Ever since he was 17, Shardul Dabir, Innovation Specialist at The Good Food Institute (GFI) India, had a keen interest in global food systems and food security issues. He was fascinated by how food is the central theme in everybody’s life and it drew him towards pursuing a career in food science and technology. He later graduated from the prestigious National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), one of India’s elite educational institutions in the domain.
A scientist-turned-food technologist, Shardul was attracted towards alternative protein or smart protein segment in 2012 when it had just started to take off in India. His entry into NIFTEM proved to be a boon for him as the institute helped him gain knowledge on food science and technology, and his time studying Liberal Arts at Ashoka University as a Young India Fellow also helped him understand matters of cultural anthropology, sociology, economics and food security.
During a recent conversation with The Vegan Indians, Shardul said, “A lot of fascinating stuff was happening in the field of smart protein when I joined GFI India. I realised I could make an impact in this sector and decided to join it.”
Shardul is a core member of Good Food Institute India and has been leading the innovation function at the institute. Being at the helm of affairs in the Indian smart protein segment, Shardul gave us a bird’s eye view on some key topics in this space. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
As an innovation specialist, what does your work entail at Good Food Institute India?
GFI India is a non-profit organisation, which can be called as an ecosystem creator for pathbreaking innovations and investment in the plant-based, cultivated, and fermented meat, eggs and dairy segments. It aims to provide better, more sustainable and efficient protein alternatives to everyone. Our global and India based teams have been assisting food businesses in this sector strategically and helping them grow. We have helped almost all start ups currently functioning in India in this space. What drives us every day is the motivation to find sustainable ways of feeding and taking care of protein needs of the increasing number of people on our planet. There will be 10 billion people in the world to feed by 2050 and a fifth of them are going to be Indians. The increasing population will wreak havoc on our planet if we do not find sustainable ways of feeding them. We are working in that direction by assisting corporate businesses and FMCG companies. We are also involved in advisory work with the government, regulatory bodies and research & technology institutions.
I started out at Good Food Institute India back in 2018 when the ecosystem was really nascent. Our innovation team works with entrepreneurs and investors, and we also focus on engaging and inspiring talent, which includes young researchers, young professionals and students. The focus is to develop a skill set for the sector because that has been the biggest bottleneck till now. We have understood over the past few years that the ecosystem is missing and we are working towards building it. We are bringing together value chain players, equipment suppliers, ingredient suppliers, technical consultancies and lawyers who understand food science and technology.
We are much behind the USA, Canada or Australia in food processing as we usually process just about five percent of our food. A lot of infrastructure, equipment and the right talent are needed to fill this gap. Therefore, we focus on advising promising start ups get more funds by getting together with investors, HNIs, investment funds, accelerators, incubators; we focus on educating them to support the sector. Our innovation team also focuses on thought leadership, filling and analysing white spaces and stimulating technology transfers.
Smart protein ecosystem is at a very nascent stage in India right now. According to you, what is required to give it a push?
We as an institution figured out that the best thing to do right now would be to put together all the actors who are mission aligned and who understand what it would take to grow this sector. That is why we created one of our most impactful initiatives – GFIdeas India Community – a smart protein innovation community that is the largest of its kind for this sector in India. It includes scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, representatives from food corporations, value chain players, students and professionals. It is like a smart protein collaborative network. For the past three years, we have worked to build this ecosystem with a focus on talent, investment, business and policy support; all of which is beginning to mature.
We have created databases by putting together all the information, for example, our smart protein ecosystem project involved interviewing hundreds of people who can be vendors or stakeholders, thereby making it significantly easier to find all information in one place. We also work on a lot of qualitative and quantitative studies and insights, specifically for the Indian market and consumer demographics. All of these numbers have been missing and we are going to make them available in the next coming quarters.
Secondly, we also need more investment and patient capital in this segment. There is not enough patient capital; businesses do get some seed money but that is not sustainable enough because these are manufacturing businesses that require a lot of infrastructure and fixed capital. We need investors who understand the mission and also understand the timelines in terms of ROI, one example of which is Big Idea Ventures and Ashika Group accelerator.
The third thing that we need is government support for this sector as the government is a very big stakeholder for any country. If the Government of India announces the sector as a priority area of innovation just like the Governments of Israel and Singapore have done, it will give a boost to activity and innovation. We are also doing a lot of coursework hackathons and competitions. We are looking to set up smart protein chapters at universities, such as IITs and IIMs, and also have strategic partnerships with corporates. For example, we forged a partnership between Archer-Daniels-Midland Company (ADM) and Imagine Meats. Something similar can be done by Indian corporates too, which is also our focus under corporate engagement.
To grow the smart protein segment, a 360 degree holistic approach is required. GFI is a central thought leader in this space, which has a global picture of how the sector has evolved in many other countries, and what it would take to replicate the same in India, given the limitations the country has. Having all of that perspective helped us create a Mission for Smart Protein, which is required to grow this nascent ecosystem.
Please elaborate on Mission for Smart Protein.
Mission for Smart Protein has five pillars that will push the smart protein segment towards growth.
The first is creating Protein Innovation Hubs for the Global South, which includes setting up research and incubation centres in key universities and industry clusters.
The second one is Indigenous Crops Initiative, which is important for India as it is a biodiverse country. Government, farmers and other policy stakeholders have now started understanding the importance of indigenous crops. These crops are great for the environment, and are also great sources of protein.
The third pillar is Smart Seafood Without Sacrifice. Seafood is a big white space globally and there are a very few companies in this segment. We want to promote it by encouraging R&D and entrepreneurship in this space.
The fourth one in Smart Protein Corridors. We know the smart protein segment has grown tremendously in countries like Netherlands, Singapore and Israel. So, we are going to focus on smart protein corridors between India and such countries, which will involve direct exchange of technology, business, and academia.
The last pillar is Manufacturing Futures Initiative, which is very important for India as we have been lagging behind other countries in manufacturing. It would involve cashing in on the low cost as well as the expertise of human capital. We have fallen behind China in the last 20-30 years, and recently, we have been losing out to countries like Vietnam and Thailand in terms of food processing. But we strongly believe that with the kind of existing infrastructure we have, and are expertise in biotechnology and pharma can directly go into cultivated meat, eggs, and dairy.
Talking about manufacturing, is Good Food Institute India in talks with the government regarding creation of certain hubs in the country, which are dedicated to the manufacturing of alternative proteins?
Yes, absolutely! The sector is nascent but is evolving fast. We have associations where companies and startups come together so that they are in a better position to ask for such things as well. One example I could give is that we are focusing on smart protein innovation centres at some universities where the infrastructure, such as large scale extruders, pilot scale extruders, food safety and food testing equipment, already exists. So, in these universities, there could be a small facility with a focus only on smart protein sector, which caters to the needs of plant based meat, texture analyzing or extrusion. So, we are definitely working towards that along with the government and different government bodies.
What changes have you noticed in the pace of growth of smart protein sector in India over the past couple of years?
The years 2018 and 2019 were all about putting in a lot of activation energy in stakeholders and having hundreds of conversations. We have not transformed meat and dairy ever since the beginning of time. This is a transformation of something so big and that is what excites me the most. I am so glad that in 2021, after dedicating almost four years to building this ecosystem, people are now aware about the sector, especially in developed parts of the country and metro cities. It is also evident from the numbers or from the growth of our community. In the GFIdeas community in India, we have more than 600 active stakeholders, including potential entrepreneurs, investors, students and researchers. Globally, we have 2000 stakeholders from more than 90 countries. There is a synergy between stakeholders in the country and we know that they have been connecting with each other, exchanging ideas, finding advisors and co-founders, finding employees and all sorts of strategic partnerships – it is now a ‘Glocal’ community. Some places like Singapore, Israel and USA are really ahead in terms of innovation and then there are countries like Brazil and India which are picking up the pace now with the help of this Glocal community.
We organise annual conferences in the smart protein summit and the future of protein summit. The number of people registering is also growing year by year. In 2018, we saw about 300-400 people, and in 2020, we saw 2,300 people registering with us; the pace of growth is phenomenal!
What kind of innovations are we seeing in the alternative protein space in India?
We started a very interesting initiative – Indian Smart Protein Innovation Challenge – through which we ended up educating 1000 plus people, including young students and researchers under the age of 28 from institutes like IIMs, IITs, NITs, NIFTEM, Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), agriculture universities under CSIR, etc. The idea was to create innovative theoretical proposals in plant based meat, eggs, dairy and seafood, and plant based ingredients or plant based solutions. During the challenge, very interesting ideas came up, such as the use of indigenous crops to make plant based dairy, a lot of plant based meat ideas, mishit doi (sweetened yoghurt) made from millets, 3D printing of seafood, amongst several others. So basically, we been seeing a lot of innovation from the youth of India. All of this will definitely help the ecosystem to grow and prosper.
What about consumer perception of alternative meat, eggs and dairy products?
There is a lot of confusion in India on how to position these products. People think that these products are meant for vegans, which is the biggest misunderstanding as these are actually for flexitarians. Vegans are already eating foods that are more sustainable. Here, we are trying to replicate the taste, functional properties, colour and texture to the exact level because the point here is to make something people want, and people want to eat meat, eggs and dairy. Despite the fact veganism is growing or the number of vegans is growing, but at the same time, the number of people who eat meat more is growing exponentially! As per reports, India is going to be the biggest driver for poultry consumption in the next 20-30 years in this part of Asia. Not just India, but also developing countries across Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. There is a strong correlation between income and meat consumption, so as these countries become more developed, the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy is bound to go up. The main market for smart protein is the flexitarian market or those who want to move away from animal derived products. We must position these products accordingly.
What is Good Food Institute India doing to facilitate technology transfers so that Indian entrepreneurs could use technology in the developed parts of the world to accelerate the pace of manufacturing and innovations in India?
Technology takes a lot of time to develop and we ourselves facilitate a lot of open access research. Last year, we invested $5 million in Sci-Tech funding, which was GFI’s own research grants program, besides what we influence other stakeholders including the government to invest in the sector. We fund a lot of projects in universities and research institutions globally, and all of these have a mandate of being open access in some way; it could be either some sort of IP sharing, technology sharing, etc. For example, we are helping entrepreneurs avail technology transfer via Wageningen University. But there are definite issues because not enough technology exists to be open source. It will take some time for it to become a little more mature globally. At the same time, some of the research projects that have been funded in the past two or three years will start bearing fruits in the coming couple of years.
Currently, countries like Netherlands and Singapore are definitely facilitating more of it but sometimes cost and other things become an issue because it is very expensive to do trials and R&D in other countries. It is important to develop all of this locally for sustainable growth of the sector, otherwise some people will end up taking the technology to develop products, but we will not have anything locally in India. Therefore, we are focusing on both.
What are your expectations from the government to help develop this sector? How has been the progress on that front?
I will begin by giving an example. Singapore has a research body A*STAR, which is heavily funded by the government. They do a lot of research in different fields, and their biotech and agri-food research is also very brilliant. They have used A*STAR, Singapore Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore to develop very progressive regulatory frameworks – for example, the approval of sale for Eat Just’s cultivated chicken. It became the first country anywhere in the world to do so. The government knows that it has to focus on this area of innovation because it is the future. And at the same time, Singapore is in dire need, because 98 percent of its food is imported. I guess in some ways, governments and policymakers need to understand that. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a government body of alternative proteins following a tasting of cultivated meat organised by the Good Food Institute Israel. He also became the first head of the government to taste cultivated meat anywhere in the world. We need to do something like that in India as well. I think infrastructure is also important from a government’s perspective and facilities like mega food parks are going to push the sector towards growth.
We are working to figure out if there are any existing R&D funding schemes through the Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, BIRAC, CSIR, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, FSSAI, and all other departments which are important stakeholders for our sector. So, we are definitely working to get more R&D funds for this space, and more positive and progressive regulatory framework in place.
What according to you must be done to accelerate the pace of growth in this sector?
We Indians want to replicate the things that have already been done in the West. We are trying to replicate the unsustainable factory farming solutions that involve a lot of money going into slaughter facilities, abattoirs, cold chains, etc. All of this has not worked because now these developed countries are trying to get away from it. In India, we have a great opportunity as a lot of investment has not been done in factory farming here. Therefore, we can skip the factory farming phase and make investments in alternative protein facilities. We could bypass unsustainable practices and go directly to the future. We are providing advisory support to FSSAI from a regulatory framework perspective, which would support the growth of startups in this space.
How soon should we switch to smart food solutions in order to prevent catastrophic shortage of food in the future?
I would say as soon as possible because it is a terrible ecosystem of factory farming that we have currently created. I think switching to smart food solutions, smart protein or alternative protein is very important. We are constantly witnessing the repercussions from factory farming in the form of zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance, etc. Long story short, by 2050, global food systems must be ready to meet the demands of more than 10 billion people, who on an average will be more aspirational and wealthier than people today. These people would have choices like the people in high income countries in terms of their lifestyle and consumption of food. A majority of these people are going to be from countries like Brazil, India or China, where today a lot of them do not consume meat because they cannot afford it. But as soon as they are able to afford it, they are going to eat it, unless we provide a simple switch or an easy switch, which tastes the same and costs the same or less.
The golden mantra for building this sector is ‘price, taste and convenience’; it is like a global hypothesis on which we have built our change theory. The whole messaging of sustainability or animal cruelty is not going to work. What is required is creating beverages or food that really replicate animal-derived ones, and nail it in terms of texture and taste. If we don’t do that, there will only be that niche segment of vegans or a niche segment of people who can afford to pay a premium for such products, and that is a very small market in India. I guess, that is what we are focusing on in terms of urgency.
Then, comes the issue of global warming and pollution. Even scientists working for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), found that raising and killing animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to environmental problems. Industrial animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than the direct emissions from the entire transportation sector combined. But plant based and cultivated meat, eggs and dairy products are more efficient, far less polluting and less wasteful in terms of resources. So, we definitely have to understand this and a major policy shift is required.