Editor’s Note: Yanniv is an investment associate at AgFunder.
GFI India is part of The Good Food Institute’s strategy to expand their footprint around the world. GFI is a non-profit that promotes plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs, and cell-grown meat as alternatives to the products of conventional animal agriculture.
Outside of India, the GFI already has regional offices in Brazil, Asia Pacific (Hong Kong), Israel, and Europe (London and Brussels). Varun Deshpande became the managing director for GFI India in December 2017 which also made him the first GFI India employee. During his first year, Varun was the sole employee in India and was mostly focused on engaging with the government and scientists. There are now eight employees in Mumbai.
Deshpande joined GFI out of a belief in ‘effective altruism,’ a philosophy that entails identifying the most important causes in the world and then directing resources towards them. For him, factory farming is one of the highest impact cause areas that can be worked on, especially because of his conviction that we’ve now reached a point in history when there is finally a tractable solution.
I spoke with Deshpande on the sidelines of the Good Food Conference 2019 in San Francisco today just before his panel discussion entitled “The “Why”: Mitigating Environmental and Public Health Risks” to find out more about GFI India. Expect an announcement of GFI’s first conference in India co-organized with the Humane Society International soon!
YD: Why did the GFI expand to India?
VD: As you may already know, a lot of the work we do at GFI is underpinned by the question of how we are going to feed 10 billion people globally by 2050 through means that don’t have as many negative externalities, especially when it comes to the environment, scarce natural resources, public health and animal welfare. This work is particularly important in the context of Asia and Africa that account for 80% of the world’s population. You have all these people with rising incomes that are craving and demanding more animal-sourced foods. These products are actually oftentimes seen as a “prestige” foods in those regions. As people come out of poverty, this is going to create a significant challenge when it comes to sustainability or antimicrobial resistance. My job is centered around the unique context of India. That being said, the work we are doing there actually presents an opportunity to create a model for other low- and middle-income regions like Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
YD: When it comes to alternatives to animal products, how are consumer demands evolving in India?
VD: India has the largest vegetarian population of any country in the world. However, over 70% of the population identify as non-vegetarians (eggs are not considered vegetarian in India). This shows that religion stricture is not as strong as we think it is when it comes to eating animal-sourced foods. Overtime, all the projections indicate that the demand for animal products is going to come from regions like India, China, and eventually Sub-Saharan Africa. With respect to the demand for cell-based meat and plant-based foods, we definitely see that there is going to be an uptake in opportunity to plug this demand in ways that don’t require installing infrastructure for animal agriculture as it exists in the West. The challenge is that the infrastructure and supply chains are actually being built right now as we speak. So, there’s definitely a sense of urgency. We believe that we can actually leapfrog the industrial animal agriculture, and as the demand for animal products is growing, we can grow our sector as well, by presenting alternatives to both consumers and producers.
YD: In the US we saw that most products are products like burgers, sausages, and meatballs. Do you believe that there will be a different portfolio of products in India?
VD: As a business opportunity, the US is quite unique, because the eating culture is rather homogenous. In places like India, the “hero” categories, are going to be more diverse. We are talking about kebabs, keema, biryani. What we’ve seen with companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat is that they are not going into these countries and telling them what to eat. They are trying to localize by understanding what people are eating by employing different strategies such as working with chefs and figuring out local flavor palates.
YD: Do you see an evolution of the startup world and foodtech industry in India?
VD: India is definitely a growth story when it comes to entrepreneurship. But of course, there is a gap in terms of technical talent and the funding ecosystem. With respect to the opportunities for entrepreneurship in India, it might evolve a little bit differently. On the cell-based side, instead of having entrepreneurs start from scratch, we might look at leveraging the immense talent and investment that is going into the biopharmaceutical industry. On the plant-based side, there is a huge advantage when it comes to the agricultural biodiversity. In India, we have great indigenous crops that are inherently more sustainable. I like to call them “triple bottom line” crops because they can be more nutritious, good for the planet, and for people, especially the farmers that grow them. We can look at creating new value chains that diversify the raw material for the entire sector. Why should it only be soy, wheat, or pea?
YD: What kind of actions does GFI take in India?
VD: We’ve been focusing on scientific and government engagement to build a platform for this. We’ve already had substantial success there. We have a mandate from the government of India to set up a research center focused on scaling up cell-based meat. It’s actually the first government-mandated center that focuses entirely on cell-based meat anywhere in the world. The government also gave a grant of about $640,000 for a cell-based meat research project focusing on mutton which is somewhat neglected currently in the cell-based meat sector, even though it’s a very widely consumed meat, especially by Muslims in the Middle East and in India. On the market side, we are going to concentrate on engaging large corporations to help them create these value chains I talked about earlier. We are also looking into creating a very applied research consortium that can spin-out companies and products really quickly. I think that’s an incredibly exciting time because all the stakeholders across government, foundations, large corporations, entrepreneurs, and investors are very interested in this sector.
Image: Varun Deshpande speaking at Good Food Conference 2019.