The greatest health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has spurred people to adopt a new dietary lifestyle, dumping processed, packaged, unhealthy food items for healthier options.
This has thrown open a new market for plant-based foods that are healthy, easy on the environment, and that are produced without killing animals.
As is the case with any sunrise industry, the competition (read entrenched players of the animal-based food industry) has not taken the threat from vegan food product companies lying down.
The campaign to dub vegan products as elitist or as a ploy by corporations to push chemicals in the garb of natural plant-based food products should be seen in this light.
But plant-based foods (or vegan foods) have finally got official recognition. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently launched a new logo ('V' with a plant on top, all in green) to help consumers recognise plant-based foods. This has also given a fillip to companies that have entered the market with offerings such as jackfruit-based meat, oat milk, or cashew cheese.
According to a UN FAO report, India has the lowest rate of per capita annual meat consumption in the world at around 4.5 kg. A Pew Research Center survey puts the number of vegetarians in India at 39%, which works out to 450-470 million. That's a huge market, by any standard. A huge market for vegan food businesses to grow.
A study by retail broking firm Nirmal Bang puts the size of just the plant-based meat industry in India at $30-40 million in 2021, which is largely driven by the packaged food industry, with a small share of business coming from hotels and restaurants.
In about three years, the plant-based meat industry is slated to grow to $500 million. If you add the export market to this, we are looking at a multi-billion-dollar opportunity.
Such high growth will create thousands of jobs across the value chain - from agriculture to retail. We already have retail chains hosting a healthy foods section.
They would do well to expand the selection to contain a variety of vegan foods from plant-based meat alternatives to dairy-free ice cream.
Quick service restaurants such as McDonald's and KFC present another growth opportunity. Incidentally, these chains have introduced vegan options on their menu.
Most importantly, a shift in dietary choices - from meat and dairy to plant-based alternatives - will have a positive impact on an increasingly warm planet.
Less meat consumption means less water consumed; it also frees up agricultural land to grow crops for food instead of feed for livestock.
The millions of cows, goats and poultry that are bred to satiate our ever-increasing appetite for dairy and meat products are a huge source of Greenhouse Gas (GHGs) emissions.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, livestock production currently contributes at least 14.5% of all GHGs.
If current production levels continue unabated, it is expected to account for nearly 81% of the emissions that will raise global temperatures by 1.5°C in 2050. And that will affect everyone, everywhere on the planet, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has done.
Moving away from animal-based products also has an impact on the health of the individual and of society at large.
The United Nations' report, Preventing the Next Pandemic, states that 60% of known infectious diseases in humans, as well as 75% of the new infectious diseases that can endanger humans, are through animals. If we move to a plant-based diet, we are less likely to trigger the next new pandemic.
What would it take for people to move to a plant-based diet? For one, plant-based substitutes need to be more accessible to all and affordable.
One might argue that the onus of growing the fledgling plant-based food industry lies on the players who need to build confidence in their products, spread awareness, and bust myths.
This - along with campaigns by nonprofits in the space - will drive up demand for plant-based foods. But policymakers have a major responsibility as well. The government needs to provide both moral and fiscal support, to increase the supply of easily available and affordable alternatives.
Governments of the world are now seriously examining the carbon footprint of all industries and are providing tax breaks and fiscal stimuli to businesses that take concrete action to reduce their climate footprint.
The electrical vehicle industry is a case in point. EV automobiles are still costly to produce but the end cost to the customer is subsidised in many cases by the government.
For example, several state governments offer a basic subsidy of up to Rs 1.5 lakh on EV four-wheelers. Some have waived registration charges and road tax on such vehicles.
In the case of every sunrise industry, the government has offered tax breaks, created Special Economic Zones, or increased public spending. It is time for plant-based food products, which pollute less and consume fewer resources, to benefit from such a promotional policy.
For instance, the government can reduce GST on products with a lower carbon footprint. Subsidies to reduce export prices, duty exemptions, credit facilities, and low-cost loans, can turn India into the largest exporter of, say, plant-based meat, rather than buffalo meat.
If the supply of alternatives is assured, demand is easier to create. With consumers, the taste is all-important. Most consumers, when given the choice of a burger that tastes the same as a Maharaja Mac and that doesn't involve killing, would go with the alternative. This could be for ethical reasons, arising out of climate consciousness, or indeed, for health reasons.
If the last two years have taught us something, it is that we cannot continue to live as we did earlier. If we are serious about keeping this planet habitable for future generations, we have no alternative but to change.
(The author is the CEO of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), India's apex animal rights body.)
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