Varun Deshpande: Clean and Plant-Based Meat in the Developing World
Plant-based, cell-based, and cultured proteins are taking off around the world. This presents a massive opportunity in the developing world — where demand for meat may grow explosively in the next few decades, and where differences in culinary tradition and available ingredients could inspire major advancements to meat alternatives.
In this talk, Varun Deshpande of the Good Food Institute discusses how these advancements could play out (using India as an example), and how individuals might contribute to building new food systems in low- and middle-income countries.
Below is a transcript of Varun’s talk, which we have lightly edited for clarity. You may also watch it on YouTube or read it on effectivealtruism.org.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Varun Deshpande. I’m the managing director for India at the Good Food Institute. I’m here to talk to you today about our work in India as a model for the rest of the developing world.
The developing world is somewhat different from the developed world. Low- and middle-income countries, or developing countries, may present a different pathway for plant-based and cell-based meat, which are the categories of food on which the Good Food Institute works.
I have the privilege of following Bruce Friedrich [who spoke earlier at EA Global], the Good Food Institute’s executive director for the U.S. I’m going to quickly gloss over some of the same points he made.
Our work at the Good Food Institute is primarily informed by one burning question: How are we going to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 through systems that don’t negatively impact climate change, scarce natural resources, biodiversity, food security, and a great many other cause areas that matter to members of the effective altruism (EA) community?
In looking through that 2050 lens, we have to think about the developing world very deeply. In 2050, Africa will account for about 25% of the world’s population. Asia will account for 53%. India alone will account for one-sixth, or about 16%.
In addition, the Good Food Institute’s goals are informed by cause areas that are deeply central to the EA movement and to [people working on] global development across the world.
Animal welfare is obviously something that’s affected by factory farming. We’re also an organization that works deeply in the area of food security, which is especially important to India because we have problems with nutrition security. We couldn’t possibly build up a system in which nine calories of input [e.g. grain] are required in order to get one calorie of output in the form of chicken flesh.
None of these [data points] are a secret. The issues of antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic disease, and environmental degradation associated with factory farming have become better known over the decades. Therefore, all of us are going to go home and stop eating meat or animal-sourced foods, and everyone who watches this video is going to stop doing that too, right?
No. That is not true at all. All around the world, meat consumption has been growing year over year. In fact, this year, we’re going to eat more meat than we’ve ever eaten before.
The Good Food Institute was founded on the basis of this problem, which is that we won’t [slow] the global demand for meat unless we appeal to consumers on the basis of the demand-side factors that matter to them. Figuring out what those factors are — and they are usually price, taste, and convenience — and meeting people where they are will dictate whether [the cell-based and plant-based foods] we work on actually replace factory farming.
In a Western context, plant-based and cell-based meats have taken off. It’s just the beginning.
As Bruce [Friedrich] mentioned in [his talk], plant-based meats comprise about 1% of the U.S. meat industry. We think they will continue to grow. This is a story that has been embedded very deeply in the Western context.
But what would it take for the story to grow in India or in another low- and middle-income country context? We must examine a number of key questions in order to know how we might [make that happen].
First, let’s think about a framework that can help explain why those countries are different.
It’s important to remember that meat isn’t eaten widely in India. It’s a country that consumes, per capita, five kilograms of meat per person, per year. Compare that to 120 kilograms per person, per year in the U.S. The same holds true across many low- and middle-income countries. People in Indonesia consume about 13 kilograms per person, per year, and Sub-Saharan Africa is slightly higher than that.
If we think about India specifically, using the framework of urgency versus importance, we might conclude that it’s not very urgent for us to work there. People aren’t eating much meat right now. And even if you compare it with some of the other countries in which the Good Food Institute works, like China and Brazil, they’re currently eating far more meat than we are in India.
So does this mean that we should primarily focus our resources on developed or upper middle-income countries, as opposed to focusing on developing countries? I don’t think so. And the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations doesn’t think so either. Much of the growth in poultry demand over the next decade or so will come from places like India.
[Points to slide.] The red landmass in the center is India [the color red indicates growing demand for animal meat]. The only reason that Sub-Saharan Africa is not more red on this map is because [demand there is expected to grow] in the next decade, and perhaps incomes haven’t yet risen enough to meet the demand we expect.
How can we address this growing demand for animal-sourced food without [triggering] any attendant negative externalities? A theme that we touch upon a lot in India is the idea of leapfrogging, which is when newer technologies skip over or supplant older systems simply by virtue of being better.
This is a huge opportunity in a country like India. We don’t think it’s going to be [easy]; the infrastructure for animal-sourced foods is being installed as we speak. The industrialization of the supply chain is taking place right now. But over the next decade or decades, we may have an opportunity to create the systems and the capacity — the talent pool — for plant-based and cell-based meats, such that this new economy could overtake the industrial animal agriculture system.
What would it take in order to get there? There are several things that we can do. I’m going to focus on a few of them right now. Over the course of [the EA Global] conference, we’ve talked about fitting [our work] into countries’ current priorities, meeting governments where they are, and meeting people where they are. I think that’s going to be crucial, particularly in India. The work that we’ve done has been successful for that reason.
A lot of these countries — India, Indonesia, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa — are focused on transforming themselves internally in the coming decades. Many of the areas in which they’re focusing overlap with the work that the Good Food Institute and the plant-based and cell-based meat sectors [as a whole] do.
For example, when it comes to climate change, India has taken a leading role. They’ve been vocal about adhering to the sustainable development goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
In fact, in the same year that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the two biggest plant-based meat companies, won the UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth Awards, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, also won one for his vocal leadership on the Paris Agreement.
Additionally — and I don’t think this is going to come as a surprise to anyone — nutrition is a huge theme in India. It’s something that we have to focus on over the next decade.
We have some of the highest cohort rates of malnutrition, including iron-deficiency anemia and neural tube defects. If we’re going to fit into the context of these countries, we have to make food systems that clear the bar of nutrition, in addition to just the sensory bar and the affordability bar.
What that means for our sector is we have to ensure that we address this theme of protein-energy malnutrition that’s currently taking hold in these countries. We must produce sustainable, affordable protein that’s both good for the population’s nutrition, and good for the environment. And that’s something we’ve been quite successful with at the Good Food Institute: embedding our work within that context and framing it as crucial to the nutritional security of the country.
When it comes to nutrition security, I want to add a quick point: Food waste and food safety are huge issues in these countries. Something like 40% of all fruits and vegetables in India are wasted in the supply chain. We don’t really have a cold chain [i.e. temperature-controlled supply chain] infrastructure right now. It’s being developed.
When we talk about animal-sourced foods, the reception to the above slide is generally very warm, because people have not thought about the fact that when you grow nine calories of crops to feed a chicken in order to get one calorie out in the form of flesh, you’re competing against humans. And in places like India where population density is extremely high, you simply could not build up that system without terrible consequences.
In addition to creating messaging [that reflects] these key themes and aligning with key interests in these countries, what would we need to do to make sure that plant-based and cell-based foods take off?
This is an Impossible Burger. It’s made from plants. Because it’s made from plants, it uses 95% less land and 97% less water, and releases 87% less greenhouse gases. But this is a Western product. It was created because Americans are eating three burgers a week. I love America, but that’s just crazy for all sorts of reasons — for human health, for the environment, for animals.
[Will Impossible Burgers] be the hero category in India? I don’t know. India doesn’t have a highly homogenous eating culture like the U.S. We eat various types of foods that could emerge as a hero category. There are kabobs, biryani, and keema. What’s exciting is that the companies that emerge in these countries in the coming decades will have to do a lot of this work, and that’s going to create great interest in the sector [because of the opportunities created by competition].
Another opportunity is to focus on the raw materials (i.e., inputs) for plant-based meat.
I agree with this gentleman [Bill Gates] who says, when it comes to the inputs for the plant-based meat sector, “We’ve barely scratched the surface.” In India, we have pulses [dried legume seeds]. We have mung beans, which JUST is using to make [plant-based “scrambled eggs”]. We have different kinds of lentils. We have millets, which are a great indigenous crop that is highly sustainable.
We’re focusing on evaluating all of these crops and their value chains as possible inputs for plant-based meats, because that will lead to more innovation and, by extension, more variety for consumers, which is what matters.
The developing world can seriously contribute to this sector in another way. Cell-based meat, which comes from tissue engineering, has been expensive because it’s done at the scale of a lab. When you scale up cell-based meat and apply a food lens to it, it becomes cost-competitive and validates safety, which is how a food industry thrives.
Countries like India, which have a really good outsourcing ecosystem for industries like the biopharmaceutical industry, can play a great role in this process. The talent base exists for the biopharmaceutical industry in India and could be directly transferred to this work. We [at the Good Food Institute] go to colleges all the time and talk about how if someone’s doing work in an aligned area, they might consider the plant-based meat industry instead. This is a huge opportunity in countries like India, and could become an opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa as well.
The last opportunity I want to highlight is the opportunity to tap into much larger budgets.
The Good Food Institute received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to focus on evaluating some of the questions I outlined earlier with indigenous crops. We are creating an open-access nutrition database to evaluate the scientific data behind three types of millet and how they could be used as plant protein inputs. What’s interesting here is that the work we do aligns with so many different cause areas. [Our goals] overlap with those of some large foundations, even if the end products are different.
For example, the plant protein sector could be used to reformulate cookies or biscuits in India with millets and improve the nutritional status of those staple foods. The building blocks are exactly the same for [improving nutrition and reducing animal-sourced meats]. What we’ve been able to do is align those two goals and tap new funds.
We’ve also had some success with guiding investment from government. We were able to secure a grant in partnership with the Research Institute in Hyderabad. It is the largest grant ever made by any government in the world for research into cell-based meat.
We were also able to obtain a mandate from the Maharashtra government to build a research center focused on clean meat, which is also a first. That’s the kind of thing that gives me hope. When we meet with governments in countries like India, Singapore, and Indonesia, we realize that these newer markets for plant-based and cell-based meat are ripe for innovation.
When I talked to the premier policy think tank in India in March 2018, two weeks later, the CEO of the think tank wrote an op-ed in which he touted Impossible Foods as a truly transformational company.
The work that’s happening internationally has a home in developing countries because it aligns so deeply with a lot of the things that they care about. I think that we could have a serious effect on the way these countries eat — and, in doing so, on the way the entire food industry around the world sources its ingredients.
None of [these advances are] guaranteed. Progress is obviously not a natural law. We need as much talent and money as possible to go toward solving these pressing problems. But the work that we’ve been doing in India has made me insanely optimistic. I think that we can catalyze a leapfrogging of the animal agriculture industry in these countries. We can compete on the basis of things that matter to consumers, and in fact, out-compete animal agriculture. We just need a lot more help.
I’m hoping that some of the people in this room and anyone watching this video [or reading this transcript] will get in touch with us. We have jobs posted on our website. We’re hiring all across the world: in India, Greater China, Europe, Israel, Brazil, and in the United States. Thank you.
Moderator: People don’t seem to intuitively focus on India because it doesn’t have much of a meat-eating culture or habit thus far.
Varun: That’s interesting and I’d like to respond. The idea that India is a primarily vegetarian country is incorrect. It’s a bit of a misconception. With 71% of Indians self-identifying as non-vegetarian, religion is perhaps not influencing how people eat. As they become more and more wealthy, and they’re able to buy animal-sourced foods, my guess is that they will do so.
It’s also a secular shift. When people move to urban centers, they are uprooted from the family values that enforced those religious norms. We are seeing a trend toward increasing meat consumption, and that’s what the Good Food Institute is trying to address.
Moderator: Can you share how you expect meat alternatives to be adopted by the general public?
Varun: We did an interesting cross-cultural consumer acceptance study in India, China, and the U.S. We used Positly, which is [“aspiring effective altruist”] Luke Freeman’s tool. We were able to determine that, despite higher degrees of food neophobia, which is a fear of technology in food, and a lower degree of meat affinity, which is just an attachment to meat, India had a higher degree of acceptance for plant-based meat than China or the U.S. China had the highest degree of acceptance for cell-based meat, and India was second. So, there is definitely a feeling that some of these newer markets might offer an easier path to acceptance than they do in the U.S.
Moderator: What about other newer markets that, while they may be smaller, might be quite easy to enter for similar reasons?
Varun: Indonesia isn’t small. Its population will soon be [300 million]. I think that in a lot of these countries, people default to a flexitarian diet [i.e., mainly eat plant-based foods, with some animal-sourced foods in moderation]. In Indonesia or Vietnam, there are days like half-moon days, when people eat mock meats because they don’t want to eat meat on those days. It’s a natural fix to be able to switch out meat for plant-based meat, as long as it tastes the same and satisfies cultural criteria.
Moderator: Given that nutrition is a priority for India right now, how do you advocate for something like plant-based or clean meat, which isn’t a scalable, shelf-ready source of protein yet?
Varun: We need to apply the lens of nutrition to this problem from the get-go, and we’ve been doing that. When we talk to governments in these countries, we say, “Look, you care about affordable nutrition and supplying protein to everyone, and this is something that can be made shelf-stable right now, without preservatives. You don’t need a cold chain infrastructure to transport it from Mumbai to the most remote parts of the country.”
They’re really receptive to that. And oftentimes they have their nutrition representative chair these meetings, which is a really encouraging sign.
Moderator: In low- and middle-income countries where dietary diversity and achieving nutritional adequacy are particularly challenging, how are you thinking about the nutritional composition of plant-based meat alternatives as they compare to animal meats? Specifically, how do you consider things like protein quality, micronutrient composition, and bioavailability of these nutrients?
Varun: The Beyond Burger already has four times more iron than a regular beef burger. So when it comes to micronutrients, I think that everyone’s thinking about this problem. There are some incredibly smart people in this sector who are seeing around this corner.
I think that, from the perspective of both diet diversity and consumer choice, it’s really important to have an explosion of choices for consumers. When my mom walks into a supermarket two years down the line, she might not buy something that’s made from soy or wheat. But she’ll buy something that’s made from millet. That’s what we’re trying to catalyze.
Moderator: What do you think about the promise of mixed-meat alternatives — for example, a product that is half animal sourced meat and half plant-based meat?
Varun: It’s been happening increasingly in the U.S. It happens by default in places like India where people want to fool the consumer a little bit about what’s in their meat, so they mix in soy granules. That’s a cost-saving measure. We definitely would like to go for a full solution rather than a halfway solution, but anything that helps us get there [is a step forward].
Moderator: You mentioned that nutritional security is a particularly compelling argument in India. How much do you think you’d have to adapt the argument depending on the country that you’re trying to work in?
Varun: Building coalitions of support in each country is going to be crucial to success. Because factory farming is a central node that affects various cause areas, we can be agile with our messaging and fit into narratives everywhere. We are confident that we’d be able to do that regardless of which market we enter.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the narrative is also likely to center on nutrition security. In China, food safety is a huge issue. People want to know about the supply chain for their food. I can’t check each animal to determine whether there is a pathology or disease, but with cell-based meat — which is made directly from animal cells — I know exactly what’s going on inside the fermenter in which the meat is made. It’s a perfectly safe manufacturing system, which currently doesn’t exist in that market. So, whether it’s food safety or nutrition security, I think we’ll be able to plug into any of these narratives.
Moderator: That’s incredibly encouraging. And with that, I’d like to thank you for your talk.