Future of meat: The meat-ing point for non-veg lovers and vegans

On a white-hot skillet in a kitchen populated by burger buns, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes sit two patties made by a company that just left cab company Uber in the dust. If we eat with all our senses, then the patties’ meaty char, intense sizzle, and saliva-inducing aroma are banquets unto themselves. And it’s primarily for these reasons that plant-based meat company Beyond Meat is now the best initial public offering (IPO) in the US in 2019. Compare that to Uber, for whom elegies are being written after its stock fell 18% just two days after it went public.

Varun Deshpande, managing director of Good Food Institute (GFI), India, has another, even better Beyond Meat product to offer in his south Mumbai home. It’s the Beyond Sausage Brat Original, a plump, coarse-textured, bratwurst-style sausage whose umami juices flow when the casing snaps open. There’s a gaminess to it that’s absent in Beyond Meat’s patties, and a mouthfeel that underlines why pork, in one’s opinion, is more versatile than beef.

Except, neither of Beyond Meat’s products has animal origins.

The ‘animal fats’ that ooze on the skillet? Those are coconut, canola, and sunflower oils. The medium-rare appearance? Beet extract and fruit-vegetable juice. The brat casing? Derived from algae. And the proteins? Made from peas, broad beans, and rice. All held together by potato starch, methylcellulose, and other product-specific ingredients like apple fibre and bamboo cellulose.

This is the next frontier of meat. In a finite world occupied by a burgeoning human population, plant-based meat could do something about the unsustainability of industrial animal farming. Science tells us a third of the world’s freshwater, and 26% of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock alone; and that we’ll need plant-based flexitarian diets and technological interventions in food production to save us from ourselves. These drivers, alongside animal welfare, are why Beyond Meat and perceived rival Impossible Foods, which raised $300 million via Series E financing on 13 May, are touted as the Coke and Pepsi of alternative meat.

Traditional meat consumption is increasing, but so is veganism. Which means the quest for mass production of alternative, or alt meat, is now a mad race between the traditionalists. Fast food chain Burger King offers the plant-based ‘Impossible Whopper’. Tyson Foods—the world’s second-largest chicken, pork, and beef processor—has invested in cell-based meat company Memphis Meats. Cargill Foods, the world’s third-largest meat producer, is betting on Israel-based Aleph Farms, a startup that wants to make cell-based steak.

The promise of cell-based or cultured meat supersedes the promise of plant-based meat because it’s straight out the future playbook of the Century 21 Exposition. It’s an eventuality where animal cells will be cultured in bioreactors, meaning the meat on your plate will be from poultry or livestock, but minus the slaughter.

What do such developments bode for India, a country with the lowest per capita meat consumption, but where only 30% of women and 22% of men are vegetarian? Where beef consumption is potentially underreported, and poultry consumption is spiking?

“It means there’s potential for a Cambrian explosion in this market. For people to walk into stores and have plant-based and cultured meat options. Eventually,” says GFI’s Varun Deshpande.

A little chlorophyll will go a long way

GFI, a US-based nonprofit and sister project of animal advocacy organisation Mercy for Animals, liaises between startups, established companies, scientists, and policymakers to identify research and development (R&D) and market opportunities for cellular and plant-based meat. Deshpande—a tall, lean, sharp-featured 20-something whose LinkedIn profile features him in a t-shirt that says ‘KALE’—insists GFI is less about advocating veganism and more about leapfrogging factory farming to feed billions of Indians.

“Technology ensured we no longer need two tonnes of pig pancreas to produce eight ounces of insulin. We need to look at food sustainability through the same lens of innovation,” he says.

Deshpande has built foundations in the three months since GFI’s India operations kicked off. He co-presented the proposal by Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) to research cell-based sheep/mutton, which got a two-year, Rs 4.5-crore grant by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). He also got Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology to establish India’s first research centre dedicated to cellular agriculture.

The best plant-based meat will be one that uses cutting-edge R&D to yield a product as close to the real deal as possible. This is non-negotiable if you want meat-eaters, and by extension, early adoption, on your side. Mock meat isn’t new, but most soya iterations taste more like cardboard than meat. Impossible Foods’ ‘heme’—soy leghemoglobin inserted in genetically-engineered yeast—gives its products that distinct meaty taste missing in other plant-based counterparts. Pea protein another current darling, and lupin beans, duckweed, and pongamia are also being researched for ‘harvest potential’. But India harbours many prospects for other proteins. It’s the largest producer of chickpeas and has vast reserves of pulses, millets, and sorghum, all of which will be studied for plant-based meat potential.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, which led a global effort to sequence 3,000 chickpea lines, will play a crucial role here. Collaborations with other agritech institutes will lead to the creation of a protein database GFI will use to advise entrepreneurs. Such data, alongside information on how Indians prefer their meat (on the bone, boneless, ground), will be the bulwark of a plant-based meat market.

“Think of a future where plant-based meat will be better in taste, texture, and other elements that make animal-sourced foods unputdownable. We want to make meat redundant”

Abhishek Sinha, co-founder and CEO, Good Dot

The R&D permutation-combinations for plant-based meat, says Good Dot co-founder and CEO Abhishek Sinha, can potentially go beyond those of in-vitro meat, which will still rely on animal DNA. Good Dot is a two-year-old, plant-based meat company headquartered in Udaipur. It recently launched a version of fast-food chain KFC’s chicken Zinger and will have kiosks and food trucks in 30 locations across the country, serving variants of achari chicken tikka and bhurji (scrambled eggs) made with textured vegetable protein (soy, peas, gram flour, quinoa).

Sinha believes Good Dot, in five years, can be the biggest and best plant-based meat company in the world.

Until we get to a point where the quality of plant-based meat surpasses that of animal-sourced meat, companies will still focus on what Sinha calls the ‘downstream’, or processed flavours. Beyond Meat’s and Impossible Foods’ products, regardless of how good they are, are still reminiscent of seasoned (patties, sausages, crumbles), rather than bare meat. It’s easier to mask shortcomings that way. But in their defence, you need to master the downstream for people to even consider the upstream (plain meat and poultry cuts).

The sample size for this study was 1024. All participants were urban, high-income Indians

Petri-dishing it out

In 2013, Netherlands-based Mark Post of cellular agriculture startup Mosa Meat created the world’s first cell-based burger patty. It cost 250,000 euros ($279,500) to produce. He now wants to make it available at $10 per patty by 2021.

A clutch of cell-based meat startups have announced their retail intentions for a similar timeframe; and although the Indian government, through the DBT, is one of the first to fund cellular agriculture initiatives, we won’t see cultured meat on shelves yet. But this is not a damp squib situation. Before exploring why, a look at what cell-based meat entails:

The current production environment revolves around culturing cells in trays, an inefficient method when you’ll have entire populations to feed. Scaling up, then, requires large bioreactors. There’s also the long-drawn process of figuring out feedlots for animal cells. These are typically pH buffers, amino acids, sugars, and growth factor proteins — and it’s the last that will account for a bulk of R&D costs.

That’s because growth factor proteins are derived from fetal bovine serum (FBS) or the blood of the cow fetus. FBS is mired in ethical issues, since blood is harvested from a fetus after it’s removed from its slaughtered mother. This defeats the motive of altruistic cellular agriculture. In this context, the future of cultured meat in India will start with the search for a serum substitute.

“We’ll have to buy and test available substitutes, then produce our own serum replacement recipe and scale up. This process may take up to five years,” says Madhusudana Rao, head of CCMB’s Atal Incubation Centre. Current availability is beset by proprietary hurdles, so there’s a chance here for India to be a lynchpin in the supply of serum substitutes to countries like the US—much like the role it plays in the generic drugs market. It’s likely we will play an ancillary role before domestic consumption of cellular meat can be even thought of. Or is it?

The search for an FBS replacement will kick off the future of cell-based meat in India

Kartik Dixit, co-founder and CEO of ClearMeat, doesn’t think so. His startup, still bootstrapped, was in the first cohort of Germany’s ProVeg incubator. The soft-spoken entrepreneur intends waking India up to cell-based chicken keema by 2022. This is, after all, a country where poultry drives meat consumption, transcends religious restrictions, and whose appalling industry conditions put everyone at risk of a disease outbreak.

To achieve his 2022 goal, Dixit has partnered with two synthetic biologists from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Biotechnology — Pawan Dhar and Siddharth Manvati.

“I can’t reveal much, but they’ve been working on a novel molecule that could help achieve the textural complexity of minced meat. We also want to crack the code for a plant-based FBS substitute,” Dixit reveals. ClearMeat is currently in talks with venture capital (VC) firms — he won’t say who — that are “mission-based” or invested in R&D rather than economies of scale.

Mountains to climb

It’s one thing for futurism to sit pretty on pitch decks, and another to take stock of ground realities. Madhusudana Rao’s point about the complicated quest for serum substitutes is a critical one in context of scalability. Cellular agriculture companies that have FBS replacements are as guarded about their serums as Coca-Cola is about its formula. The cost of intellectual property will limit production until the magic of affordable FBS-free serum unfolds before the world.

“Scaling is one of the biggest challenges and shouldn’t be glossed over as a trivial engineering problem, because scaling is what allows us to actually feed people,” says Meera Zassenhaus, in an email interview. Zassenhaus is the engagement associate at New Harvest, a US-based, donor-funded institute dedicated to cellular agriculture research. Its grants have catalysed startups like Perfect Day (dairy without cows) and Clara Foods (eggs without hens). One of its ongoing projects involves bioreactor design for cultured pork. A bioreactor or fermentor is the other key to the scale padlock. You can’t, after all, make a product truly accessible unless you produce it in large quantities. Impossible Foods learnt this the hard way when it ran out of its 2.0 burgers last month.

All this applies to India, because we still don’t have the infrastructure for all four cogs of cultured meat production (cell line, serum, scaffolding, bioreactor). This alone will take a handful of years.

The Maillard reaction, the chemical process that gives browned foods their distinctive caramelisation and flavour, is what makes cooked meat smell so good. Its enzymes, believes Good Dot’s Abhishek Sinha, can be used to take Indian plant-based meat to the next level

The other headache about proprietary ingredients is that Indians can be notoriously neophobic, or averse to the unfamiliar. The same GFI-led survey that reveals an urban Indian openness to alt-meat also notes that respondents expressed high food neophobia and low meat attachment compared to the US and China. This points to lower purchase likelihood, which can magnify if companies remain secretive about what goes into the making of their product. The last thing you’d want, while upholding values of food sustainability and security, is to foster apprehension. Which brings one to a contentious issue: genetic modification. Of which India is not a fan.

Impossible Foods wouldn’t be if not for the genetically-modified soya in its products. And there’s no ruling out (yet) that genetic modification may play some role in cellular agriculture breakthroughs. Now, ours is a country where Bt cotton is the only permitted GM crop. Bt mustard and brinjal have lurked for years, but never got a formal nod. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in a 2017 affidavit to the Supreme Court, stated that GM foods aren’t allowed in the country.

Cultured meat may be one of the most exciting developments in biotechnology, but it’ll be a long time before India embraces it, feels KC Bansal, area convenor and senior fellow at the Nanobiotechnology Centre in The Energy and Resources Institute. “Because the biggest threat to food sustainability here isn’t production methods, but wastage. About 30-40% of our produce ends up rotting. Addressing this, and advances in GM regulations to encourage biofortified foods, will precede any movement towards alternative meat to manage malnutrition.”

“Scaling is one of the biggest challenges and shouldn’t be glossed over, because scaling is what allows us to actually feed people”

Meera Zassenhaus, engagement associate, New Harvest

Ways ahead: shelf-stability and hybridisation

Reservations may abound about cell-based meat adoption in India, but Good Dot’s Abhishek Sinha believes the way will be paved by shelf-stable, plant-based meat products. That’s because India’s cold storages are marred by inconsistent power supply. Shelf-stable or ambient-temperature offerings come with the promise of better distribution, thanks to lower logistics costs.

One cannot broach the topic of plant-based meat without taking milk into consideration. India is a leading exporter of cow and buffalo meat, an outcome of its heavily dairy-dependent population. So it’s just a matter of time before shelf-stable milk makes its way to supermarkets. Bengaluru-based GoodMylk, whose product is made not from almonds or soya, but cashew and oats, will be available in tetra packs later this year. Its ingredient mix is formulated to mimic dairy milk in mouthfeel and thickness, and to work well with applications like tea and coffee.

On the cell-based front, New Harvest’s Meera Zassenhaus foresees dairy and eggs being available before meat, since they don’t require growing cells into texturally-sophisticated tissue. And the ingredient hybridisation-approach adopted by GoodMylk founder Abhay Rangan could well extend to cultured meat, too.

“It’s unlikely that our first introduction to cell-based meat will be a sausage made entirely of cultured pig cells,” she outlines. “What’s more likely is that a meat product produced via conventional methods, or a plant-based meat product, or some combination of the two, will be supplemented by cultured meat cells.”

Until that happens, we also have preliminary research by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute on cultured fish, and Shiok Meats’ co-founder and CEO Sandhya Sriram eager to be the first to launch cell-based seafood in India. Since cellular agriculture worldwide is still in the nascent research stage, it’ll be a long way before food safety and GM regulations, and discourses on proprietary costs even come into the picture. That doesn’t deter Sriram, who’d sought, until 2018, to set up BioX (a biotech and food incubator and accelerator) in Hyderabad. Her efforts were in vain; investors didn’t see the potential for cellular agriculture in India, which led her to set up Shiok Meats in Singapore — now southeast Asia’s first startup for cellular crustaceans.

“I’m sure the potential investors from that time feel like they missed out on the opportunity to build greater things,” she says. “But who knows, BioX may still happen in the future.”

Given the havoc fishing practices today wreak on marine and freshwater ecosystems, that time may well be sooner than later.

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