India has been the fastest-growing major economy in the past few years. Within the next decades, India is also expected to surpass China and become the most populous country in the world. Can cultivated meat help to meet the country’s rising demand for protein? Varun Deshpande, Managing Director at Good Food Institute India, is quite confident that it will.
When Varun Deshpande started The Good Food Institute India in December 2017, his mission was to offer producers and consumers an alternative to industrial animal agriculture. Today, with the support of Varun and many others like him, start-ups working on alternative protein are revolutionizing India’s food ecosystem, and an entrepreneurial ecosystem is also taking shape. In an e-mail interview, Deshpande expressed optimism regarding the future development of cultivated meat in India.
Supertrends: When do you expect cultured meat to become available on the Indian market?
Varun Deshpande: As with the timelines for the global industry, the path to market for cultivated meat in India depends on regulatory frameworks and on the price of the final product. India is a very price-sensitive market with high chicken consumption (a meat typically priced more cheaply than red meats or other specialty meats), so we expect that cultivated meat may have a longer timeline to come to market in this country than in the rest of the world. The efforts of the Centre of Excellence (a partnership between the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, and the Good Food Institute India) and other work we are doing promise to accelerate that timeline, so that we can deliver affordable, sustainable protein to a growing population as soon as possible.
In India, culture plays an important role in food consumption. What is or will be the social response to cultured meat in India?
Early studies indicate promisingly high theoretical acceptance from consumers. Our cross-country survey of consumer acceptance regarding plant-based and cultivated meat (Bryant et al., Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 2019) indicates 56 percent of Indian consumers would be very or extremely likely to purchase cultivated meat regularly – and since increased familiarity with these foods tends to drive up that acceptance rate, you can expect that India will have a big market for cultivated meat over time. This is very heartening when you consider the rising protein demand in the country over the next decades – we will need to provide affordable, sustainable, delicious protein at scale to satisfy over a billion meat-eating Indians.
What do you think are the advantages and challenges for the future of cultured meat in India?
India’s advantage has always been the availability of excellent, resourceful talent, and our disadvantage has always been the enabling ecosystem supporting that talent. The relative dearth of labs, research funding, degree programs, and patient deep-technology-oriented capital has traditionally meant India’s technologists and entrepreneurs have to be even more resourceful than other countries, or migrate to those other countries – which is very unfortunate. Cultivated meat does, however, benefit from India’s thriving pharmaceutical sector, which is expected to reach US$150 billion by 2025. We’ve already begun tapping into this sector and its proven track record in affordable, high-quality manufacturing. Indian companies are already producing growth factors for use by global companies to cultivate cells, for instance, and Indian entrepreneurs are already in conversation with established international companies in the space for partnership opportunities. GFI India’s work moving forward will center on building up the enabling ecosystem for rapid technology transfer and market development, for example by fostering participation from further biopharma companies, setting up further labs and research consortiums, and nurturing talent from universities to participate in the cultivated meat explosion. I’m deeply optimistic that we can bring unique value to the global ecosystem, particularly with our own team at GFI India, which is growing to include a Cultivated Meat Specialist (hiring now!).
What is the impact of COVID-19 crisis for cultured meat industry in India? Will people stay away from all meat products, or will it be an opportunity for cultured meat?
COVID-19 is accelerating the convergence towards animal-free supply chains globally, and resulting in tragic consequences for the legacy meat industry in India. The pandemic and its effects on consumer perception have meant that demand for chicken has temporarily fallen off a cliff, with farmers needing to cull their stock by burying chickens alive, thereby running tremendous losses. This mirrors recent worrying outbreaks of African swine fever and avian flu in the Indian meat supply. While cultivated meat companies like ClearMeat and research projects like the one at CCMB have needed to pause research work, the long-term prognosis for the sector remains hugely positive – it offers a means of resilience even to legacy animal meat producers who may want to future-proof their business. The drivers for consumers and businesses therefore align perfectly for cultivated meat to succeed in the country over time – but plenty of work remains to drive cost-parity and the enabling ecosystem first!
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