Did you know that it takes nine calories of crop feed to produce just one calorie of chicken meat? Cycling calories through animals for food is equivalent to 87-97 per cent of food waste in production. So, why don’t people across the world just eat chickpeas instead of chicken? It’s simple - meat is delicious, indulgent, aspirational, and nutritious. But what if we could reimagine meat as we know it? What if we could remove antibiotics and hormones from meat production while still ensuring its nutritive content? What if we could have our meat and have our planet too?  

The application of food science to one of the foremost challenges of our age – upgrading protein – is fast making that a reality. All over the world, innovators are producing the future of food: delicious, nutritious, sustainable meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood made from plants, cells, and microorganisms. The smart protein sector is at the forefront of global food innovation, with major benefits for public and planetary health – and plant-based meat is a key pillar of this innovation.  

Entering a new era

Plant-based meat today goes beyond the chaaps and veggie burgers of the previous decade. It’s entered a new era - juicy, succulent seekh kebabs, meaty biryanis, chicken nuggets, and mutton samosas all made from protein-rich ingredients like soya and pulses. These foods look, cook, smell, sizzle, and taste just like their animal-derived counterparts. In India, the plant-based sector is picking up steam and even as the Covid-19 pandemic has raged on, we’ve seen multiple smart protein startups launch and go to market, interest from corporates increase manifold, and awareness around these foods mature. 

So, why is this important for India? According to the recent National Family Health Survey, 77% of Indians self-identify as consumers of chicken, eggs, fish, and other types of meat. And the demand for animal-sourced foods is only expected to increase, as rising incomes in developing countries lead to an increase in protein consumption. Just poultry meat consumption in India is projected to increase 850% by 2040, as per the UN FAO, placing an increasingly large burden on our natural resources, food security, and public health.   

Facing undernutrition

It’s a burden we can scarcely afford. India is badly affected by malnutrition, and a large segment of our population cannot access clean and nutritious food. We have the largest population of children and mothers who face undernutrition, with one of the most alarming rates of wasting and stunting among children, in addition to a highly anaemic adult female population. At the same time, the Protein Paradox Study, a nationwide study commissioned by Right To Protein, identified that 95% of Indian mothers claimed to know protein as a macro-nutrient but only 3% really understood the prominent functions of protein or why one should consume it. Protein needs to be incorporated into the Indian diet in a bigger way, and smart protein offers us the opportunity to use climate and health friendly inputs - nutrient-rich, indigenous crops like soy, pulses, and millets. 

As population growth increases, the difficulty of accessing nutritious food will also increase. The world is inching – steadily, irrepressibly – towards 10 billion by 2050, one-sixth of whom will be Indian. To feed this population, a sustainable, secure, and just food system for all. This demands a paradigm shift. We need to accelerate the intelligent protein industry to scale up and reduce prices so that plant-based meat and other sustainable, delicious protein sources are available to Indians everywhere.  

(The author is Managing Director, The Good Food Institute India and Right To Protein supporter )