India, a majority Hindu country, is home to the world’s largest number of vegetarians. Despite majorities of people in other Asian countries large and small – such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sir Lanka, and tiny Bhutan – espousing some version of Buddhism, and despite Buddhism generally promoting a vegetarian diet, only small percentages of the populations of those nations are vegetarian. In Thailand, according to one estimate, the figure may be as low as 4%. Buddhist and Hindu dietary traditions aren’t alone. The Protestant Christian denomination known as the Seventh-Day Adventists, with about 18 million adherents, preaches that church members should follow “a well-balanced vegetarian diet that avoids the consumption of meat.” Hinduism, in fact, does not demand the abstention of meat. And yet, anywhere from 23% to 37% of India is thought to mostly refrain from meat-eating. Things are not black and white, however. The state of Haryana may be over 80% vegetarian, while in Assam, the number is likely below 10%. India, however, does have much it can share with the world regarding tolerance for various diets (which are sometimes in complete opposition) and in the promotion of meat-free options – in 2012, McDonald’s in India was the first to offer a completely vegetarian fast-food vegan restaurant that can serve both Hindus – for whom many cows are sacred – and Muslims – for whom many pigs are unclean and prohibited.
Choice and options are the keys to food harmony in India. But until quite recently, in much of Western Europe and North America, finding tasty choice options for vegans and vegetarians was sometimes difficult. As the numbers of non-meat-eaters – more often than not younger, environmentally conscious, and socially aware people – grew in the West, the last few decades have seen significant developments in new plant-based meat options. The advancements have become profound. Companies are mimicking the tastes, smells, and textures of meat to an impressive degree. Using artificial intelligence and 3D printing, ‘alternative steak’ is now a reality… a product made from 100% all-natural, meat-free ingredients. One cannot say with certainty whether something that tastes and smells like beef, but is completely plant-based would ever win over certain groups of Hindus, or if a faux version of bacon would even make it to the plates of many Muslims – but we’d guess the answer is no. But, what about a young person in Delhi or Bihar? That is harder to predict.
Aside from religious beliefs or deeply-rooted cultural traditions, what motivation would a company have for making new meat that looks like, tastes like, and even “cooks” like meat? The answer lies in sustainability. Factory farming of animals for food is an industry that’s already past its expiration date. We can’t keep tearing up forests to plant soybeans to feed livestock and we can’t afford to use anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 liters of water so that a few people can enjoy some slabs of steak. Vegetarianism in India is a special case. The result of long cultural and religious traditions stretching back centuries and – let’s face it – poverty as well. A Hindu, Buddhist, Christian (or atheist for that matter) who is committed to vegetarianism may not be all that enthusiastic about high-tech ‘alternative eat’ products, as they’ve long ago transitioned to a plant-based diet or have not eaten meat since birth. But such people – even in the global champion of India – are not the majority. The majority in every nation on earth likes the taste, smell, and ‘mouthfeel’ of meat. This is why meat substitutes that provide these desires are so important. They offer a pathway into a meat-free future that doesn’t require too much initial sacrifice – which time and again has been proven to nudge people toward change more effectively than anything else.
Take electric scooters as an example. They’ve been around a long time and yet only a tiny fraction of motorcycles in India and Thailand run on batteries. Over in Taiwan, which has been making motorcycles and scooters since the 1960s or earlier, there are now some 430,000 e-scooters zipping about the streets and the island has become a leader in e-scootering. In 2020, 10% of all scooters sold in Taiwan were powered by batteries. How did they do it? By building a strong infrastructure network so that no one who chooses to buy an e-scooter ever has to fear running out of juice on the way to work. It took some effort, but today in Taiwan riders can stop at one of several thousand designated depots, some located at convenience stores such as 7-11, to swap out batteries for their e-bike. Huge changes that bring huge benefits to the planet – such as the reduction of meat consumption – are possible. But like Taiwan’s e-scooters, the change needs to be made as easy as possible and cannot result in a significant reduction in life quality or satisfaction. High-tech meat substitutes have the potential to be this type of agent of change in the food industry.
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