Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Jun 11, 2021
Feeding India: The case for smart protein

Contrary to the popular misconception, 71 percent of India's 1.3 billion people self-identify as non-vegetarian (census-level Sample Registration Survey, 2014), with over 60 percent eating meat at least occasionally. Respondents cited income rather than religious strictures as the major impediment to eating meat more frequently. This seems intuitive seeing as income growth in low- and middle- income countries have traditionally been linked to a dietary transition towards a higher consumption of meat, fruits, and vegetables, relative to that of cereals. Indian per capita meat consumption is still growing as per the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’ (FAO) ‘Mapping of Supply and Demand for Animal-Source Foods’ 2011 report, the demand for poultry meat in India is projected to increase 850 percent by 2040 (from 1.05 to 9.92 million tonnes, annually), representing one of the steepest increases of any region in the world.

Forecasted to become the most populous country in the world, combined with factors such as increasing disposable income and upward social mobility, India will, therefore, be amongst the largest contributors towards higher consumption of meat and dairy products. This increase in demand will likely be met through an increase in production, requiring commensurate shifts in output. The implications of these patterns of growth in demand for animal-source foods lie in structural changes to the livestock sector: Massive, rapid intensification will likely involve a shift towards an industrialised model of animal production, optimised for cost and production, and adding significant pressure on dwindling natural resources.

An urgent need for protein diversification

Diversification of the protein supply chain has implications across different challenges in India.

India suffers from endemic nutritional deficits, performing poorly on a wide range of nutritional indicators including stunting (38 percent) and wasting (21 percent) amongst children under the age of five and anaemia (53 percent) amongst adult women, according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16. High prevalence rates combined with a large population mean that India bears the single-largest burden of child and maternal undernutrition worldwide. Reaching the global target of 99 million stunted children by 2025, a 40 percent reduction from 165 million in 2012, hinges on India’s progress on achieving its SDG goal on nutrition to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

India suffers from endemic nutritional deficits, performing poorly on a wide range of nutritional indicators including stunting (38 percent) and wasting (21 percent) amongst children under the age of five and anaemia (53 percent) amongst adult women

Public and private sector stakeholders will need to direct capital towards a national protein transition. While plant sources are viable and nutritious sources of protein, they are unlikely to substitute the growth in meat consumption this decade. At every level of the socioeconomic pyramid there seems to be significant demand potential, particularly at the lower end of the pyramid, across food habits and formats of consumption in different cohorts.

Feeding this demand through our current protein supply system poses significant threats. Animal agriculture is a leading driver of ecosystem loss and environmental degradation worldwide. One of the most recent extensive studies, published in the journal Science, demonstrates meat and dairy uses 83 percent of farmland and is responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions—the latest in a long line of work demonstrating these impacts. Of course, India can scarcely afford them—the country is currently the fifth most vulnerable globally to climate change. India is suffering from significant pressure on natural resources—including the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million Indians living under high to extreme water stress.

The United Nations’ report “Preventing the Next Pandemic” cites that 60 percent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 percent of the new infectious diseases that threaten humans come from animals. COVID-19, to the best of our knowledge, was transmitted from animals to humans. Animal-to-human or Zoonotic diseases are likely to become more frequent as demand for animal-source protein increases, with the subsequent intensification of animal agriculture. Industrial animal farms serve as breeding grounds for bacterial and viral pathogens that constantly mutate amongst their animal hosts into novel strains capable of a pandemic spread.

The livestock industry is also vulnerable to endemic and re-emerging infectious animal diseases. While the pandemic raged through the country, producers in the state of Assam were also gripped under the threat of African swine fever resulting in an estimated culling of 14,000 pigs within 15 days of the outbreak. Producers often have to resort to the use of antibiotics to curb the threat of disease. Overuse of antibiotics within animal agriculture is accelerating the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance. Medical experts expect 10 million annual deaths from antimicrobial resistance (AMR) worldwide by 2050, a 14-fold increase over current deaths.

The livestock industry is also vulnerable to endemic and re-emerging infectious animal diseases. While the pandemic raged through the country, producers in the state of Assam were also gripped under the threat of African swine fever resulting in an estimated culling of 14,000 pigs within 15 days of the outbreak

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent disruptions to protein supply has exposed vulnerabilities within our existing food system value chains. Livestock farmers were forced to keep possession of animals for a longer period, sustained continued feeding and increased feed conversion ratio, resulting in farmers incurring heavy economic loss. Additionally, animal agriculture diverts massive quantities of crops away from direct human consumption and towards animal feed, exacerbating food insecurity in low- and middle- income communities.

Smart proteins present a multifaceted solution

Alternative proteins or “smart proteins” are food products which can reliably and predictably substitute the consumption of animal-derived meat, eggs, and dairy, because they perfectly replicate the sensory and cultural experience for consumers and offer several advantages in the supply chain for producers. These next generation foods go far beyond the soy-based nuggets and mock meats that have existed for millenia and are aimed at providing consumers and producers with a truly viable alternative to animal-source foods. Smart proteins fit into three categories from a production, cost, and infrastructure perspective, namely: Plant-based proteins; fermentation-derived proteins, using whole-biomass and precision fermentation techniques; and cultivated meat, using cell culture techniques.

All of these exhibit substantial benefits relative to animal agriculture with regard to land use, climate change, environmental pollution, and public health risk factors because they eliminate animal rearing and slaughter from the process. Producing meats directly from plants and cultivating meat directly from cells, for example, uses anywhere from 35 to 99 percent less land than conventional meat production.

Smart protein has specific relevance within the Indian context as well. In a 3000-participant survey in 2019, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers from the University of Bath, the Good Food Institute, and the Center for Long Term Priorities collaborated on the first quantitative comparison of consumer attitudes towards plant-based and cultivated meat across China, India, and the US (Bryant et al, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 2019; and, independently, IPSOS, 2019). Results from the survey found that plant-based and cultivated meat acceptance both correlated with perceived necessity amongst Indian respondents with 62.8 percent and 56.3 percent very or extremely likely to try plant-based and cultivated meat respectively. The average age of the respondents was 35 years old, with 83 percent of them living in large cities or towns and 84 percent of the consumers were non-vegetarians consuming at least one of the animal proteins tested (poultry/mutton/pork/beef/fish) occasionally. The opportunity to service India’s young, flexitarian, urban, upwardly mobile, internet-connected, in-parts-aspirational-in-parts-ethical cohorts exists, and looks very similar to that demand within their global counterparts.

Additionally, there exists an underlying culture of guilt and controversy around eating meat, with religions designating certain days of the week and times of year as holy or certain types of animal meat as unfit for consumption. All of this creates an underlying tension with many young Indians eating meat outside the home and continuing to live with the guilt of it. Set against this complex socio-cultural backdrop, it's important to note that the underlying need states or drivers for a permissible meat replacement exist, whether intrinsic like a desire to steward planetary health or extrinsic like religious or social pressure.

India’s role in the global smart protein sector

A sunrise sector like smart protein also shows tremendous economic promise, with studies from the likes of UBS and Jeffries predicting that plant-based meats alone will form anywhere from a US $100 to US $370 billion global industry over the next 15 years—and with the right push, India stands to benefit enormously from that growth. India has tremendous crop biodiversity, with crops such as pulses, millets and hemp, offering huge promise to diversify raw materials for the entire global smart protein sector. Plant-based and cultivated meat can be made from a wide variety of high-value crops and will support the growth of a more biodiverse and resilient food supply. Leveraging these underexploited, diversified, and high-protein crop varieties could lend themselves to superior functionalities, inherent nutrition-completeness, and cleaner-label products. A distributed system will also make our food system more resilient by creating an overlapping network of production to protect against supply chain disruptions due to storms, droughts, wildfires, flooding, and disease outbreaks.

Apart from rich agricultural landscapes, India has expansive food processing infrastructure and manufacturing power. Food processing has an important role to play in linking farmers to consumers in both domestic and international markets, while also reducing food wastage as processing helps in prolonging the life of food products. There exists great scope for decentralised food processing infrastructure and processing closer to farms. Processing crops into flours, isolates, and concentrates for optimal functionality with increased precision, lower cost, and greater suitability will enable greater opportunity downstream for end-product innovation.

Processing crops into flours, isolates, and concentrates for optimal functionality with increased precision, lower cost, and greater suitability will enable greater opportunity downstream for end-product innovation

India’s existing capabilities in biopharmaceutical manufacturing and fermentation capabilities could lend itself to the alternative protein sector as raw materials and ingredients providers or suppliers of end products. Fermentation may be particularly compelling for low-and middle-income contexts because of its cost, scale, and adaptability to diverse feedstocks including waste and sidestreams. Innovation in sidestream valorisation will play an important role in de-risking the alternative protein industry at scale by improving both, supply chain resiliency and environmental sustainability–for example, using microbial fermentation to convert agricultural waste at the farm level into nutritious protein.

Lower labour costs and a large, educated workforce mean that, in theory, the cost of experimentation in India is lower than in developed markets. Inspiring talent with translational skill sets to enter the smart protein sector, and navigating issues with ease of doing business and infrastructure, will be key to realising this potential. 

Establishing India’s leadership in the smart protein sector 

There is scope for promoting India as an agri-sourcing hub with manufacturing opportunities for plant-based meat, egg, and dairy startups, and equally as a bio-manufacturing hub for cultivated and fermentation-derived proteins. However, significant work remains to make this a reality across science, innovation, and technology.

Thus far, private sector investment in alternative protein research has driven significant progress toward commercialising innovation in the sector—but current investment levels pale in comparison to the size of the challenges the sector is taking on and the opportunities it can create. Government funding for open-access research, innovation and technology transfer, and infrastructure development in plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived proteins will create opportunities for skill development, value-addition along the agricultural value chain, major job creation, and exports—all while enabling India to adhere to our promises under the Sustainable Development Goals and nourish our growing population. Owing to India’s specific strategic regional advantages, research funding in several specialised areas will offer complementarities to the global alternative protein sector, such as the following:

  • Ingredient optimisation for plant-based proteins, particularly utilising indigenous crops;
  • Optimising cell culture media and bioprocess for cultivated meat;
  • Improving yield and optimizsing feedstocks for fermentation-derived proteins;

Crop research organisations like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have started working on improving protein content in crops like chickpeas using novel crop optimisation techniques. Research and innovation hubs like ICRISAT could stimulate commercialisation and adoption of highly functional and sustainable pulse ingredients by the entire plant-based sector. Similarly, research institutes with a focus on fermentation and cellular agriculture can play a significant role in creating open-access research for cultivated meat and fermentation-derived proteins, driving advancement in the sector globally. The government has already taken early strides in this direction—the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB Hyderabad) and National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM Hyderabad) worked with the Good Food Institute India (GFI India) to secure INR 4.6 crore in funding for cultivated meat research in 2019, while the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT Mumbai) and GFI India have partnered to set up a research centre focused on cultivated and fermentation-derived proteins.

Further, a multidisciplinary approach to research and development on new product development is needed to find the right product-market fit for the smart protein sector. We need more biologists improving plants, fungi, and bacteria for protein production, more biochemists and biochemical engineers optimising ingredients, and more food scientists combining these ingredients in novel ways to produce plant-based foods that offer consumers familiar products with superior taste at improved prices. Farmers breeding crop varieties for protein or any other nutritional parameters are unlikely to receive an extra premium price. Specific interventions to promote processing closer to farms for value-addition will be essential. A coordinated effort from government, industry, farmer producer organisations (FPOs), and startups will be essential to build momentum.

Countries like the Netherlands, Canada, and Singapore have already advanced considerably along these paths, and it will take a significant push from the public and private sector in India to ensure we do not miss out in this decade’s  race for smart protein. Above all, we need to create foods that taste the same or better and cost the same or less than their animal-derived counterparts to enable diversification, or we will not succeed in our human or planetary health goals. And we need to do it fast!

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Nicole Rocque

Nicole Rocque

Nicole Rocque works as an Innovation Specialist at the Good Food Institute India at the intersection of business advisory and policy engagement to build the ...

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