Decoding the future of food and how it is consumed in modern-day India

Consumer studies show almost 63 percent of Indians would like to try plant-based and cultivated meat.

Much like everything else in this country, it seems like the food sector in India is going through a major shift — and simultaneously, like it's really not. Tomatoes came into our sub-continent via Portugal after the 16th century and have transported our ‘makhnis’ to London’s rain splashed alleys, making one really wonder at the complex nature of India's relationship with food.

And complex it is.

Modern-day Indians like their biryani piping hot and delivered to them in a jiffy (one in every 3.5 minutes we hear) while performing Google searches on avocado smoothies. Executives working in the food business, including myself, are often left scratching their head trying to answer the question, “What do Indians really, truly want to eat?” But perhaps we have been asking ourselves the wrong question all along.

This World Food Day, I would like to point out patterns which demand our attention — patterns of consumer demand as well as facts that may help frame the way we should be eating. For reasons as crushing as climate change and as fleeting as being 'in' on the latest social media trend, but mainly because it's the only way we will be able to feed ourselves and over 1.5 billion other Indians by the year 2050.

What’s working?

Renewed pride in our unique heritage is driving us to embrace turmeric — the same haldi at which we made faces as children. ‘Organic & Indigenous’ continues to carve its niche and sell volumes as more of us transition away from ascribing modernity to the arrival of malls and cola brands. What’s remarkable is how buying and being ‘Indian’ can be seen as a winning brand proposition across geographies and income levels in the country.

Turmeric is becoming popular fro its healing properties. image credit: Wikipedia

Turmeric is becoming popular fro its healing properties. image credit: Wikipedia

Health and wellness, once seen as sales vectors for only young women and savvy moms have now become top-of-mind across ages. The humble ‘ragi’ is now ‘gluten-free’ and products with ‘high in protein’ claims have doubled.

These trends have been powered by direct consumer interaction but it would be remiss to view them in isolation. While we are embracing the ancient Indian story we are open to global applications as long as they are tweaked to fit our attitudes — which are themselves in a constant state of flux.

Indians are more diet conscious than ever but still won’t give up on flavour. Convenience from the West is very welcome but the reducetarianism is not, we are a wholesome society for whom food remains a celebration. We are also very touchy about price. It’s a tall order.  Products and dishes that are rooted in culture, taste good, and promise the average Indian affordable health can and will survive.

What isn’t?

India is home to the second highest number of obese children — 14.4 million — in the world while also housing the largest number of malnourished children in the world. This double burden of over and under nutrition shaves off up to 2.5-4 percent of our GDP, annually. According to the United Nations Development Programme, up to 40 percent of the food produced in India is wasted due to inadequate infrastructure such as transportation, cold chain and extremely low levels of processing.

For an agrarian economy like ours, the future seems especially daunting as it is predicted that we could face an agricultural loss of over $7 billion by 2030 due to the looming climate crisis. Indians will comprise of 1/6th of the world’s entire population in the next 30 years but as of today we are faced with the highest levels of antimicrobial resistance in our farmed animals. The rampant overuse of antibiotics in the meat Indians consume can be literally life-threatening for humanity. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, has repeatedly warned that the world faces an antibiotic “apocalypse” in which common illnesses become untreatable and common operations become life-threatening.

Chicken is the most widely consumed meat in India.

Chicken is the most widely consumed meat in India.

Consider this — chicken, which is the most widely eaten animal in India, takes in 9 calories of crops such as soya, wheat, and corn, for every 1 calorie it gives us in the form of meat.  The land, water, and other resources used for those 8 extra calories could be used to feed humans directly. Feeding crops to animals and then eating a part of the animal is exceedingly inefficient, driving up the price of grains and legumes — wholesome foods by themselves and entrenching poverty. Meat consumption contributes more to global warming than the direct emissions from the entire transportation sector combined (i.e. the emission of every plane, train, and automobile on the street today!).  

As incomes rise, more young Indians are veering towards eating like their global counterparts, leading to rising animal protein consumption. Countries like India will need to be at the forefront when it comes to thinking up new ways to feed ourselves, simply because we cannot and should not afford the mistakes of the West. What we choose to add to our menus will ultimately define our fate in more ways than one.

 So, what do we do about it?

Any new innovation in food needs to account for these sobering statistics. Technology has enabled us to solve complex problems like information dissemination and even invented ways to increase life expectancy. We need to leverage different kinds of modern technology to help us nourish ourselves and sustain the planet. One kind of innovation looks particularly promising -  using food science and technology to create plant-based and cultivated meats. By bypassing the animal entirely, we can get the protein we need from the meat we know and love, but without the same ill-effects!

Plant-based meat is meat made from plants. It is produced using plant ingredients like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to mimic the structure and taste of conventional meat. Flourishing corporations like Impossible Foods & Beyond Meat have made use of this new technology to launch plant-based burgers. Their accolades range from attracting investment from stalwarts like Bill Gates to winning the United Nations Global Climate Action Award. Their delicious burgers are made of ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil, and potato starch, but they taste, smell, and sizzle - they even bleed, just like their animal-based counterparts. And by switching the source of protein for meat from animals to plants, they only release a tiny fraction of greenhouse gases, and only use a tiny fraction of the land, water, and energy compared with conventionally grown meat.

Impossible foods teamed up with Burger King to make the Impossible Whopper. image credit: Flickr/Tony Webster

Impossible foods teamed up with Burger King to make the Impossible Whopper. image credit: Flickr/Tony Webster

Cultivated meat production involves taking a small sample of cells and growing animal tissue from it. It’s just like farming cells directly, instead of going through the wasteful process of farming, feeding, and slaughtering animals. At large scale, this method will look very similar to a product we know and love today - beer. Rather than growing muscle tissue inside live animals (generally housed in crowded and filthy conditions), cultivated meat producers take a few animal cells and use a mixture of nutrients to grow those cells into a piece of meat in a clean facility. As a result, we get pure meat, the production of which doesn’t require antibiotics, doesn’t require slaughter, and doesn’t suffer from fecal E. coli, salmonella, or other contamination. Many exciting companies have made headway with this method too. Just last week an Israeli food technology startup  Aleph Farms announced that they grew meat from bovine cells on the International Space Station, 248 miles (399 km) away from any natural resources(!)

Representational Image.

Representational Image.

Modernity for us Indians is in constant flux and it begs to be balanced between political lines and religious cues. India has the most number of vegetarians anywhere in the world but 71 percent of the country attests to eating meat occasionally. While the internet propels the millennial to try barbeques, they don’t do so on a Tuesday. It’s not surprising then, that early consumer studies estimate that almost 63 percent of Indians (even higher than the U.S.) would like to try plant-based and cultivated meat.

A new report by AT Kearney predicts that 60 percent of the meat eaten in the next 20 years will come from these newer and better methods. If you are interested in learning more about this technology-forward solution, you can listen to The Good Food Institute’s podcast 'Feeding 10 Billion' or you can sign up to attend the Future of Protein Summit. The event will bring together start-ups, policymakers, investors, corporations, and key individuals who can significantly accelerate this sector for India.

All life-changing innovations that seem mundane today, must have seemed like sci-fi at the start. Even cars were viewed as the devil’s vehicle when horse carts were the norm. As always, the solution will lie not in trying to pass popular American plant-based burgers as the holy grail but in localising technology to our taste, in a familiar format. Success will lie in being able to leverage climate-hardy crops like millets that are ancient and indigenous to India and making them a part of a global supply chain for a new industry. Success will lie in realising, as a society, that the dishes we eat are a little less important than how they reach our plate.

The author works as a Corporate Engagement Specialist for the Good Food Institute (GFI), where she helps food businesses develop the plant-based and cultivated meat industry. 

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