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Inside India's foray into the lab-grown meat market

March 14, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#lab grown meat, #Sustainable Agriculture, #sustainable consumption, #food security, #India, #climate change
by:Rishabh Jain
With meat consumption on the rise in India, local experts and startups are increasingly turning to lab-grown meat to curb greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming.

The last few years have seen a growing interest around cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat, which is produced by culturing animal cells in a lab. This has also been the case in India - one of the world's largest meat consumers. 

According to data from the National Family Health Survey 5 by India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, close to 77 percent of India's population eats fish, chicken and other types of meat. The survey also discovered that 83 percent of men and 71 percent of women are non-vegetarians.

And as India's population continues to grow, so does its appetite for meat. Data provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-opeartion and Development states that chicken is the most sought after meat by Indians, with around 3.96 million tonnes of chicken consumed in the country in 2020 alone. This was followed by Buffalo, Sheep and Pork, of which roughly 1.05, 0.72, and 0.3 million tonnes were consumed, respectively, in the same year. 

This uptick in meat consumption been leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in India- specifically carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, all of which are major contributors to global warming.

According to a joint report by the Vasudha and Shakti foundations, Indian livestock is responsible for the annual emission of over 200 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Scientists and researchers are now looking for alternate sources of protein, one of which is culture meat.

As part of this effort, the animal advocacy organisation Humane Society International (HSI) India and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad have teamed up back in 2019 in order to advance 'clean' meat technologies while uniting regulators and start-ups under one roof.

At the launch of the project, CCMB director Rakesh Mishra said that "while technology exists to multiply literally any type of cell, including mammalian cells, the scaling up of the same in an economically affordable manner as a meat substitute remains a major challenge.

"There may also be cultural and social factors that will need to be addressed for this to be socially acceptable."

The project, which is the first government-sponsored initiative of its kind, is expected to produce its first lab-grown meat by 2025.

What is cultured meat?

Cultured meat, also commonly referred to as lab-grown meat, cell-based meat and slaughter-free meat, is an alternative to meat sourced from live animals.

According to NGO Good Food Institute (GFI), its production process involves generating genuine animal flesh, including shellfish and organ meats, by directly cultivating animal cells.

One benefit of this form of manufacturing that some experts point to is that it does away with the necessity to farm and raise animals for sustenance. Furthermore, as the cell types in cultured meat are the same or close to the ones existing in animal tissues, the sensory and nutrient profiles of traditional meat can be accurately reproduced.

According to Akshay Bhat, a sci-tech specialist at GFI India, animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to the ecological and climate crisis - accounting for three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which amounts to 14.5 percent of total emissions globally. This figure, incidentally, is larger than all forms of transport combined.

"India has the world’s largest cattle population at 535.78 million livestock, according to the 20th Livestock Census, 2019," Bhat told FairPlanet. "According to official data, livestock makes up 78 percent of the 24 million tonnes of India’s total methane emissions."

This rise in emissions has been linked to the increase in the number of livestock farms, the use of fertilizers and the intensive nature of the production process.

Bhat further added that a study titled ‘Ex-ante life cycle assessment of commercial-scale cultivated meat production’ had demonstrated cultivated meat’s potential to have a significantly lower environmental impact than conventional meat, for several environmental indicators.

It found that cultivated meat production leads to 92 percent less global warming and 93 percent less air pollution when compared to conventional meat production.

Additionally, lab-grown meat enterprises use up to 95 percent less land and 78 percent less water when renewable energy is used in production than conventional meat. Also, meat sourced directly from chicken cells will lead to 17 percent reduction in global warming and a 63 percent reduction in land use.

The Challenges ahead

India, however, is still in the initial stages of lab-grown meat production.

Ashwin Bhadri, CEO of Equinox Labs - a food, water and air testing lab in India, argued that the country's prominent biotechnology sector and thriving startup ecosystem could potentially support the development of cultured meat technology.

And while India itself has yet to fully develop the infrastructure and expertise necessary to produce lab-grown meat at scale, the alternative protein sector is being led by Indian minds worldwide.

"While a few Indian startups have shown interest in developing lab-grown meat, they are still in the early stages of research and development," Bhadri told FairPlanet. "Additionally, there are regulatory and safety concerns that need to be addressed before lab-grown meat can be produced and marketed in India."

He further added that the production of cultured meat involves several complex processes that require specialised equipment and facilities. These include bioreactors, cell lines and nutrient solutions, among others. Establishing such infrastructure can be a costly and time-consuming process.

But India is now taking steps to boost research and development infrastructure around meat cultivation. In its most recent budget plan, the government earmarked a whopping USD 163.61 billion (INR 16,361 Crore) to transform the country into the next bio-manufacturing hub of the world.

"As we funnel more investment towards R&D and infrastructure," said Chandana Tekkatte, a sci-tech Specialist at GFI India, "there’s no doubt that the cultivated meat sector can grow exponentially [in the country], providing a major innovation and manufacturing hub to the global landscape."

An additional challenge associated with cultivated meat is its high price. A recent Indian Supreme Court ruling delivered by Justices KM Joseph and JB Pardiwala stated that "In a country like India, meat is the affordable means of protein for the poor. That’s a reality."

The judgement further highlighted that even if cultivated meat may curb greenhouse gas emissions, its high cost will make it inaccessible to the poor. 

According to data provided by the World Bank, in 2019, 10.2 percent of Indians were projected to have been living below the international poverty level (earning less than USD 1.9 per day).

But as inventions are taking place - the price of lab-grown meat is gradually coming down. Mosa Meat, a company producing beef patties, has priced its cultured meat products it around $30 per pound. Meatballs from Memphis Meat, a 'clean meat' business founded by Indian-born cardiologist Dr Uma Valeti, cost roughly $1,300. Slaughtered meat, however, is still much cheaper in comparison. Chicken, for instance, costs $4 per kg on average, whereas mutton is estimated at around $10 per kg and at roughly $4.67 per kg.

That said, Bhat and Tekkatte believe that the cost of cultivated meat will most likely decline when production scales up.

"What is most encouraging with the scale-up principles of cultivated meat bio-manufacturing," they told FairPlanet, "is that the technology is mature, well-established, and has been proven [...] in different bioprocessing industries, such as fermentation, biopharmaceuticals and vaccine manufacturing."

As part of GFI India's National Mission for Smart Protein, the group has partnered with the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) Mumbai to establish the world’s first government research centre for the development of cultivated meat.

GFI India has also partnered with ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education (Mumbai) with the aim of establishing India’s first Smart Protein Innovation Hub on Cultivated Seafood.

As the purchasing power of people in India continues to rise and their desire for meat grows, it becomes imperative to explore sustainable meat alternatives that will help the country achieve its net-zero emissions target by 2070. But it remains to be seen whether India will successfully capitalise on its nascent artificial meat market.

Picture by Trnava University

Article written by:
Rishabh Jain
Embed from Getty Images
As India's population continues to grow, so does its appetite for meat, which has led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Embed from Getty Images
While a few Indian startups have shown interest in developing lab-grown meat, they are still in the early stages of research and development.