug resistance grow and we stop responding to antibiotics.
Global food insecurity and nutritional deficits
Animal-based protein is often unaffordable and difficult to access, resulting in severe nutrition and food security repercussions. When it comes to nutrition, India suffers from endemic deficits, performing poorly on a wide range of nutritional indicators, including stunting (38%) among children under the age of five and anemia (53%) among adult women. Combined with a large population, these rates mean India bears the single largest burden of child and maternal undernutrition worldwide. In addition to this, farming animals for food is inherently inefficient. For example, it takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to produce one calorie of meat. Producing food in this manner diverts massive crops away from direct human consumption and animal feed. Ultimately, this drives up the price of grains and legumes for human consumption, displacing subsistence farmers and compounding food insecurity in low-to-middle-income communities.
But animal-derived meat doesn’t have to be our primary source of protein, particularly in India. Across the global food system, we see an evolution of alternatives to animal-sourced foods - Smart proteins!
Smart protein is an alternative food product to animal-derived meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. These alternatives focus on delivering the same cultural and sensory experiences to animal-derived foods - so that consumers and producers have alternatives that feel like a simple switch, not a sacrifice. Smart protein products can be produced using one or a combination of the following three modalities, from a product, cost, and infrastructure perspective: plant-based protein, cultivated protein, or fermentation-derived protein. Crucially, large food and conventional meat, egg, and dairy companies all over the world are investing in smart protein as a means of diversifying their offerings - like Nestle, Tyson Foods, JBS, Thai Union, CP Foods, and dozens of others.
In India, we’re at a critical juncture. The story of the smart protein sector in the developing world, in countries like ours, is just beginning to unfold and pick up steam. Over the last year, even as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on, we’ve seen multiple smart protein startups launch and go to market, interest from corporates increase manifold, and awareness around these foods mature.
But we still have a long way to go. For us to move beyond the early adopter of smart protein and truly reach the mass market, we need to work on getting three things right: the taste, the price, and availability. We need to ensure that plant-based meats or other smart proteins look, cook, smell, sizzle, and taste the same or better than animal-derived meat, or it’s going to be an uphill battle to enable people to make the switch. As companies can scale, prices will come down, but to reach the true mass market, we need to reach an unprecedented level of scale across the country across the value chain, to ensure that even in the farthest corners of India, delicious, nutritious smart protein foods are available for all.
By investing in smart protein, in one stroke, India has the opportunity to invest in the industries of the future, stave off climate change, and safeguard food security and public health for our growing population for generations. Smart protein presents an unprecedented opportunity to address debilitating nutritional deficits, reward farmers, and create lakhs of jobs in a sustainable and humane manner.
Author - Ayesha Marfatia is the Communications Associate at the Good Food Institute India (GFI India)
The opinions expressed in this article are purely of the author. It does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FoodTechBiz or its members.