‘Public health, the planet, and profit: Smart proteins’ triple bottom line’

‘Public health, the planet, and profit: Smart proteins’ triple bottom line’

FPJ BureauUpdated: Saturday, March 11, 2023, 02:17 AM IST
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Representational Image/ Photo Credit: Pixabay

By Radhika Ramesh, Policy associate at Good Food Institute India

At a time when the government is making business-friendly policies for an “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, there is an emerging area of technology that promises economic opportunities, improves public health, and helps us build greater climate resilience. Globally referred to as alternative protein, we call it ‘smart protein’.

The science is unmistakable.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that producing meat from plants or growing it directly from cells (cultivated meat) is pertinent for climate adaptation and mitigation. Another study by Oxford University found that the world cannot meet its Paris Agreement targets without shifting away from conventional animal agriculture, even if fossil fuel emissions are immediately eliminated. Scientific researchers at the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) have concluded that environmental problems arising from raising animals for food “should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.”

Plant-based meat uses 47-99% less land than conventional meat and emits 30-90% fewer greenhouse gases. Similarly, if produced with sustainable energy sources, cultivated meat has a much lower carbon footprint than conventionally produced meat.

This overwhelming evidence that protein sourced from animals is unsustainable is not lost on policymakers and leaders worldwide. Most recently, this recognition was prominent at the world’s largest climate conference in Egypt in November 2022 - the Conference of Parties 2022 (CoP27). Through not one, but two food systems pavilions, it proved to be a watershed moment for discussions around food systems transformation, so much so that it is colloquially being referred to as the “Food Systems CoP”.

What’s smart about smart protein?

The switch to smart protein doesn’t have to come at the expense of sacrificing our health for the planet’s. For instance, compared to a meat-based sausage, a plant-based meat sausage is devoid of cholesterol, trans fats, hormones, and antibiotics. Additionally, plant-based products can be fortified with essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and folic acid, which is in line with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and larger governmental objectives to drive food fortification to reduce India’s malnutrition woes.

Several studies have reported that India is an emerging hotspot for antibiotic resistance due to the large-scale use of antibiotics for farmed animals. Smart protein products, therefore, reduce the scope of antimicrobial resistance and risks of zoonotic diseases.

Furthermore, to develop greener labels, companies are investing more in R&D to optimize their offerings for better health and nutrition. For example, 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.

Smart protein is tugging at people’s heartstrings but, presently, also their purse strings.

Younger generations of ‘Gen-Z’ or ‘Millenials’, born after 1981 are often touted as “Generation Green” for making lifestyle choices that reflect their values around planetary health and sustainability. These young consumers, who will be the biggest age group by 2040, are shifting rapidly towards smart protein for a variety of reasons including health, lifestyle choices, animal welfare and environmental concerns, among others.

In a recent 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”.

There is a surging business opportunity to serve this demand. Companies can tap into varieties of local cuisines in India: a chance to produce smart protein products with different formats and flavors better suited to different cultures and occasions. For instance, biryani, an item ordered 55 million times in 2021 on an online delivery service, has countless varieties - from Hyderabad to Kerala or from Lucknow to Kolkatta, it changes in appearance, texture, and flavour thereby appealing to different consumer segments.

Taste is one, if not the most significant factor for consumers currently paying a premium for smart protein products. However, price will be the crucial determinant for a consumer’s sustained interest and for that businesses to scale up production and reach economies of scale.

The ‘vocal for local’ opportunity

An important piece of the puzzle to bring price parity between smart protein and conventional protein is to localise the supply by sourcing ingredients from indigenous crops and tapping into the rich agricultural biodiversity in India. From millets, chickpeas, and pigeon peas to mung beans, pongamia, yellow dal, and fava beans, endless other nitrogen-fixing crops can be developed into more nutritious and functional offerings.

Homegrown brands like ITC and, recently, Licious have taken a bite of the (smart protein) pie by investing in the plant-based sector and diversifying their offerings to their large consumer base. Their heritage and the Indian market’s trust in them, combined with their tremendous country-wide supply networks can play an influential role in surpassing the bottleneck of price parity, while possibly capturing a large market share.

What’s better for the planet does not have to be bad for business.

Not long ago, renewable energy was looked upon suspiciously for its profit-making abilities. Fast-forward to 2022, and there is a near-unanimous global consensus that a tectonic shift towards renewable energy is critical for mitigating the energy crisis, and is primed to provide substantial economic benefits for all.

Likewise, smart protein has immense potential to become a billion-dollar industry. However, despite favorable economics, it continues to be severely underinvested. Compared to the U.S., Israel, Singapore, and the U.K., India’s total investment towards smart protein was the lowest in 2021, at a meagre figure of USD 10.34 million.

According to a study analysing the food production requirements in 2030, plant-based meat is projected to capture 6% of the global meat and seafood market. This would require 24 million metric tons of end-product capacity, a huge portion of which can come out of India. With the right infrastructure and funding, economic analysis already forecasts the total economic opportunity within smart protein for India in 2030 to be up to USD 4.2 billion.

The (triple) bottom line.

There are several underexplored categories in India where entrepreneurs can leverage the vast biopharmaceutical and bioprocessing facilities that already exist. In addition, the cost of innovation in India is relatively low compared to other highly-skilled markets thereby providing an opportunity for India to support global innovation.

With the U.S. FDA and, previously, the Singapore Food Agency clearing cultivated meat for market supply and increasing global attention to the economic benefits of smart protein, it is a tactical time for the Indian government to invest deeper in this industry. Along with greater profit, smart protein companies can also seize the twin benefits of contributing to a more resilient food system while serving a rising consumer demand. Changing how we produce and eat our food is paramount for a net-zero future by 2040, and innovation lies at the forefront of achieving this.

About the author

Radhika Ramesh is a Policy Associate at the Good Food Institute India. She works to increase the policy pathways for the emerging area of food and biotechnology innovation in the smart protein sector and is passionate to scope out opportunities for a just transition in India's protein transformation. Previously Radhika has worked at the intersection of public policy, animal welfare and law for bodies like the Asian Nature Conservation Programme on elephant conservation. She has a background in law, international trade, and political science.

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