It’s pretty much the only thing on people’s minds these days. The novel coronavirus has swept the world and left it reeling. With over 3 Bn humans under lockdown, a microscopic organism has brought everything to a standstill.
But how did it start? According to Chinese health authorities, the root cause of the virus is still unknown, yet it is likely that the virus first originated in a live wild animals market in China’s Wuhan city in Hubei province. Now it may seem like markets such as these are rare, but they are a critical part of the Chinese food supply chain and an estimated $70 Bn industry. The current theory is that the coronavirus — the common term for a group of related viruses — which occurs naturally in bats was passed on to a pangolin, where it mutated and became what we know as the ‘novel’ coronavirus or nCov, causing the Covid-19 pandemic.
While China has recently passed yet another law to ban such live markets for food consumption, the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown light on the consumption of animals. Vegetarianism is not new by any stretch of the imagination. But every few years, viruses — particularly, coronaviruses — bring back the global attention to the consumption of meat and towards vegetarianism.
India, of course, is a peculiar country, in that it is a largely vegetarian population by culture, and not as a choice. India has contributed more to vegetarianism than any other culture.
According to estimates, over 30% of Indians are vegetarians. India is followed by Switzerland and Israel which have around 13% population of vegetarians.
But more and more people everywhere are questioning meat consumption in light of Covid-19 and other diseases such as swine flu (H1N1) and avian flu (H5N1). With supply chains already hampered due to travel and import restrictions, the meat and poultry industry has been impacted severely. Further, reports about the origin of the virus also gave rise to rumours and fake claims that eating meat is the root cause of coronavirus.
India’s meat and poultry industry have also braved the impact of the pandemic. Poultry prices fell sharply after news of Covid-19 hit mainstream media in early March. With demand low, will coronavirus change how India consumes meat? And will this crisis bring meat alternatives such as mock meat, plant and cell-based meat into the mainstream discussion?
The History Of Vegetarian Meat
Let’s face it, to replace meat or the feeling of eating meat, vegetarians have been calling various things mock meat for years. But in the modern day-and-age, meat alternatives are created in labs and with a lot more precision than just chucking together a bunch of beans.
In 2013, a Dutch pharmacologist Dr Mark Post unveiled the world’s first slaughter-free hamburger to a packed conference in London after years of research at the Maastricht University. It cost €250K to develop and was funded in part by Google and Alphabet cofounder Sergey Brin.
At that time, not many would have thought that Post’s creation would change the dialogue in the global food community, forget about actually becoming a billion-dollar industry by itself.
Call it whatever you like — meat substitute, mock meat, clean meat, lab meat, veg meat or culture meat — this is big business.
What began as a trend in the US and Europe before trickling down to Southeast Asia and has now gradually started found roots in India, a land of multicultural cuisines and one where over 70% of the population are meat-eaters.
Ideally, mock-meat or meat substitutes are edible products which have the same texture and taste as that of real meat. In short, it’s a duplicate of a meat product but comes without the guilt of killing an animal. However, while Post’s meat patty looked more or less similar to the real one, it tasted bland, as claimed by Josh Schonwald, author of Taste of Tomorrow. Schonwald added that only the density of the meat was familiar to the real deal. It is worth noting that Post had cultivated that meat in a private lab with a small team.
After Post’s creation was revealed, the food community and serious culinary experts were intrigued by the prospect of building on this. Post and entrepreneur Peter Verstrate founded Mosa Meat, a startup that is currently working to develop a better cell-based meat alternative. They weren’t the only ones. Startups from the US, Europe, Israel, China and even India began experimenting with ways to make meat in the lab. Everyone has just one goal — to produce more real meat-like texture and taste and reduce the toll on the environment and ecology from large-scale meat and poultry rearing and production.
According to a report, the meat-substitute industry is expected to reach $8.1 Bn by 2026. Although one of the first companies to enter the market, Mosa Meat is not the most prominent in this regard. The global appeal for alternative meat is down to the success of startups such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Together, these two companies have raised over $1 Bn in external funding.
Impossible Food entered the mainstream in a major way with a partnership with Burger King. The California-based company has raised around $122 Mn funding from investors such as Cleveland Avenue and Obvious Ventures. In March, it confirmed raising $500 Mn in its latest round of funding.
On the other hand, Beyond Meat recently made headlines for making an entry on the red carpet of the 92nd Academy Awards in February. Founded by Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat is arguably the most funded startup in the meat alternative industry. With over $600 Mn in funding, Beyond Meat is also the first alternative meat startup to launch an initial public offering (IPO) on May 2, 2019.
Taking cues from their global counterparts, more than a few Indian startups have also started taking baby steps and creating a market of their own. The list includes startups like Udaipur-based GoodDot, Delhi-based ClearMeat, among others looking to cash in on the first-mover advantage in the long term, considering hawk-eyed global food companies and their funding velocity.
As the trend seems to be gaining ground among Indian food connoisseurs, vegetarians, vegans and those practising cruelty-free lifestyles, we decided to take a peek behind the curtains of this industry along with their competition i.e. the meat industry. Can India, which boasts hundreds of culinary traditions, add alternative meat to its thali?
In addition to tackling the cruelty involved, mock-meats are also washing away various other black spots attached to the meat industry. From being a major contributor to air pollution, the meat industry is also responsible for exploiting certain natural and man-made resources.
Time To Cut Meat From The Diet?
Based on these numbers, one thing is quite clear that the industry is left with no choice but to shift to meat alternatives. Varun Deshpande is the managing director, Good Foods Institute (GFI) India a global network of nonprofits working to catalyse the shift to mock meat. He believes that it’s high time the change happens.
“All of these messages have been in our face for the last decades. But what this industry is doing is giving consumers the ability to switch away without feeling like a sacrifice.”
Kartik Dixit, cofounder of Evo Foods, also had high hopes from the industry. Dixit claims the nutritional benefits of mock products will naturally convince consumers. The Mumbai-based startup is banking on plant-based substitutes to make alternative meat, one of the many methods used by companies today.
But let’s examine the health benefits closely. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper has 30 calories less than the meat Whopper, lower fat content up to six grams, and absolutely no trans fat. These numbers are almost the same for most of the plant-based meat or even better in some cases.
However, Dixit wasn’t shy about accepting the fact that sodium content is higher in mock meat products. High sodium intake is associated with increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and other cardiovascular ailments.
Abhishek Sinha, cofounder of plant-based meat maker GoodDot, also admitted that some challenges need to be solved from the point of view of balanced intake. Sinha claimed that GoodDot products have six times more fibre than real meat with no cholesterol.
But even while one might debate the health benefits in the long run, the environmental benefits are hard to argue against. A 2010 study of the water footprint for meat production estimated that vegetables had a footprint of about 322 Litres per Kg (L/Kg) and fruits had 962 L/Kg. This pales in comparison to chicken which had a massive 4,325 L/Kg, pork at 5,988 L/Kg, lamb or goat meat at 8,763 L/Kg, and beef at a staggering 15,415 L/Kg. Some non-meat products were also pretty eye-watering: nuts came in at 9,063l/kg.
With decreasing groundwater levels in many parts of the world, such high water consumption surely raises a few alarms in the minds of those who are looking very minutely at climate change and the ecological impact of food production.
Startups are deploying two ways to manufacture mock meat — plant-based and cell-based techniques. As the name signifies, plant-based meat is extracted from plant proteins while cell-based from animal cells. The manufacturing process is completely different for both.
The Meat From A Plant
GoodDot manufactures meat alternatives by using plant proteins extracted from wheat, soy, peas and moong. Under the right conditions of pressure and temperature, proteins are denatured from plants. The proteins are then further mixed in with binders, edible colours, water and additional flavours which gives it the taste and look of meat. After this process, meat dough is produced, which is the most challenging part.
“If you see a wheat dough, it gets stretched in different directions. However, meat products are cut in layers. The breaking and realignment of bonds in plant proteins and relayering them into meat-like fibres is the critical component,” Sinha added.
Growing Meat From A Cell
The more modern approach is using cell cultivation or cell culture technology to grow meat in vats or labs. Under this process, animal cells are grown under laboratory conditions. These cells are taken from the animals through a syringe and then are fed in a lab which grows into meat.
Animal cells are fed with a growth medium, a solution that promotes tissue growth. It is then placed in a bioreactor for the cell culture. Cell or tissue culture is used in medical treatments as well.
In the bioreactor, animal cells usually grow in two-dimensions only. To overcome this and provide the meat with its 3D shape, a scaffold is used, said Evo Foods’ Dixit, who had earlier founded Clean Meat for cell-based meat alternatives, but later founded the plant-based Evo Foods. A scaffold is generally made up of starch which expands when the cells start to grow on it.
“The scaffold helps this cell culture get a structure. It’s actually quite similar to constructing a building,”
Passing The Market Test
Since cell-based mock meat products are still in the R&D phase and are yet to hit the market at scale, plant-based mock meat is the only choice consumers have. As US-based venture capitalist Peter Thiel says, “If you get a creative monopoly for inventing something new, I think it’s symptomatic of having created something really valuable.”
Plant-based mock meat players are cashing in on this opportunity in every way possible.
According to a survey by the GFI, Indians are more likely to try plant-based meat products. It added that 62.8% were very or extremely likely to purchase plant-based meat. Interestingly, this number for China and the US stood at 64.2% and 32.9% which indicates that Indians are more likely to eat meat substitutes.
Sinha claimed that GoodDot alone is selling over 15K plant-based mock meat products at INR 540 per Kg on a daily basis, as against INR 700 to INR 800 per Kg for real meat. Its primary consumers are meat-eaters who want to cut down or eliminate meat from their diet for health reasons or even for the ecology.
“Indian consumers have been receiving our products very well. The products are especially popular in the meat-eating population of eastern and southern India. We expect these products to become mainstream in India before the end of 2021,” Sinha added.
Besides consumer acceptance, creating market reach is another hurdle. As Dixit indicated, once the product is out of the R&D phase, it will take at least two-three years to create a market positioning. Not to forget the competition they will have to face from plant-based meat-manufacturing companies such as GoodDot, who will be reaping their first-mover advantage.
“A nod from food regulatory bodies will become the next challenge for cell-based meat manufacturers,” Dixit added.
Another hurdle which is delaying the launch of cell-based meat in the market is the lack of peer research. As Dixit pointed out, research in this area is highly prized and as such not released in the public domain. Globally, cell-based meat products are expected to hit the market by 2022, but keeping in mind the current pace of development it may take up to 2025 in the Indian market.
The advancements in the meat substitutes industry have also attracted the attention of online meat delivery companies. Speaking to Inc42, FreshToHome’s cofounder and CEO Shan Kadavil said that plant-based meat has the potential to alter the course of the meat industry.
He added that FreshToHome is also planning to sell meat substitute products on the online platform. “We are actively studying the market and also talking to a few of the innovators but have not yet finalised any plans yet,” he added.
Passing The Taste Test
With India’s diversity even in meat consumption, the opportunities are significantly large in the market. “We’re not talking about only burgers in this country. There will be more mock meat products and the consumption of this food will increase significantly,” GFI’s Deshpande said.
But are Indian startups and entrepreneurs ready to grab this challenge? In India, GFI is working closely with the government and venture catalysts to promote meat alternatives which are healthier and better for the environment. For instance, the organisation organises GFIdeas India webinar where entrepreneurs, investors, scientists and corporates participate to push India’s mock meat industry forward.
At the first GFIdeas India webinar, conducted recently, Big Idea Ventures’ (BIV) Andrew Ive announced the final close of a fund to invest in alternative meat manufacturing startups. Singapore-based Temasek is a major investor in the fund. Through its first New Protein Fund, Big Idea Ventures is looking to make Pre-seed to Series A investments in the plant-based, cultured and alternative proteins space.
US-based AgFunder also runs multiple funds which invest in alternative-meat startups. The venture capital company also runs a Grow Asia Fund to promote the concept of alternative-meat in Asian countries such as India.
With these funds in place, many entrepreneurs in India are now also eyeing the sector closely. But what does it take to establish plant-based or animal-based mock meat manufacturing?
According to Dixit, the cost of installing a plant-based meat manufacturing unit is roughly around INR 1 Cr to INR 5 Cr. He also told us that Austria-based Böhler can help startups with the right equipment to start with. For cell-based meat manufacturing unit, a manufacturing unit at scale is yet to be set up by any of the players either in India or globally. So, it is currently difficult to estimate how much cost is required to set up such a facility.
Moreover, when it comes to regulations, obtaining licenses from authorities is much easier for plant-based meat manufacturers, since this has been around for years. They’ll need to obtain the same license, from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which are required for FMCG food products.
On what could be the drivers of the mock meat industry in India, Sinha and Dixit said that taste, price and convenience will determine the demand in India. The products need to be really close to the real meat in terms of taste and they also need to be affordable and not too expensive. Dixit further added that companies need to manufacture India-focussed products that fit the cuisine and culinary traditions that have existed in the country for centuries.