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Conventional Animal Agriculture Contributes More To Climate Change Than The Transportation Sector: Varun Deshpande, MD, India, Good Food Institute

For all the technological advancements employed in modern animal agriculture, its inefficiency boils down to one simple truth - feeding crops to an animal, and then eating a part of that animal, is vastly inefficient

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The livestock industry forms a major component of global carbon emissions, and the ecological footprint of the livestock industry is extremely high. There are environmental and humanitarian reasons for ending the unsustainable practices which define the livestock industry, and even growing crops for feeding the livestock is inefficient and unsustainable. To this effect, Good Food Institute is trying to shift from animal agriculture to plant-based and clean meat products, which will redefine and restructure the livestock sector, and its environmentally harmful practices. In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Varun Deshpande, Managing Director, India, Good Food Institute speaks about the unsustainability of the livestock sector in its current form, and GFI’s interventions in making it more sustainable. Edited excerpts: 

Why is livestock production not environmentally sustainable? What is the ecological footprint of the livestock industry?

The way that we currently produce meat, dairy, and eggs, through industrial animal agriculture, is at the heart of many of the world’s most pressing problems - not least because of its impact on the environment. This is why United Nations scientists state that raising and killing animals for food is one of the major causes of our most urgent environmental issues, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. In fact, conventional animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than the entire transportation sector combined - that includes planes, trains, cars, and all other transportation! This is true globally, as well as in India, with our vast national herd of cattle and our poultry farms. Transitioning away from this unsustainable system is imperative to securing the future of our planet, for individuals, businesses, and governments alike. 

Why is growing crops for the purpose of feeding livestock inefficient and unsustainable?

For all the technological advancements employed in modern animal agriculture, its inefficiency boils down to one simple truth - feeding crops to an animal, and then eating a part of that animal, is vastly inefficient. This system relies on shuttling calories through a metabolizing, moving, breathing, waste-generating body, in order to get back a small fraction of those calories as meat. Chickens are the most efficient livestock animals, yet it still takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of flesh. That’s like throwing away eight rotis for every one that we eat! This basic underlying equation - the massive feed requirement of livestock animals - means that over 70% of the planet’s agricultural land is used to grow crops such as corn and soy for livestock, thereby driving up the price of grains and legumes, and entrenching inequity and global poverty. This is especially unconscionable in India, with our massive problems of malnutrition and extreme poverty. By 2050, the planet will have about ten billion people to feed, with nearly a sixth of them Indian. How could we possibly hope to do so, through inefficient, wasteful systems that adversely affect food security?

What are some of the detrimental human health effects of excessive animal product consumption?

In addition to environmental degradation and food insecurity, industrial animal agriculture also presents severe consequences for public health. Some of these challenges concern widespread bacterial contamination and disease, such as salmonella infection. Another, which has garnered significant press attention in India, concerns the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in factory farms. Some of the strongest antibiotics, which experts have said should be preserved for the most extreme cases, are now commonly used in farming in the developing world. In India, non-therapeutic reasons such as growth stimulation have been the biggest drivers of overuse in poultry and egg farms, because of the economic pressure on producers. This is a recipe for drug resistance and disaster, given that some of these antibiotics are the last lines of defense against serious diseases like pneumonia. Multiple investigations have found antibiotics fragments and multi-drug resistant bacteria in chickens from factory farms in India. This has led our regulatory bodies to cap the amount of drugs that can be used as growth promoters. We can and should do better, by helping meat producers transition away from these systems of production altogether.

What is the humanitarian case for putting an end to animal agriculture?

The current system of animal agriculture forces thinking, feeling individuals to lives of extreme confinement, emotional trauma, painful mutilations, and violent deaths in slaughterhouses. This is the norm for dairy cows, chickens raised for meat and egg-laying hens. I believe that, a few decades from now, people will look back on this system and wonder how we allowed it to persist for so long, given its inefficiency, its environmental impact, its public health hazards, and its complete disregard for animal welfare. 

What are the efforts of GFI to make a more efficient and environmentally sustainable livestock industry?

The Good Food Institute (GFI) is a nonprofit that serves as a think tank for the plant-based and clean meat, egg, and dairy research and market sectors. For all the harms of industrial animal agriculture mentioned above, it’s clear that people don’t eat factory-farmed meat because of how it is produced; they eat it in spite of how it is produced. We at the Good Food Institute are dedicated to creating a more healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply. 

The overwhelmingly important factors in any consumer’s eating choices are price, taste, and convenience. In order to compete with animal products based on these factors, the Good Food Institute works to make alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs as delicious, price-competitive, and convenient as their animal-based counterparts. These alternatives fall into two broad categories - next-generation plant-based meats (made for meat eaters, using novel ingredients, techniques, and technology), and clean meat, dairy, and eggs (biologically identical to their conventional counterparts, but produced through cellular agriculture rather than by raising and slaughtering animals). Plant-based meats are already here, and clean alternatives are rapidly approaching commercialization. 

The best part? These foods represent a potential order-of-magnitude improvement in efficiency, without the need for antibiotics and massive feedstocks. Quite simply, plant-based and clean foods represent the next agricultural revolution. Our team of scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and lobbyists, is laser-focused on using innovation and markets to accelerate this revolution, so that the sustainable and humane choice is the default choice. 

How does GFI foster and support innovation to make the shift towards plant-based and clean meat?

In order to enable a shift in food production and consumption, GFI is focused on building an ecosystem of innovation, research, and commercialization. Our scientists are global experts in this sector, and work to ensure that a roadmap exists for plant-based and clean alternatives. We also work to make sure the best scientists and significant funds are devoted to research and development of these products, in the form of academic research, early-stage commercialization, or large corporate investment. 

GFI also operates like an accelerator for startups in this space. On the whole, we are focused on dramatically expanding the pipeline of food scientists, molecular biologists, tissue engineers, and entrepreneurs interested in working in this exciting area. We recruit and build founding teams to start new companies, and help startups with communications, regulatory issues, business plans, venture capital support, and all other aspects necessary to mobilize markets and food innovation. Working alongside governments and civil society, we can do the same here in India, and push the space forward globally.

What is the role of corporate and institutional engagement in propagating the work of GFI?

Creating systemic change entails working with large corporate entities, foundations, and governments. GFI engages with these bodies to explain the value of research and development (and mergers and acquisitions) in this field, especially as a critical component in addressing sustainability, climate change, and global hunger. The reception from governments, educational institutes, foundations, and corporations in India has been very encouraging. For instance, our excellent biopharma firms and academic research institutions can play a pivotal role in driving down the cost of cellular agriculture globally. The government’s initiatives (e.g. giving a fillip to food processing, farmer incomes, and millets research) are already aligned with promoting the development of plant-based meats. I look forward to working closely with more Indian institutions who can impact this space, tackle pressing problems, and benefit from massive commercial success along the way.

What is the business case for shifting towards plant-based and clean meat, eggs, and dairy?

Even if we set aside environmental, health, and cruelty concerns, the business opportunity of plant-based and clean foods is an overwhelmingly compelling reason to invest in them. Whether they are startups or large food companies, a potential order-of-magnitude increase in efficiency should have every innovator drooling at the prospect of transitioning to a new food system which is better across the board. The Indian agriculture and food processing sectors - which represent a diverse, sizeable chunk of our population - can benefit from the rising global demand for inputs such as pea protein and jackfruit. Similarly, our biopharma industry could benefit immensely from the clean meat sector.

Companies at the vanguard of this space, such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats, and Perfect Day, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the world’s most visionary businesspeople and funders. Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Li Ka-Shing are among the individuals funding this transition, joined by institutional investors such as Kleiner Perkins, DFJ, and Google Ventures. Perhaps most encouragingly, several major players in the food industry have realized we are in the early days of a major shift, and have bought into the market in order to capitalize, in the form of investments, acquisitions, and their own lines of alternatives. This includes Kellogg, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, and even the world’s largest conventional meat producers such as Tyson Foods, Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods, and PHW Group. We believe that Indian plant-based and clean foods startups can join the ranks of Perfect Day and Memphis Meats, and that our own visionary funders and corporate entities can power this growth. 

What are the challenges being faced and the opportunities in the Indian market for the expansion of GFI as opposed to the global market, given that the food culture, prevalence of vegetarianism, animal rights activism scenario, perception of sustainability in India is different from places abroad?

Many would be surprised to note that India, long considered a majority vegetarian country, actually has a primarily non-vegetarian population. According to a large-scale survey by the registrar general of India, 71% of Indian adults are not vegetarian. Moreover, India’s challenges of malnutrition and stunting must be addressed efficiently and sustainably. Our challenge in India is, therefore, to build the ecosystem so that entrepreneurs and corporations can bring through alternatives to factory farming, before per capita consumption of the products of conventional animal agriculture rises. We see massive opportunities for Indian agribusiness and meat producers, as well as entrepreneurs, to benefit from this ecosystem, as they have overseas. I’ve been very encouraged to see sustainability play a big role in our discussions thus far. We’ve also received significant support and encouragement from governments and academic research organizations in the country. India certainly has a key role to play in this space, and not just in domestic consumption. We absolutely can contribute to building a better future the world over - for humans, for animals, and for the planet.

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