06 Sep 2023

In an interview with TechGraph, Sneha Singh, General Manager of Good Food Institute India (GFI), spoke about the transformative efforts being made to introduce alternative proteins in diverse Indian communities.
Read the complete interview:
Sneha Singh: 77% of all agricultural land is used to feed livestock, and just 23% is used to grow crops for human consumption. Yet, livestock only contributes to 33% of our protein supply. Producing food in this manner diverts massive quantities of crops away from direct human consumption and toward 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. Smart protein — meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood developed from plant-based, fermentation-derived, and cultivated protein — will be key to feeding 10 billion people by 2050, nearly a sixth of whom will be Indian.
India is poised to become one of the world’s worst-affected countries by rising global temperatures; crop yields in the country can fall by as much as 30%, while almost 40% of Indians will potentially be living in water scarcity by 2050. As the most populous country in the world today, we are eating more meat than at any other time in history, with demand looking to double by 2050.
To sustainably feed this demand without breaking the planet, we are building a future where alternative proteins are no longer alternative, which is at the core of our mission at GFI India. With a focus on smart protein, we aim to tackle global challenges like the climate crisis, food security, and future pandemics with transformative solutions that steward planetary health, tackle malnutrition, benefit farmers, and create jobs for millions.
Sneha Singh: Over the last five years, GFI India has been laying the groundwork to establish smart protein as a thriving sunrise sector by working with key stakeholders across science, business, and policy. Our Science & Technology department fosters smart protein innovation by connecting food scientists, researchers, students, and academicians with institutional and for-profit opportunities. We have continued to successfully underpin several R&D undertakings at top-tier research institutes in India.
Our Innovation team partners with the private sector to support entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate partners. We offer advisory support, access to a community ecosystem, and knowledge resources to address technological and market gaps, targeting high-impact opportunities for startups in addition to launching incubation programs (the India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge) and building a thriving community of 1000+ through our GFI Ideas initiative. By partnering with corporate entities, we tackle bottlenecks in product development, ingredients, and manufacturing to help achieve rapid scale.
To provide industry-focused regulatory guidance and facilitate a clear path to market, our Regulatory Advisory Council provides focused regulatory advice to the industry and shares inputs with the regulator (FSSAI). Since August 2018, GFI India has convened five major Summits, which have served as a platform for smart protein development and inspired industry leaders to drive the ecosystem forward. The Smart Protein Summit has been a focal point for the celebration of early successes in our organization’s and our sunrise industry’s history, sparking the formation of startup companies, research projects, collaborations, investments, and many more milestones.
To summarize, we’ve laid the groundwork of ecosystems and served as key advisors to governments, universities and scientists, corporate leaders, and entrepreneurs across food, agriculture, and biotechnology, seeding the talent landscape, building scientific momentum, and advancing the market for these innovative foods. In India, this work has culminated in a National Mission for Smart Protein, bringing together stakeholders across the ecosystem to center India in the global landscape.
Sneha Singh: With meat, eggs, and dairy being a staple in most Indian diets, GFI India recognizes consumer awareness as a critical component in building the sunrise sector. As a field catalyst and convenor building the sector from the ground up, we work closely with all players in the ecosystem to share open access and data-driven consumer insights around the perception, adoption, marketing, and nomenclature of smart protein.
With the smart protein sector in its nascent stages, creating category awareness to foster familiarity among consumers would greatly benefit the industry as a whole. To drive category awareness for smart protein, it is necessary to both internally and externally agree on the messaging, positioning, and the way we drive recall of smart protein in consumers. For this purpose, we’re conducting a labeling study to get consumer insights on the terms that best resonate with them. Based on this, we will align industry stakeholders with the premise of the positioning.
In India specifically, all research indicates that we will emerge as a major market for the smart protein sector over the next decade. In our cross-country study on consumer acceptance of cultivated meat in the U.S., China, and India (Bryant et al, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 2019), we found that 56% of Indian consumers are already ‘very or extremely likely’ to purchase cultivated meat regularly, comparing favorably with the U.S. and China. The study also indicates that 63% of Indian consumers are ‘very or extremely likely’ to purchase plant-based meat regularly.
In an EAT Forum consumer study, India was reported to have the highest number of consumers interested in eating plant-based food. The same report found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for ‘environmentally responsible food’.
Smart protein products in India are, therefore, currently targeting this cohort of early adopters who are ‘very or extremely likely’ to pay more for plant-based products than they would for conventional animal-based products and are ‘very or extremely likely’ to regularly purchase them. As per the early adopter deep dive study conducted by GFI India, 54% of early adopters are very/extremely familiar with plant-based meats, and 77% are willing to try them if they are available widely.
We believe that our large middle-class population, increased awareness of global trends, the need for protein transitions for human and planetary health, and deep-seated cultural views on meat consumption within India’s diverse population make smart protein products, especially those replacing meat, ideally placed to cut across socio-cultural divides to address these challenges.
Sneha Singh: With a proven history of scaling vaccine and therapeutic manufacturing, cultivated meat stands to benefit significantly from India’s thriving pharmaceutical sector, which is expected to reach $150 billion by 2025. This sector has a proven track record in affordable, high-quality manufacturing, and cultivated meat companies can tap into its vast infrastructure and resources.
Through a comprehensive life-cycle analysis and techno-economic assessment conducted by CE Delft in association with GFI U.S., it is projected that by 2030, cultivated meat can offer significant environmental benefits with a potential reduction of 17% in GHG emissions to make chicken, 52% for pork, and an impressive 92% for beef. Regarding land use, there is a 63% reduction for chicken, 72% for pork, and 95% for beef!
With India’s vulnerability to climate change and public health crises, we have been proactively channeling our efforts toward R&D and infrastructure for cultivated meat. To support training and facilitate knowledge partnerships, the Chief Minister’s Office of the Government of Maharashtra sanctioned a partnership between GFI India and the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai, to set up a Centre of Excellence in cellular agriculture, which will also incubate entrepreneurs, for which work is underway. We assisted the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) and National Research Centre on Meat (NRCMeat) in securing INR 4.6 crore (USD 600K) from the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology to work on creating cultivated mutton meat, resulting in scalable cultivated meat technology.
In 2021, GFI awarded a research grant worth 66 lacs (USD 80K) to Dr. Goswami’s lab in ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education (Mumbai) for the development of a fish cell line from Rohu (Labeo rohita) for creating cultivated seafood products. GFI India has also partnered with the ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education (ICAR-CIFE) to establish India’s first Smart Protein Innovation Hub on Cultivated Seafood.
We are currently in the process of formalizing our partnership with ICAR-CIFE, a key outcome of which will be naming Dr. Goswami’s lab the first ever ‘Smart Protein Innovation Hub on Cultivated Seafood’ in India (SPIH-CS). We also support incubators such as the Hyderabad-based Atal Incubation Center at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), as well as early-stage promising startups like Myoworks, NeatMeatt, Klevermeat, Clear Meat, and Mealtech Pvt Ltd.
While domestic consumption of cultivated meat may not be significant in India, there are promising export opportunities. India can play a key role in supplying growth factors and recombinant proteins, critical components of cell culture media necessary for cultivated meat production. The projected export potential for cultivated meat by 2030 is estimated to reach up to INR 4,152 crore. Notably, companies like Fermbox, Laurus Bio (formerly Richcore Lifesciences), and MyoWorks are producing recombinant proteins, fats, and edible scaffolds, respectively, for the global cultivated meat industry cost-effectively.
GFI India has been working across stakeholders to tackle the key challenges in this field which include refining the manufacturing process, ensuring scalability, reducing price, and creating regulatory frameworks, among others. We’re optimistic about the future of India’s contribution to the cultivated meat industry.
Sneha Singh: Working hand in hand with entrepreneurs and the startup ecosystem, we have been building the ecosystem from the ground up. We support companies through their life cycle from ideation until scale-up and address gaps across product development, talent, capital, and infrastructure.
Today, after less than half a decade of innovation in the plant-based sector, there are 400+ SKUs in the Indian market in 50+ formats, across 19+ cities. Products initially limited to Western formats, ranging from plant-based chicken nuggets and sausages, are now looking to serve public demand by tapping into local flavors better suited to different cultures and preferences.
We’re seeing an explosion of plant-based biryanis, curries, kebabs, keema, and more. All this is indicative of plant-based foods being bumped up from snacking items or ‘side of the plate’ dishes to bigger, better, ‘center of the plate’ dishes.
In 2022 alone, 30 new smart protein companies were launched, joining an impressive ecosystem of 60+ companies in India dedicated to offering Indian consumers more sustainable, nutritious, and, most importantly, delicious sources of protein.
Moreover, FMCG giants like ITC and Tata Consumer Products alone reach over 200 million Indian households and know all too well how to get nutritious food onto Indians’ plates. Bolstering this startup ecosystem with better technologies, ingredients, and logistics are 100+ supporting companies comprising co-manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, equipment manufacturers, consultants, and more.
The Indian consumer is very price sensitive, and lowering the cost of plant-based products will be the key to sustained and repeat purchases and consumption of these alternatives. To bring price parity between smart protein and conventional protein, we need to localize the supply by tapping into the rich agricultural biodiversity in India. Smart protein products can be made more nutritious and functional from abundantly found nitrogen-fixing crops such as millets, chickpeas, mung beans, or yellow dal.
The trifecta of price, taste, and convenience is a primary driver of adoption and interest in plant-based foods, and significant improvements on all those fronts will continue to be harbingers of change. To address the true mass market, the new crop of founders and those looking to enter the sector must plug in gaps in product formats, packaging, nutrition, price, and accessibility.
Sneha Singh: The impact of animal agriculture on the ecological and climate crisis cannot be understated as it accounts for a staggering 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach 10 billion, accompanied by a 52% increase in meat demand. These projections coincide with the intensification of climate change-induced challenges such as droughts, floods, fires, and crop failures, particularly in vulnerable regions. A study by the University of Oxford found that eliminating animal products is the single biggest way people can reduce their environmental impact.
India’s agricultural and food systems are already suffering from significant pressure on natural resources, shrinking agricultural landholdings, and frequent crop failures due to extreme weather conditions, thereby, putting a growing percentage of the population at risk of hunger. By embracing alternative proteins, we can reduce resource strain, increase food availability, and enhance the resilience of the food supply system. Smart protein products often use indigenous ingredients and nitrogen-fixing plants or crops such as peas, mung beans, millets, oats, amaranth, soy, pongamia, etc., aligning with the Government’s crop diversification plans.
Additionally, by removing livestock and the industrial slaughter of billions of animals from the equation, plant-based alternatives can futureproof our protein supply against public health risks such as antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases, and future pandemics.
Sneha Singh: GFI India’s policy unit provides expert strategic advisory to government agencies and regulatory bodies through representations and consultations to establish clear policy and regulatory pathways for the industry.
Policy: We are deeply involved in a committee set up by APEDA to develop export standards, guidelines, and promotions for plant-based exports from India. The Vegan Committee on Export Standards, Guidelines, and Promotion for Vegan Food Products, which falls under the National Programme on Vegan Products, meets regularly to discuss the development of the standards and is already working on a draft for the same.
We’ve also been working very closely with the Ministry of Science and Technology to drive public investment in specialized grant funding calls to support smart protein R&D. Through the Smart Protein Science Forum, we regularly address key challenges in scientific advancement for India to develop globally competitive cutting-edge research work.
Regulatory: On the regulatory front, we actively engage with regulatory bodies such as FSSAI, providing representations and sharing industry insights to address the bottlenecks faced by the smart protein industry. We also collaborate with industry associations like FICCI, CII, etc. to collectively represent smart protein policy issues within the broader food industry framework. Internationally, GFI India works closely with key regulatory agencies and government bodies to help develop standards and guidelines for the smart protein industry. Our active participation in the CODEX Alimentarius Commission as an official ‘Observer’ underscores our commitment to setting standards for emerging food categories.
We also convene consultations and information sessions with scientific and industry stakeholders as a part of GFI India’s Smart Protein Industry Forum to educate the ecosystem about emerging regulatory developments, and to consolidate current concerns and bottlenecks to communicate to policymakers. We also work to create written resources such as Guidance Documents, whitepapers, and briefing materials.
For smart protein, a nascent category, policymaking, and regulatory progress is a collaborative exercise that requires continuous knowledge exchange. It is a multi-faceted, ecosystem-building exercise that requires participation from all stakeholders, globally. GFI India has acted as the central field enabler in India and will continue to work toward obtaining positive policy changes that would support the sector in scaling up.
Sneha Singh: There are a few core pillars of the National Mission for Smart Protein that we are working on.
The primary pillar is to establish Smart Protein Manufacturing Hubs in plant protein (with value addition for pulses, soya, millets, and other crops), bringing together stakeholders across the value chain, including researchers, engineering partners, investors, startup companies, and international distributors and corporations for offtake of value-added plant protein products. This would directly benefit incomes for lakhs of farmers producing these crop inputs and result in creating thousands of skilled jobs and value addition for existing industries.
We are also focusing on Smart Protein Innovation Hubs (Centres of Excellence) with our academic and industry partners such as ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education (ICAR-CIFE), Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), Gujarat Biotechnology University (GBU), Guwahati Biotech Park (GBP), University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology (TDU Bengaluru), Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), IKP Knowledge Park to name a few. With a chain of dedicated CoEs across the country, we aim to nurture R&D innovation, education, incubation, and technology transfer for smart protein. This would advance Indian scientific research, directly benefit several waves of students, and result in the creation of a multitude of new roles, new skills, and new opportunities.
GFI India also plans to build Smart Protein Corridors between the ecosystem in India and international smart protein markets such as Singapore, Israel, and the Netherlands, for technology and knowledge transfer, business exchange, investment, and trade. The goal of this project is to develop a detailed strategy and roadmap for building bilateral relationships with key knowledge hubs to promote the growth of the smart protein sector in India. And help create opportunities in Indigenous Agriculture Initiatives to stimulate scientific research and business activity in indigenous crops, to help diversify the global sources of protein and other ingredients for plant-based foods. The benefits to biodiversity, farmers’ welfare, and food innovation are immense. This would advance biodiversity and farmer welfare by building fast-growing end markets for agricultural produce.
At GFI India’s Smart Protein Summit 2020, we announced plans to build the Smart Protein Industry Forum, a platform for industry players of all shapes and sizes to come together, identify bottlenecks in the development of this entirely new sunrise sector, and advance progress in ways no single entity could accomplish on its own.
Subsequently, at the summit in 2021, the Smart Protein Science Forum was formalized to serve as a nationwide platform and council of scientific leaders who will map out the scientific agenda for smart protein advancement in the country. Together, the forums act as collaborative platforms to synthesize key opportunities & challenges, forge meaningful partnerships between industry leaders, facilitate knowledge sharing, and propagate collective advocacy from the industry to accelerate progress for smart proteins.
Sneha Singh: At GFI India, we are working toward ensuring a sustainable, equitable, and nutritious protein supply amid climate and environmental challenges. Plant-based proteins, such as those offered by indigenous crop sources like pulses, present an opportunity to meet India’s growing protein requirements.
Moreover, they enable a greater agri-biodiversity and climate-resilient food system and are also well-suited to water-stressed regions than rice and wheat varieties. Fermentation technology is also significant in LMIC nations due to its low-cost production, ability to scale up, and flexibility to rely on various feedstocks – from waste to sidestreams from adjacent industries.
Moreover, fungi and algal proteins and foods prepared through fermentation can increase smart protein products’ overall functionality and nutrition due to the high concentration of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds. Building a more healthy and sustainable food system requires alternatives comparable to conventional proteins in taste, price, and ubiquity.
Transformative innovation in food including technologies working towards producing familiar product formats like meat, eggs, and dairy products, utilizing diversified crop ingredients and fermentation technology can provide access to lucrative end-markets allowing production at the local level to scale.
Our goal is to foster a globally competitive sector by overcoming barriers to scale and promoting innovation and technological disruptions in food systems, trade, and agriculture by ensuring strategic partnerships across government stakeholders and research institutes across India.
As our aim to build a National Mission for Smart Protein moves into a phase of consolidation, it is increasingly clear that a food systems transformation is inevitable, and that there is both a significant market opportunity and a moral imperative for India to continue investing in smart protein.
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