The black and white squiggles on the grainy screen would mean little to the average eye. But to Vinod Verma, they were a source of endless exhilaration.
With childlike enthusiasm, the biologist at the Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow pointed to the screen attached to his microscope and pronounced hopeful news. Within 10-15 days, the stem cells – those squiggles on the screen – may become muscle cells of a goat, and sometime later, a chunk of edible mutton.
“Within one year, we will be able to commercialise it,” Verma said with unbridled confidence.
There are several obstacles in his path, though. For one, the cells need the right resources, known as culture medium, to grow (“they aren’t immortal”). For another, they need the right scaffolding, or the 3D structure that holds them up. “Only then can we get the cells going and get that tissue,” he conceded.
After that will come the biggest obstacle of all: getting the right flavour and texture. For the cultured mutton to sell, it has to taste like, well, mutton. But what makes mutton mutton or chicken chicken?
It’s a question that several researchers in India are wrestling with, including Nalam Madhusudhana Rao of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. Rao has been working in the field of cellular agriculture since his institution received the first grant of Rs 4.5 crore from the Department of Science and Technology to develop cultured meat in 2019.
Rao likens growing cultured meat to creating a perfume. “It’s a combination of molecules,” he explained. His process for developing sheep meat involves boiling regular meat, collecting the air above it, identifying the molecules, and synthetically producing them.
“You know, when you are in an Indian [apartment] complex and you can smell what your neighbour is cooking?” said Rao. “Those are the cells we need to examine.”
The cultured meat industry is still new in India, so new in fact that the nomenclature isn’t even consistent. Lab-grown meat, cultured meat, cell-based meat, cultivated meat, in-vitro meat are all terms used to describe meat produced using tissue engineering techniques.
To dispel this vagueness and lay down the fundamentals, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India created an independent committee in 2019. In its first meeting, the committee started from the very beginning – thinking of a “good name” for the meat. “After our first meeting, I remember some newspaper called it Jain Meat,” Rao said with a laugh. The committee met twice again to explain the basics to Food Safety and Standards Authorities. “They had no clue,” said Rao.
In March this year, the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad’s startup incubator CIIE.CO and the Good Food Institute, a global advocacy organisation for sustainable foods, commissioned a report to take a closer look at the industry in India and abroad. The yet-to-be-released report says that since the first cultivated hamburger in 2013, 55 startups spread across 19 countries have entered the field. Last December, Singapore began selling cultured meat in restaurants. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s then Prime Minister, took a bite of a cultivated steak in December and found it “delicious and guilt-free”. The United States decided to regulate the industry as early as 2019.
“It’s not science fiction anymore,” Deshpande said. “It’s not people asking if this is like test-tube babies anymore. Now, it’s just food. Of course, India is in a different situation.”
The IIM report too clarifies that India’s cultured meat industry is in its “infancy”. Given the “price-sensitive market with high chicken consumption (a meat typically priced more cheaply),” the report says, “we expect that cultivated meat may have a longer timeline to come to market in the country.”
There are a few positive signs, however. The Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai and the Good Food Institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a Centre of Excellence in Cellular Agriculture in 2019. The Good Food Institute, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the Humane Society International have hosted a summit on The Future of Protein. Last year, researchers at Clearmeat, a lab-based meat company in India, took a bite of their cultivated chicken and “well, it’s biased [verdict]” but found that it “tasted similar to a normal chicken nugget,” said co-founder Siddarth Manvati.
Cultured meat scores over traditional meat, according to its proponents. To start with, it doesn’t require mass slaughtering of animals the way traditional meat does. Scientists create cultured meat by drawing stem cells (the body’s raw materials) from an animal, bathing them “in a liquid containing nutrients to help them duplicate”, and finally growing them in a bioreactor.
“It’s biologically identical to [traditional] meat,” said Varun Deshpande, head at the Good Food Institute India. Or, as Rao put it, “it’s animal-free production of animal muscle tissue”.
Another advantage of cultured meat is its sustainability. It doesn’t tax the environment like industrial-scale animal agriculture, which is one of the leading causes of ecosystem loss and carbon emissions. A 2016 report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had said that there will be a 40% deficit in green fodder by 2050. “We wish people would eat chickpeas over chicken and broccoli over beef,” said Deshpande. “But it’s a foregone conclusion [that they won’t]. We are just exhausting the biospheres, the bank of nature, whatever you want to call it.”
The ongoing pandemic has shown yet another possible benefit of lab-grown meat – it can be untainted by diseases. As the IIM study points out, Covid-19 has increased public concern about zoonotic diseases and antibodies. “Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise in some ways for this industry,” said Rao. “People started believing that if they consume meat they were going to get some infection. We need to explain that lab-grown meat can be free of diseases.”
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition found that low- and middle-income countries make up 75% of the deaths from food-borne illnesses, while constituting roughly 40% of the population.
“[Even] devout meat-eaters...can’t ignore...the trucks carrying chickens packed together in wire cages. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s sad. From a food safety angle, it’s disgusting,” Deshpande said, adding that the supply chain in cultivated meat can be far more traceable than conventional meat.
“Cultured meat is not a sure-fire solution,” said Rao, “but it is one of the solutions that can be effective to solve these problems.”
These reasons will grow as incomes rise in India and the demand for protein increases. According to a 2017 report of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural output in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa would need to double by 2050 if the burgeoning demand has to be met. Already, roughly 40% of Indians eat meat or fish every week, as per the 2019 National Family Health Survey.
“Meat is an aspirational food in India – it’s a symbol of affluence,” Deshpande said. “Cultivated meat offers a path to fulfil [the increasing] demand. We need to take it out of the Michelin-star restaurants of Los Angeles and Singapore and bring it to places like India.”
An online survey by the National Research Centre on Meat in Hyderabad in 2020 found roughly half the respondents were willing to try lab-grown meat, 35% were willing to eat it regularly, and 35% were willing to replace conventional meat altogether. A separate study by the University of Bath in 2019 found even more interest among Indians. “Indian consumers were more driven by ethical concerns than consumers in China or the USA... [whereas] consumers in other countries were mainly driven by perceived healthiness, disgust, or excitement,” said Christopher Bryant, who led the Bath study.
It is possible that cultured meat may avoid the increasing politicisation of meat in India. Verma remembers when he first read Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post’s proof of concept for cultured meat. “Something clicked in my mind,” he said. “I thought, can we get a solution that helps us mitigate religious sentiments as well as greenhouse emissions? The continuous news of cow slaughtering and clashes – that really hurts me. I thought we should expedite this process and get this technology.”
The Good Food Institute has already begun asking scholars and clerics if cultured meat would be considered halal or jhatka. Clearmeat’s Manvati said he is discussing this very question with FMCG companies in Dubai.
To some, though, the bright spots are misleading. They believe it is not the Indian consumer who will take up cultured meat in the near future but the manufacturer.
“We should just accept the reality that for the next 10 to 15 years, there just isn’t a market [for cultured meat] here,” declared Rajesh Krishnamurthy. Krishnamurthy is the Chief Business Officer at Laurus Bio, a Bengaluru-based biomanufacturing organisation that makes the cell medium for alternative protein products. According to him, India should focus on entering the cultured meat supply chains. “I tell global companies, in five years, you will have somebody with big [bio]reactors in Mexico, Thailand and India grow cells for you. They can specialise in the end product, the taste. The companies say that would be a dream come true.”
For the past 15 years, Laurus Bio has specialised in making pharmaceutical products, such as vaccines, without animal inputs. But as biotechnology disrupted food, it saw an opening to enter a new space. Another player in the industry is the Mumbai-based Myoworks, which markets itself as a “food and ingredient supplier for cultivated meat”.
“India has the infrastructure and capacity to become a manufacturing hub for cell lines and provide manufacturing avenues for antibodies, constructs, synthetic biology tool kits, pathway analysis globally,” said the IIM report. “A large talent pool [and] infrastructure of bio-incubators ensure that the same can be achieved at much lower costs.”
But first, there is a need to convince the doubting Thomases. Rao said a few people in the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India questioned if it makes sense to develop the industry. In its defence, researchers cited the food shortage argument, that the growing population would require a massive increase in animal farming, but “since the challenge is not immediate, they didn’t understand it”.
The IIM report admits the industry is in its nascency in India. One reason for this could be the country’s culinary diversity. “India doesn’t have a Hero product like burgers or pizza,” Deshpande said. “We have a diversity that doesn’t exist in the quintessential American diet. Curries, kebabs, keema, biryani – you have to make sure your product can stand that [heterogeneity] test.”
Manvati agrees. To be accepted, he said, “you need taste, texture, smell and price”. He estimated that he can sell his product in three years for roughly Rs 900-1,000 per kilogram. For comparison, he added, raw chicken currently sells for Rs 100-500 per kilogram and processed meats such as sausages and patties for up to Rs 1,000 per kilogram.
Right now, a major financial bottleneck is the culture media, which accounts for roughly 80% of the cost. Each medium, filled with growth factors that signal the cells to grow and differentiate into muscle or fat cells, is different for each meat.
Another bottleneck is the edible scaffold, which IIT Guwahati bioengineer Biman Mandal and others are trying to solve with 3D printers. His lab originally used 3D printers to make scaffolds for producing bone, skin, muscles, blood vessels and more for trauma patients. Now his attention has turned to meat. “The techniques and expertise are the same,” he said. “3D printed scaffolds have precision and scalability. Someday we will be able to 3D print all food.”
In the end, though, more than price and taste, it may all come down to trust.
“Roughly 30% of the people I speak to react negatively [to cultured meat],” Manvati said. “I don’t disrespect them. The food industry has been betraying people.”
Several researchers interviewed for this story brought up the burning debate around genetically-modified foods and stressed repeatedly that, technically, their product does not fall under the same definition.
“There is ambiguity and a lack of understanding on whether cultivated meat should be classified as a GMO or non-GMO food,” the IIM report says. “Global startups...have successfully shown that it is possible to produce cultivated meat products without genetic modification.”
“Everyone in this industry is trying to play it safe and slow,” Manvati said. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India “is concerned with how people would validate and differentiate the product, how it is portrayed. Our social obligation is to clear this air.”
For now, the last word belongs to Girish Patil, principal scientist at the National Research Centre on Meat. Sometimes, he explained, it’s simply unclear which technological innovation will take off in India. “People thought the vacuum cleaner would revolutionise India, but it didn’t. Instead, the washing machine is a staple part of many households. Whether this [cultured meat] will be a vacuum cleaner or washing machine, only time will tell. We do not have the answers to all the questions.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the principal scientist at the National Research Centre on Meat and misstated the number of summits on the Future of Protein. The errors have been corrected.
Karishma Mehrotra is an independent journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.