Will lab-grown meat find takers in India?

While India does not have a big market for cultured meat, its strong base in biotechnology can help it achieve growth in this sector and feed the world, say researchers and startups

Updated - July 10, 2023 08:54 am IST

Published - July 07, 2023 10:30 am IST

Lab meat or cultivated meat is made by extracting a small sample of cells from an animal and allowing these cells to grow and proliferate in a bioreactor, a closed vessel that offers a sterile, nutrient-dense environment. 

Lab meat or cultivated meat is made by extracting a small sample of cells from an animal and allowing these cells to grow and proliferate in a bioreactor, a closed vessel that offers a sterile, nutrient-dense environment.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In 1964, British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story titled ‘The Food of the Gods’, set in a world where any sort of food, including meat, could be created using technology. Little more than half a century later, the idea of human-engineered meat is no longer something out of speculative fiction.

On July 1, California-based food technology startup Upside Foods partnered with a Michelin-starred restaurant, Bar Crenn in San Francisco, to serve cultivated chicken to diners for the first time. 

This came close on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granting approval last month to Upside Foods and another brand, Good Meat, to start producing and selling chicken made in a lab. Meanwhile, Australian cell-based meat company Vow Food has just made a bid to the Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) to sell lab-grown quail. 

Expected to grow into a $1.99 billion industry by 2035, cultivated meat, also called cultured or lab-grown meat, is not exactly new science. The technology behind this has already been used for decades in the pharmaceutical industry, a vital aspect of cancer research, vaccine development, drug screening and virology. “We always have viable solutions to be able to create alternative protein solutions that go beyond animals. It was about aligning the technology to this particular goal,” says Bengaluru-based chef-entrepreneur Manu Chandra. “I think one needs to look at it through a prism of long-term sustainability rather than an instant trend that starts and then fades away.”

Over 100 players globally

Though the number of startups and ventures in the cultivated meat space has gone up to over 100 globally, it has taken off to a slow start in India. But industry players believe this trend will change with more investment and awareness. “Even if we are not primary consumers of this product, there will be worldwide demand. We can look at it as a biotechnology-based economic growth driver and as a way of feeding the world,” says Bharath Bakaraju of Phyx44 Private Limited, a Bengaluru-based company that is working on creating milk through precision fermentation. “We have proved to be very good at biotechnology. Over 50% of the world’s vaccines are produced here.”

N. Madhusudhana Rao, CEO of Atal Incubation Centre, CCMB, Hyderabad, where the country’s first research on cell-based meat was conducted in 2019, agrees that the country has the talent needed to jump on the cultivated meat bandwagon. “We are competent to do it if there is sufficient support,” he says, adding that it is required with the steady rise in demand for meat in India. 

The global demand for poultry alone is projected to increase 850% by 2040, according to Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit think tank and international network of organisations working to accelerate alternative protein innovation. Building future food systems that will ensure an adequate supply of this protein is therefore very important, says Radhika Ramesh, policy specialist, GFI India. “That is where smart protein comes in,” she says.

Bengaluru-based nutritionist Anju Sood too thinks it is a good idea. Most Indian meals are unbalanced, starch-heavy and lack enough protein, so having better, cleaner protein options in the market is a positive thing, she says. The only thing Sood worries about is whether cultivated meat will be accepted by the Indian consumer. “Let it come to the market first, and then we will see.”

Sustainably produced

Cultivated meat is made by extracting a small sample of cells from an animal and allowing these cells to grow and proliferate in a bioreactor, a closed vessel that offers a sterile, nutrient-dense environment. 

The vision of proponents of this technology is of rows of bioreactors, which require far less land and water, and offer clean, sustainably produced, cruelty-free meat. “Animal cell cultures are very self-regulating. They will not grow well or at all, in some cases, if there is any contaminant. This lends well to quality control,” says Shubhankar Takle, co-founder of MyoWorks Private Limited, a Mumbai-based organisation that is working on making scaffolds (growth medium) for cultivated meat out of mycelium, the filamentous, vegetative part of a fungus.

Cost and acceptance

Not surprisingly, there continues to be scepticism around lab-grown meat, some of it very justified. “It is a very good development. But will they be able to scale it? And will there be market acceptance?” asks Shashi Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Akshayakalpa Organic, a farmer entrepreneurship initiative based in Bengaluru. “People have a lot of doubts. If there is no market acceptance, this will die.”

There are also some practical considerations, which will need time, further research, and a few breakthroughs before cultivated meat can go mainstream. For starters, despite having come down considerably in price since it was first unveiled in 2013, it is still more expensive than regular meat because it is made using techniques derived from the biopharmaceutical industry. “I don’t think price parity will be a problem down the line,” says Subramani Ramachandrappa of Fermbox Bio, a synthetic biology company focused on sustainable manufacturing of alternative biomaterials to replace animal-derived or forest-derived products. “Ten years ago, the cost of producing a pound of cultivated meat was about $1,50,000, now it is about $1,000.”

Energy maths

There is also the fact that cultivated meat isn’t necessarily better for the environment since it is a highly energy-consuming process, potentially generating carbon dioxide, which persists even longer in the atmosphere than the methane generated by farm animals. “We cannot follow a global trend without understanding context, our resources and strengths, and our landscapes,” says Sameer Shisodia, CEO of Rainmatter Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non-profit. Instead, he suggests traditional agricultural practices, opting for free-range grazing and integrated farming systems. “The net energy maths for that is better.” 

Ramachandrappa, on the other hand, believes that diversifying protein sources is the only way we will be able to continue to feed ourselves, considering we are expected to become 10 billion people by 2050. “Biotechnology can help us democratise food for the world,” he says, echoing the opinion shared by Mukunda Goswami, Principal Scientist in the Genetics and Biotechnology Division at ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education. 

“Lab-grown protein has the potential to meet the demand of our burgeoning population. Where else will we get all this extra food from? We have to give the consumer this option too,” says Goswami, who is currently researching an international project on cultivated seafood, the first of its kind in India.


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