Shreya Swaminath and Lakshmi Venkataraman
The plant-based food movement is no longer the purview of India’s niche – animal lovers and environmentalists. Especially over the past 5 years, it has occupied a central place amongst the trends revolutionising the food industry. In other words, India’s plant-based food industry is surging.
Why might someone be interested in plant-based food at all? The animal agriculture industry has had a devastating impact on the environment. It constitutes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the entire transportation industry combined – making it one of the leading contributors to climate change. The livestock industry today routinely pollutes the land and water of local communities – with animal waste, and aerosols. The use of antibiotics as growth hormones in farm animals is responsible for the worrisome increase in antibiotic resistance in the Indian population. In 2017-18, in India alone, around 2.7 billion farm animals were slaughtered, after being raised in unhygienic, intensively confined spaces with little room for movement, leave alone allowing them to express their natural behaviors. Finally, while the world struggles under the impact of COVID-19, the next pandemic could well germinate from a factory farm.
Plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs are significantly better for the environment, our health and animal welfare. These alternatives have been found to require 47% – 99% less land, 72% – 99% less water, and emit 30% – 90% less greenhouse gas emissions – when compared with their animal-origin counterparts. Whole foods, and plant-based diets have been found to reduce the incidence of major lifestyle diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Lastly, plant-based alternatives circumvent the need for animal farming entirely, and thus score high on animal welfare.
The global alternative proteins sector is seeing unprecedented growth in terms of investment, and research and development opportunities. Till 2021 we have seen a whopping USD 6.36 billion raised by alternative protein companies. From low-tech solutions like milling, pounding and soaking, to high-tech solutions like extrusion and fermentation, plant-based businesses provide an abundance of choices for consumers and opportunities for keen-eyed investors alike.
Some of the world’s most well-known philanthropists, like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and even the largest players of traditional animal-based protein – Tyson Foods, Cargill Foods, Maple Leaf Foods and more, are investing in alternatives. Driven by consumer demand, several plant-based companies such as JUST, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have emerged around the world. These companies are transforming global perspectives towards alternatives to animal products. Additionally, corporations such as Nestle and Unilever are expanding their portfolio to include these alternatives. According to Research and Markets, the global market share of plant-based foods is projected to reach $95.52 billion by 2029, with a CAGR of 12.4%.
It is clear that plant-based businesses are paving the way towards shifting away from resource-intensive, inhumane, animal-dependent practices, towards sustainable, new-age alternatives.
What does the Indian plant-based ecosystem look like?
India is noted as a primarily vegetarian country, and is seen as one of the world’s largest producers of milk. However, research suggests that the vegetarian population of India is at best 31%. This means that about 91 crore people in India consume some form of meat. However, the per capita consumption of meat is around 4.4 kilograms, the second lowest in the world, according to the FAO. Recent studies also show that almost 60% – 65% of the Indian population is lactose intolerant. This means that India has a large flexitarian market, with a growing need for meat and dairy alternatives. With 62% of Indians reporting a high likelihood of purchasing plant-based meat, it is clear that plant-based businesses have a large market to tap into.
Many startups in India are capitalising on this large untapped market and growing consumer awareness by customising alternatives to suit the local tastes of the Indian consumer. GoodDot, Vezlay, Mister Veg Corporation and ProMeat for plant-based chicken and mutton curry, keema, biryani and more, Soft Spot, Live Yum, Katharos and Urban platter for plant-based cheese, butter and cream, PlantMade, EVO Foods and Plantish for plant-based eggs, and Sofit, OneGood, Oatey, Made From Plants and Raw Pressery for soy, almond and cashew milks – are just some of the names in India’s nascent but fast-growing alternatives industry. Imagine Meat, a plant-based meat start-up, and the brainchild of Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh, is the first offering by Bollywood celebrities to this industry. Even start-ups like Epigamia that offer traditional dairy products are foraying into the plant-based space by launching dairy-free alternatives. These products are rapidly competing with their animal-origin counterparts on taste, affordability and accessibility.
Indian investors are yet to deeply invest in plant-based businesses. However, with the proven success of plant-based companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and JUST, venture capitalists from around the world are being drawn to the potential of the Indian plant-based ecosystem. Venture capital firm Big Idea Ventures and retail financial services company Ashika Group have partnered to launch a joint investment fund and accelerator to support the Indian alternative protein ecosystem. They have targeted raising USD 25 million and will begin to opened applications for the fund in 2021. These kinds of partnerships are indicative of the interest that is being generated in the Indian plant-based ecosystem.
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