Op-Ed: Public Policy Is Key to Mainstreaming Sustainable Proteins in India

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Climate change will affect hundreds of millions of Indians and bring about widespread food insecurity- government support of alternative proteins is essential to achieving national food security and independence.

By: Ambika Hiranandani, formerly of the Good Food Institute India, MPhil., Public Policy, University of Cambridge and Shyam Mehta, Vice President at CREAEGIS India, Consumer, Retail and Consumer Technology Sector

Implementing strategic sustainable food policies today will be the foundation that will help bridge nutritional gaps and feed India in the future. This month, a report from the World Bank jolted the billion-strong nation by forecasting that India will be one of the first countries to face heat waves that break the human survivability limit. According to the report, over 160-200 million people in India will be vulnerable to heat waves by 2030 and 34 million people will lose their jobs because of heat stress associated with productivity decline. 

Climate change-induced crippling heat waves irreparably impact agriculture

Climate scientists have long cautioned that heat waves caused by global warming will create obstacles in India’s quest for food security. This March was the hottest on record and shrunk wheat production in key producing states, increased the price of the crop by 20%, and led to an export prohibition. Other crops that will bear the brunt of these heat waves will be soya, barley, and mustard. Faced with weather-related uncertainty and other challenges, India’s farming communities are forced into debt which they can often never return. In the Marathwada district of Maharashtra alone, 600 farmers have committed suicide because of their inability to pay back debt and make their operations profitable. Over 70% of rural Indian households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, by 2030 73.9 million Indians will be at risk from hunger; if one were to factor in the effects of climate change this figure increases to 90.6 million.  

Flaws with the government’s response to food security concerns

To meet food security needs, the government is investing heavily in the livestock sector which is yielding tremendous financial results. Over a six-year period that ended in 2021, the livestock sector registered a compound annual growth rate of 8%. India is currently home to over 35% of the world’s livestock and India is one of the top 5 methane emitting countries. We are aware that 14.5% of the total GHG emissions come from livestock and 44% of these emissions are composed of methane. Over 20 years, methane’s global warming impact is 80 times that of carbon dioxide. India has not signed the Global Methane Pledge. The Global Methane Pledge was signed by over 100 countries at COP 26 who have committed to reducing their methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Professor Partha Dasgupta in his report on the Economics of Biodiversity emphasized the need for us to understand the hidden costs of environmental destruction and for us to quantify this in economic terms. If we were to analyze India’s livestock growth with this lens, it would perhaps tell a very different story. 

Alternative proteins: sustainable hero foods

This is where alternative proteins come in as a sustainable hero food to provide nutritious, tasty and inexpensive food to the nation and help strengthen the economy. India’s sherpa to the G20, Mr. Amitabh Kant, in his speech at the Good Food Institute’s Future of Protein Summit referred to this sector as a “sunrise sector” which is filled with potential to help mitigate problems ranging from malnutrition to climate change. By 2030, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based food market is expected to be worth USD 162 billion and account for 7.7% of the global protein market. In a high growth scenario India’s local market will be worth approximately USD 713 million and, in a low growth scenario, will be  USG 217 million. So far there are start-ups that have brought plant-based mince, kebabs, and patties. These companies have created high-end products which are gaining popularity in an urban environment; however, the rural consumer has not been catered to. The potential for plant-based meats to meet the nutritional needs of those at the margins remains largely unexplored. The global CM economy is expected to be worth USD 450 billion by 2040. There are a couple of CM start-ups in India, Clear Meat has developed and tasted its first cultivated chicken mince product in early 2020 and is planning to launch its first market-ready product by 2023. Sutapa Sikdar of Clear Meat explains that as there is no specific regulatory framework for cultivated meat in India, they have not been able to apply for regulatory approval. However, they are in touch with the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and are hopeful that structures will be put into place. MyoWorks, an early-stage start-up, is looking to manufacture a range of ingredients and scaffolds for the cultivated-meat industry globally. MyoWorks has received USD 50,000 from the Department of Biotechnology to demonstrate preliminary proof of concept.

India has the foundation needed to develop alternative proteins; its agricultural biodiversity lends itself to developing plant-based meats from a diverse range of crops. It produces 25% of the world’s pulses and is of the world’s largest producers and exporters of millet. Startups are working with indigenous farming communities to grow Pongamia seeds which are a rich protein source and creating livelihoods for otherwise disenfranchised people. Its biopharma sector has the potential to pioneer innovation in cultivated meat. 

The Food Safety Standards (Approval of Non-Specified Foods and Food Ingredients) Regulation, 2017 details the procedure for the pre-market authorization of ‘novel’ foods. Novel foods, according to the regulations, are new additives; processing aids; food ingredients consisting of or isolated from bacteria, yeast, fungus, or algae. However, the definition of ‘novel’ food stops short of making a direct reference to ‘animal cell culture’. Regarding plant-based products, the usage of the terms ‘milk’, ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ for plant-based products was prohibited by the FSSAI through an executive order dated 15th July 2021. The reasoning behind this order was that the ‘General Standard for Milk and Milk Products’ under the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 did not permit the usage of a dairy term for a plant-based product. The order also directed that action be taken against companies flouting this rule and that e-commerce sites delist plant-based products using such terms. However, coconut milk and peanut butter were spared from the application of this order due to the international usage of these terms. This was challenged in the Delhi High Court by plant-based product manufacturing companies. As the issue currently stands, the court has temporarily permitted plant-based product manufacturers to use dairy terms pending their final decision on the issue. 

The critical importance of government support 

The government sets the public policy agenda which determines where research funding goes, details enterprises that will receive fiscal benefits and that those at the margins benefit from novel innovation. So far, India has not set the public policy agenda in favour of the growth of alternative protein companies. Food security is a major theme of India’s G20 presidency and India advocated for 2023 to be declared as the International Year of Millets by the United Nations. The building blocks for an alternative protein-positive policy are there and can be built on with tangible targets which also ties into India’s net zero commitment. 

Policy options to mainstream these hero foods 

Policy options such as creating a favourable regulatory framework, providing economic incentives to companies that leverage plant-based proteins to meet the rural needs of those at the margins, and creating structures within the government that focus exclusively on the development of alternative proteins need to be explored. The Swachh Bharat Mission focused on sanitation was the world’s largest nudge campaign and changed the habits of millions of Indians. Similar nudges can be employed to change India’s eating habits to nutritionally rich sustainable food. 

Alternative proteins have the potential to ameliorate previously unsolvable wicked problems ranging from food insecurity to GHG emissions from food to malnutrition. Innovation can only go so far with limited government support to achieve its potential. India can get ahead of the curve by changing its local landscape and becoming a global player; however, the time to act is now. 

Lead photo courtesy of Good Dot India.


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