Varun Deshpande is the Managing Director for India at The Good Food Institute (GFI). He spoke with ACE Managing Editor Melissa Guzikowski on September 2, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
Please give me a brief summary of your work at GFI.
The Good Food Institute focuses on accelerating the research and commercialization of alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs. We now have Managing Directors in different countries, not only in the U.S., but also in Brazil, Asia Pacific, Israel, and hopefully soon in Europe. I am the Managing Director for India and my task is to build up the environment for animal protein alternatives in the country. We work with stakeholders that can influence the supply for meat, dairy, and egg alternatives, such as governments, scientific institutions, entrepreneurs, and large food companies. In India, we have initially focused primarily on government and scientific institutions. This is due to my skill set, the nature of the country, and our networks here. There are very few entrepreneurs that we could support at the moment, so we have worked more “upstream” in order to create the right environment for new products. We have already built partnerships with several scientific institutions and have organized the Future of Protein Summit in Hyderabad with one of them and the Humane Society International/India (HSI/India). We have also worked with relevant government entities and religions.
Why do you think GFI decided to expand to India?
In India, per capita meat consumption is currently quite low compared to other countries. More recently, though, the demand for eggs and meat has been on the rise as incomes are increasing. This rise in consumption could prove highly damaging over the coming decades, and we believe that demand needs to be met with alternatives that are more healthy, humane, and sustainable.
There are very few entrepreneurs in India working on meat alternatives at present, particularly at a scale that could meaningfully affect the food system. On the other hand, India has strong research facilities with talented experts who have the potential to push the sector forward, but they have limited funding. For these reasons, we decided to focus on creating the right conditions for meat, dairy, and egg alternatives instead of focusing on entrepreneurs directly. The sector is also very attractive for the government from the perspective of sustainability, promoting agricultural income and entrepreneurship, and giving a fillip to technology development, so we decided to focus on both scientific institutions and government agencies.
Do you think that Indian consumers are accepting of plant-based and cultured alternatives to meat products?
To get a better idea of consumer acceptance of plant-based and clean meat, we are currently running a cross-cultural acceptance study in India, China, and the United States of plant-based meat substitutes. For example, soy products have been used in India for a long time, although they’re very much previous-generation products which are not optimized to taste identical to meat. Time will tell how clean meat will be received, though our initial explorations have been very positive. We do not only think of its production as being important to fulfilling domestic demand in India’s huge and growing population, but also for export.
How do you think corporations perceive plant-based and cultured products in India? In the U.S., advocacy groups will try to collaborate with corporations, whether to introduce plant-based alternatives or to improve welfare standards. Alternatively, when this doesn’t work, advocacy groups will apply pressure tactics to get corporations to make changes with protests, social media pressure, etc. How does this relate to the tactics that groups use in India to target corporations?
GFI India focuses on the creation of meat, egg, and dairy alternatives. A few other organizations, such as Humane Society International/India and Mercy For Animals (MFA) are doing institutional outreach work and putting pressure on producers to increase welfare standards. They run Meatless Monday campaigns and lobby companies to increase their plant-based alternatives, arguing that plant-based food is more sustainable and that it will be good for their reputation.
What impact do the government’s restrictions on foreign funding have on animal advocacy in India?
NGOs need the government’s approval to receive funding from outside the country, and this is often difficult to get.
The regulatory requirements are complicated as well, so there is a lot of red tape. Activists for animal or environmental issues are also viewed very negatively. You have to look at it within the context of economic development, which is very important to government and other important stakeholders. We have growing environmental problems as the economy develops—tackling these issues is always going to be sensitive.
It’s my understanding that animal agriculture is an important source of revenue for poor rural families in India. Is that true in your experience?
We do take into account the human side of the issue. One clean meat group in Israel called Future Meat Technologies, for example, is considering a model around giving farmers small bioreactors to use, rather than relying on huge ones. I consider this approach very pragmatic and economically beneficial to everyone. It might be realized using a kind of two-part pricing, as is common with printers and printer ink. Technology and training might be provided at low cost or for free and the manufacturing inputs would be on a subscription basis. It is important to involve the current stakeholders in order to reduce opposition.
The statistics about how many people are employed in agriculture are also a bit misleading, as many are simply underemployed. It is the government’s aim to increase farmers’ incomes, for example by switching from rice and wheat to more nutritious crops like millet. Therefore, farmer producer organizations all over the country provide members with professional development and technical training as well as market linkages for new products. If we bring entrepreneurs and corporations to the table, plant-based meats would actually be a lucrative end market for farmers. This would be useful not just for soy and wheat, but also for creating entirely new end-to-end value chains for pulses, lentils, millets, etc.
What do you perceive to be the greatest challenges to effective animal advocacy in India?
I myself do not have an advocacy background, but I think the biggest challenge is not to be perceived as extreme. Religious controversies around meat consumption could also be a big problem for advocates.
What do you perceive to be the greatest opportunities for effective animal advocacy in India?
The momentum from meat, egg, and milk alternatives should carry over to other sectors, such as the leather industry. We need to create products that address consumer demand factors, including price, aesthetics, and availability, without causing opposition from leather producers.
There are also advocacy groups following a welfare-oriented approach, for example by pushing for cage-free eggs. HSI/India is also running institutional meat-reduction campaigns, in part to have plant-based proteins substitute animal-based proteins. There will likely be an institutional outreach coalition which will meet regularly in order to coordinate these efforts.