Varun is Managing Director for India at the Good Food Institute, where he is working on creating a healthy, humane, sustainable food future for India. He believes very strongly that India has a pivotal role to play in the new global food supply, and can be one of the first countries to ‘leapfrog’ unsustainable factory farming. Before joining GFI, Varun studied at Carnegie Mellon University and spent many years studying and working in the healthcare systems of India and the US.

Why GFI in India?

India represents a huge opportunity in terms of an impact on the global food system, not just domestically also as a source of manufacturing to export with plant-based meat as well clean meat with our extremely large population and issues of sustainability, climate changes on the horizon, crucially food security. These are some of the reasons why we wanted to get involved in India.

There are other reasons that relate to the world-class Scientific faculties available in Food Technology and Tissue Engineering faculty in India takes care of both plant-based meats and clean meat are genuinely world-class, and they possess the ability to push this sector forward globally. There is a lot of research genuinely needs to be done in Clean Meat, making it commercially competitive with conventional meat, these are the areas India could help bring change.

Curriculum on Clean Meat or Plant based meat in near future?

We have been considering to work on this idea globally, last year the Good Food Institute and Berkeley launched the first college level course on alternative proteins, the idea for this course for students is to learn about the technology behind meat alternatives and  present a project on the same at the end of the semester.

With academic institutes in India we wish to do a similar thing, perhaps a synthetic biology classes for clean meat. This sector is so exciting across the spectrum of technology both in terms of tissue engineering, scaffolds in terms of cell lines and cellular biology, pluripotent stem cells those are all clean meat. In terms of plant-based meat  cereal processing, crop characterization, crop optimization, manufacturing. It is even possible to cater degrees on clean meat and plant-based meats, but we are a little bit away from that at the moment. Surely we are looking to set up courses for people to help them to get in the industry.

What are your views on Sustainability of Food Ecosystem?

Current input in agricultural systems are unsustainable. It is obvious we have to switch to alternative sources in the future. For example, Chicken which is considered to be the most sustainable product in factory farming and takes in 9 calorie input for every 1 calorie of output. Which is a highly inefficient system.

Across Chatham House and UN reports that state in climate change is caused the most by factory farming which contributes to green house gases more than all transportation combined. Now seeing all this we realise, the rate at which our country is growing we need systems that are able to feed our population. By 2050 we have 9.5 billion people in the world, about one sixth will be in India we have to learn how to feed those through systems that don’t adversely affect – climate change, food security and sustainability.

Are the large meat processing companies in favor of clean meat technology?

Globally they are ones pushing this sector forward. Visionary companies understand the need to be abreast with new technology and always be open to new opportunities. Tyson Foods CEO was on record and they want to think of themselves as a protein company rather than a meat company, they have invested both in Plant based meat and clean meat companies; Beyond Meat, Memphis Meat and Future Meat Technology.  I believe they continue to be at the vanguard of protein suppliers of the world, the reason I believe is because they are so agile to these changes.

We need to bring everyone along this value chain with economic alternatives – it includes people involved in meat business, who currently own poultry farms and meat processors.

Poultry farms currently are under pressure from the government in terms of complying with antimicrobial resistance standards. Poultry farms are genuinely under pressure to use things like antibiotics to make sure chickens are growing fine. Clean meat would not require any antibiotics, that’s something I think presents a pretty strong opportunity for them. But initially switching over to clean meat would be expensive.

I will talk about a really interesting perspective, from a company called Future Meat; the idea is to give small bioreactors to all poultry farmers.  Their idea is not a huge centralized product from these farmers but trying out prototypes, there are different models, what I discussed is just one.

We need to keep everyone in mind and present the alternative. Because technology has a tremendous power to reform the entire industry. If you happened to read Paul Shapiro’s book, he talks about the how the natural ice industry went out of business when refrigerators came out, now we don’t address ice from refrigerator as “synthetic ice”. Truly technology refactors industry, we have to be more empathetic.

How long would it take for commercialization of Clean Meat?

In 10 years, clean meat would be very cost competitive with conventional meat. If you look at the cost curve in this area from R&D conceptualization stage; back in 2013 when Dr Mark Post ate the first lab grown hamburger on TV, the research project cost him around $33,000. Now Dr Post’s company make the same hamburger for $12, that just happened in 5 years.  

We all know markets and technology have a tremendous potential to create downward pressure on lowering down prices. Obviously in terms of research and development you spend a lot of money on different prototypes, but also the inputs into the process becomes cheaper and cheaper. The media, animal feed on which you grow clean meat initially costs a lot of money, but we expect a lot of companies into that space, competition could drive down the price. So one of the biggest input in clean meat that price goes to the floor, which means the cost basis of the companies producing clean meat goes on to the floor. So that’s kind of how it could work. I am optimistic we can make it cost competitive before 2030. Certainly it will be on plates earlier than 2030.

What are technologies employed for production of clean meat?

There are four critical technologies associated with clean meat technology

  1. Cell lines – different cell lines stem cells; chicken cell lines, duck cell lines, bovine cell lines.
  2. Medium – That’s the cost driver.Nutrient broth for growing clean meat made from animals fetal bovine serum, it’s quite heterogeneous might get contaminated. They are not uniform, as extracted from animal source. I believe this could be an ancillary industry. There are Indian Biomedical companies like, Biocon which manufactures and ships media at a huge scale. There’s definitely capability in Indian biomedical industry as well as the international industry to bring down the cost of the media for different cell lines.
  3. Scaffolds– They are used in biomedical industry to deliver drugs. But in case of clean meat they are not necessary.  But you might need them to make a 3D cut, for instance for making a steak of meat or a thick cut of chicken we may need scaffolds. These scaffolds may either be food grade or biodegradable.
  4. Bioreactor– Environment in which you grow clean meat. Different bioreactors can be used to optimize the process of producing clean meat. One maybe used for culturing clean meat, another for different muscle or animal type. All of these areas have a tremendous opportunity to get better and better as the years go by.

What’s going to happen and what has been happening, lot of companies are holding this IP inside, so a lot of them are doing everything from beginning to end so that they can have a finished product. I think this will ease a lot of pressure on the industry, as I said a lot of people will enter this space as ancillary. Whether its established biomedical companies, or startups focusing to be the global suppliers, there’s tremendous opportunities in this space.

Technologies employed in Plant based Meat?

Extrusion technology has been existed for decades, again it has been developed for a different purpose and its been used here for mixing different grains. There’s a lot of opportunity in optimizing the processes, machines for making plant-based meats better and stable. Because of that flexibility plant based meats are here and already cost-effective with eggs. It’s really promising that we will be able to drop the price of plant proteins even further, that’s what we are looking at India. Extrusion technology being an area of innovation in all the food parks coming up, we have been talking to some food parks and they are really excited about the possibility of doing some experiments in this area. To see if its possible to push the state of the art forward given that the state of the art is from decades ago. If we can make that happen there is a possibility to create plant proteins that will be extremely affordable, even though they really. The aim to make these plant based proteins even more affordable to tackle conditions like malnutrition and stunting.

How would the scenario change, when people switch to clean meat?

I would love to say everything is going to be utopia, and I genuinely do believe that’s the case. Because when we have a better food system given how the food system affects our lives all over the world. We would geniunely have a more healthy humane and sustainable food system, that’s the entire point of our endeavor. So once we get a lot of people to transition to these products we would have far fewer emissions, fewer animals in factory farms, no need for antibiotics, no need of inefficient factory farming system. I feel within this generation or within a couple of generations we can genuinely tackle a huge number of issues and top mine among those things is feeding the population, which is not something we poised currently do, certainly we are working towards it.

GFI’s future work in India?

We are definitely going to be working with research institutes to do basic early stage research. Our focus is on creating as much open science as possible, but we do work directly with companies who want to bring finished product to the market. So I would say our interest lies in the whole ecosystem of early stage research to startups to even corporate entities who are planning to bring ancillary in the market. We had some good responses from people who are interested to come into market. There’s so many decades of translational experience that can be applied brought to bear in this area that makes us pretty optimistic for the Indian scenario.


Varun Desphande

Managing Director, India.

Good Food Institute

We are looking forward to the prospect of plant based and clean meat entering our supermarket shelves soon. I have been following Good Food Institute since a couple of months, and I see many startups entering the alternative protein space, hope more Indian startups could join this zone.



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