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 effec­tivealtru­

The Talk

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.

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