Food occupies an important place in our lives. It nourishes us, gives us comfort, heals us, reminds us of home, invokes feelings of love, is an outlet for our creativity and brings us together. Unfortunately, our food system is facing monumental challenges. Feeding about 10 billion people by 2050 with our current agricultural practices is almost impossible.
Our current food system puts undue pressure on our resources. This point hit home when we watched the Amazon rainforest burn mainly as a result of action by cattle ranchers and loggers. Ranchers set fire to the forests so that they can be used for cattle grazing. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of the destruction of the Amazon. In India too, our forests are being overgrazed by buffaloes and goats which are used for dairy or meat. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions from the meat industry are high.
Problems of the meat industry
Our food system is extremely inefficient as we feed grains to cows, goats and chickens and then eat the animals. So, in essence, for every 9 calories of food fed to a chicken we get 1 calorie back. Despite efforts, 34.7% of Indian children suffer malnutrition. The inefficiency doesn’t end there. The meat industry wastes a tremendous amount of water too — about one-third of the world’s water consumption is for producing animal products. Niti Aayog has predicted that 21 major cities including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad are going to hit zero groundwater levels by 2020. Antibiotics are used in livestock and poultry feed. The World Health Organization has said that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. Perhaps the greatest casualty of the meat industry are the animals which are crammed into farms, face extreme cruelty during their lives and are inhumanely slaughtered.
As our incomes rise, meat consumption will increase and the pressure on our resources will augment. Despite the increased meat production, we will continue to be a food-insecure nation.
However, like with all quagmires, the human mind has found a solution, which is to increase the production of healthy and nutritious plant-based meat and innovate the technology to manufacture “cultivated meat”, also called clean meat. Clean meat is grown in a lab from a small sample of cells taken from an animal. Both plant-based meat and clean meat are free of the negative externalities that animal meat production is responsible for, such as climate change. It is also healthier as it is free of antibiotics. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the biggest companies in this sector. Beyond Meat makes burgers from pea protein and had an extremely successful IPO this year when it listed on the NASDAQ. The Indian company Good Dot has just opened six eateries in Mumbai and makes everything from a burger to plant-based kheema pav. The world’s first cell-based meat company, Memphis Meats, has been co-founded by Uma Valeti, a Mayo Clinic-trained cardiologist from Vijayawada. Visionaries such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson have invested in Memphis Meats. Globally, the Netherlands, the U.S., Israel, Japan and Singapore are developing both plant-based and clean meat.
India’s population can benefit from making plant-based and clean meat available. India is uniquely poised to be a leader in this sector as crops such as millets, ragi, pulses and chickpeas which grow here are ideal raw ingredients for plant-based meats. Furthermore, it has envisioned the world’s first centre of excellence for clean meat. This sector can alleviate the climate impact of the meat industry, augment farmers’ incomes, combat malnutrition and spare the lives of billions of animals. It is time we as a people support it and encourage it to flourish.
Ambika Hiranandani is a lawyer, environmentalist and animal rights activist who works with The Good Food Institute