Can Lab-Grown Meat Satisfy India’s Growing Food Needs?

Lab-grown meat isn’t only being produced in the US. The fledgling industry in India faces both unique opportunities and challenges.

By Pawan K. Dhar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

NEW DELHI, August 8 – The United States’ Department of Agriculture’s recent decision to approve the sale and distribution of cultured meat, produced by Good Meat and Upside Foods, has led to renewed global interest in the food technology.

This makes the US the second country in the world, behind Singapore, to have the products available for sale.

But cultured meat is not only being produced in California. There is also a fledgling industry in India.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is currently reviewing the cultured food sector and may consider granting the regulatory approval for such products to be sold in India.

Cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat and by various other names, represents a groundbreaking development in the food industry.

It involves cultivating animal cells in controlled environments while eliminating the need for traditional livestock farming and slaughter.

Stem cells derived from animal sources are artificially kept alive in bioreactors, grown to a certain abundance, and then harvested and customised for human consumption.

With more than eight billion people living on the planet, a number expected to increase to nine billion people by 2040, demand for meat and other sources of protein will continue to increase. Ensuring sufficient food supply will remain a challenge.

These pressures are likely to be particularly acute in South Asia and Southeast Asia where countries are facing massive population pressures distributed over a smaller land mass than equivalent population increases in Global North countries.

In 2022, a report from India indicated that among a population of 1.4 billion, only 16.6 per cent of men and 29.4 per cent of women between the ages 15 and 49 exclusively followed a vegetarian diet.

Solutions will have to be found in the next few years as currently available food resources are diminishing fast.

To meet the surging demand, cultured meat is expected to offer a viable solution that is economical, slaughter-free, environmentally sustainable, and safe, although the technology has yet to be applied and proven at scale.

Traditional livestock farming, a booming sector in India, poses environmental challenges like deforestationgreenhouse gas emissions, and high water consumption.

Cultured meat offers the potential to bolster food security by providing a consistent and dependable nutrition source independent of weather conditions or land availability.

India’s cultured meat industry, however, faces some unique challenges in getting off the ground. The production of cultured meat requires advanced technological infrastructure.

Developing the proof-of-the-concept at the lab level is one thing but sustaining a large scale production, treatment and distribution of cultured meat remains a critical challenge.

Cultured meat production is significantly more expensive than conventional methods of meat production due to the costs of the growth medium, scaffolding material and technological support. It also necessitates strict safety and nutritional assessments and fair market practices, including clear labeling and traceability of cell sources.

Fetal bovine serum, a costly ingredient in the culture medium, is one of the main contributors to higher expenses. Finding alternatives to fetal bovine serum could significantly bring the cost of cultured meat down, and this technology is already being developed in India.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is currently evaluating pathways towards the development of a regulatory framework for cultured meat production and distribution.

Such a regulatory framework, combined with government incentives to lower the carbon footprint of cultured meat and subsidise the cost of its production, could really turbocharge the growth of the industry in India.

It’s important to note that the cultured meat industry will not result in unemployment in the conventional meat industry. The cultured meat sector is expected to mainly produce products in the boneless (minced) category.

The lab-grown meat and farm-grown meat industries will eventually coexist, as replicating the entire architecture of meat in the lab is still a long shot.

While India has a long history of meat consumption, currently consumer awareness of cultured meat is low and it is not yet approved for sale.

Convincing consumers to embrace new and unfamiliar food products is always challenging and to reach mass acceptance cultivated meat will need to deliver the taste, texture and nutritional profile of conventional meat.

But once regulatory approvals are in place, the costs are brought down and big players come into the industry, cultured meat has the potential to be a major disruptor in the Indian market.

In the future, one would expect to see established regulatory guidelines on the production and distribution of cultured meat, in particular, prescriptions around how it could be imported to or exported from India; a policy on ‘exotic’ cultured meats like wooly mammoth meatballs, for example; and discussions on the sustainability of the sector.

Only time will tell if reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger will be partly achieved by food scientists in eradicating hunger and malnutrition through making cultured meat mainstream.

Pawan K. Dhar heads the Synthetic Biology group in the School of Biotechnology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

Article courtesy of 360info. 

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