Panel discussion during the session

Plant-based meat – the future of protein

How many of you have heard about plant-based meat? Does it sound strange, maybe yummy 😊 or not sure what? As panel expert for a first-of-its-kind summit on “The future of protein: The new food revolution” co-hosted by The Good Food Institute, Humane Society International, India and CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, I had a chance to speak on this. The summit had panel discussions on:

  • Plant-based meats are here – how can they help nourish India?
  • The promise of clean meat – is the future of animal meat animal-free?
  • Building an ecosystem – how can we support the future of protein?

Based on literature it was clear to me that there are two major alternatives to animal meat – one is plant-based meat and the second is clean meat (lab grown). Some of our collaborators like Dr Ed Buckler (Cornell University) are taking a different approach – “synthetic meat” (from the amino acid). My presentation entitled “Let’s nourish India with plant-based proteins” focused on plant-based meat especially on legume-based protein. My view is that to nourish India, a country having the highest number of protein deficient people, we need to address protein deficiency. Getting protein through animal meat is NOT a sustainable solution because of water as well as carbon footprints issues. Therefore, we need to work to enhance per capita consumption of pulses. For this we need to increase pulse production by using genomics- and biology-assisted breeding (systems and synthetic biology).

Receiving plaque of appreciation from Union Cabinet Minister Ms Maneka Gandhi

Receiving plaque of appreciation from Union Cabinet Minister Ms Maneka Gandhi

For catering to meat eaters, we can look for alternate solutions like plant-based meat. For this we need to optimize our crops for higher protein content. For instance, our recent work on phenotyping of 3000 chickpea accessions has provided us about 25 lines with >30% protein content (as opposed to 20% protein in existent chickpea varieties). Therefore, the question is – can we have the new lines through genomic manipulation? In the context of India, if we enhance pulse production from 18-20 million tons to 32 million tons by 2050 and we enhance the protein content by upto 30%, then we will have 9.6 million tons plant protein of which 3.2 million tons additional protein would have been created using genomics- and biology-assisted breeding! The next question will be – can we have industries ready by 2050 to process this additional protein into plant-based meat? For sure, these assumptions may have several caveats, we need to work on them.

News clipping featuring excerpts from the talk.

News clipping featuring excerpts from the talk.

The Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development of Government of India – Ms Maneka Gandhi inaugurated the summit. A well-known leader in India for her work on animal and environment protection, Ms Gandhi’s perspective was to move towards plant-based protein/ lab-grown meat so that we do not need to slaughter animals and we will also have enough protein for consumption. Several newspapers covered key points from my presentation, including this one – Experts debate pros and cons of plant meat.

Overall, an interesting summit and a good opportunity to learn something new. In my opinion, plant-based meat is an important area and we may have a possibility to enter this emerging area from a crop optimization perspective. The global community needs to search for sustainable solutions to provide required protein without compromising on eating choices of people. If they are not happy with a vegetarian diet let’s make mock meat, lab-grown meat or synthetic meat. It could be an innovative step in the path of nutrition security.

About the author:

Dr Rajeev K Varshney
Research Program Director – Genetic gains

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