After two long years, we’re finally able to breathe a sigh of relief as Covid-19 restrictions across India ease. But if we want to build back better from the pandemic, we can’t afford a return to business as usual. With climate change, public health crises, and malnutrition all ever-present threats, it’s clearer than ever on World Health Day that comprehensively safeguarding human health means living within planetary boundaries.

A major piece of this equation lies in building a smarter protein supply. Industrial animal agriculture — sourcing our meat, eggs, and dairy from large-scale farming, slaughter, and fishing — poses huge risks including zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and a slew of climate change issues due to its massive land, water, and energy burdens. But despite these existential challenges, demand for protein is on a relentlessly upward trajectory. Indian per capita meat consumption is growing, with just poultry meat projected to increase 850 per cent by 2040 (UN FAO).

Asking our growing, increasingly protein-hungry population to eat chickpeas and moong instead of chicken and mutton simply won’t work. So how do we keep our meat and our planet too?

Enter smart protein

Smart protein is a rapidly-growing sector pioneering foods which provide a viable alternative to conventional meat, eggs, and dairy, because they feel like a simple switch and not a sacrifice. The sector encompasses products made from plants and cell cultivation, eliminating the need to inefficiently cycle calories through animals, freeing up huge tracts of land, saving huge quantities of water, and eliminating huge quantities of emissions. Smart proteins also do not require the use of antibiotics and eliminate the risk of zoonotic disease, making them far better for public health.

Of course, these advantages are particularly relevant in India, with our unique vulnerability to climate change and public health crises. NITI Aayog has sounded the alarm of our climate emergency, with nearly 600 million people facing high to extreme water stress. We are the fifth most vulnerable country according to the Global Climate Risk Index. We also bear the single largest burden of undernutrition worldwide, underlining the need for a more efficient, nourishing food system. And smart protein can deliver on that bold vision.

Take ‘plant-based meats’, which go far beyond the previous generation of soya nuggets to taste and sizzle just like their animal-derived counterparts. Today, with everyone from Virat Kohli to climate-focused venture capitalists investing in the category, these foods have entered a new era — delicious, succulent seekh kebabs and mutton samosas, all without the guilt of breaking the planet. Similarly, cultivated meat uses large-scale animal cell culture to produce meat by ‘cutting out the middle animal’ and farming their cells directly — a seemingly science fiction-like innovation which is becoming realer by the day.

Smart protein offers a delicious, nutritious, sustainable solution to animal-derived protein and the public health issues that come with it.

Across the global food system, we see an evolution towards smart protein solutions. Even in the depths of a pandemic, the Indian sector has begun to take off. Startups such as Neeraj Chopra-endorsed Good Dot, Imagine Meats (founded by Bollywood’s Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh) and Blue Tribe Foods (founded by Alkem Labs MD Sandeep Singh) are scaling across the country, with new age ingredient players like Proeon innovating with India’s diverse crops including moong and millets. Some of the largest food companies such as ITC Foods, Jubilant Group, Kerry Ingredients, and ADM are also investing in smart protein, with major promise for sustainable economic growth.

But to compete with the likes of China and build a thriving smart protein ecosystem that places India at the centre of this global landscape, we need a coordinated approach marrying science, business, and policy action. If we act now to create a Mission for Smart Protein encompassing an enabling ecosystem for research, talent development, agri-integration, and business investment, we could create an affordable, sustainable supply of protein without sacrifice.

We could balance the competing crises of food security and planetary health, and transition rapidly from our world of scarcity to one of abundance. But we need to take the first visionary leap.

The writer is Managing Director at the Good Food Institute Asia