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Views | Enhancing food security through alternative proteins

Views | Enhancing food security through alternative proteins
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By Ambika Hiranandani  Dec 14, 2022 8:12:15 AM IST (Updated)

India, because of its agricultural biodiversity and advanced biopharma sector, can be a market leader in alternative protein sector and as the chair of the G20 must build international collaboration to develop this solution.

Climate change has borne witness to the interconnectedness of our planet and the need for collective action for change. Two days before the commencement of India’s G20 Presidency, the World Bank released a report on investment opportunities in India’s cooling sector which warned that India could be one of the first places in the world to experience heat waves that break the human survivability limit. It went on to forecast that by 2030, India may account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses from heat stress associated productivity decline. This report makes India’s theme for its G20 presidency “One Earth, One Family, One Future” extremely relevant.

The G20 working group meeting in Mumbai, is amongst other issues, focusing on food and energy security. Food security has been a priority issue on the G20 agenda, and the climate crisis has and will only exacerbate this issue. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report highlighted the need to transform agri-food systems making them more resilient and providing sustainable nutritious diets globally. In 2021, an estimated 828 million people were affected by hunger, 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting and 16.3 percent of India’s population was undernourished. It cautions us that we are moving away rather than towards the 2030 zero hunger Sustainable Development Goal.
The world’s population is increasing and by 2050 is expected to reach 9.7 billion. Our food system is highly reliant on animal agriculture which harms the climate. We now produce more than 340 tonnes of meat annually; compared to 70 million tonnes of meat in the 1960s.
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock amount to 14.5 percent of total emissions and 44 percent are composed of methane. Over 20 years, methane’s global warming impact is 80 times that of carbon dioxide. Livestock accounts for 32 percent of human-caused methane emissions.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, reducing methane livestock-related emissions are critical. It is for this reason that COP26 saw the signing of the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) in which over 100 countries agreed to a 30 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030. At COP 27 150 countries endorsed the GMP and more than 50 countries developed national methane action plans. A GMP Food and Agricultural Policy which focuses on increasing innovation to combat methane emissions was also launched.
Alternative proteins (plant based and cultivated meat) provide an opportunity for us to push the needle on issues ranging from food security to climate change; much like renewable energy and electronic vehicles, they help us live the life we are used to sustainably. In the global north, it can help reduce GHG emissions from food consumption and in the global south can help bridge nutritional gaps. Plant based meats are made from plant-based raw materials; they taste, feel, and look like meat; however, are far more sustainable. Cultivated meat (CM) is made by taking a few animal cells which are then multiplied in a sterile facility. On a cellular level, it is the same as conventional meat. It has the nutritional value that meat would have without the negative externalities. For example, in ten years, if cultivated beef is prepared using renewable energy, it will emit 92 percent less GHGs than conventional beef available today.
The international plant-based food market is expected to grow to USD 77.8 billion by 2025 and USD 161.9 billion by 2030. The CM economy is expected to be worth USD 450 billion by 2040.
Governments around the world have, to varied extents, provided support to the alternative protein sector. Singapore, for example, has given regulatory approval for cultivated meat to be sold commercially. It has included alternative proteins to achieving their goal of meeting 30 percent of their nutritional needs locally by 2030. The island nation has launched a sustainable foods platform which helps companies fast track and scale their products and its holding company, Temasek, has invested more than USD 5 billion in agri-foods enterprises alternative proteins being a key area of focus. Last month, a cultivated meat company in the United States, Upside Foods, has been granted approval from the Food and Drug Administration for their lab grown chicken. Governments of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Qatar, and Canada have invested in and are supporting the development of these sectors nationally. However, a key missing piece of the puzzle is global intergovernmental cooperation.
India, because of its agricultural biodiversity and advanced biopharma sector, can be a market leader in this sector and as the chair of the G20 must build international collaboration to develop this solution. Greater research needs to be conducted on how climate hardy crops such as millets and pongamia seeds can be used as raw materials to develop such novel foods and empower vulnerable farming communities. Policy options ranging from creating a favourable regulatory framework, providing economic incentives such as tax breaks, developing grant schemes for research, building structures within the government that focus exclusively focus on the development of alternative proteins and leveraging the power of nudges to encourage consumption of these novel foods must be explored.
Start-ups are developing plant-based products such as kheema and chicken kebabs. While the government has expressed interest in the sector and grants for research have been made, a strategic interdepartmental cross sectoral effort is needed to align and enhance government programmes to develop a cost competitive local alternative protein ecosystem.
In 2021, global investment in renewables was set to rise to USD 1.9 trillion and in comparison, alternative protein companies raised USD 5 billion. While there is tremendous interest from private investors in this sector, government investment needs to be increased and global intergovernmental cooperation and support must be galvanised to effectively use this technology to feed the world nutritious food sustainably. It is the need of the hour and ought to feature on India’s national and the G20 agenda.
—The author Ambika Hiranandani is an alternative protein enthusiast and has just completed an MPhil in Public Policy from the University of Cambridge. 
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