India and its plant-forward future

Plant-rich diets are one of the most impactful solutions to reversing global warming. Where does India stand in this planet-forward movement?

Last weekend we took the Drawdown Eco-Challenge offline.

Partnering with The Bombay Canteen (the only Indian restaurant on the plant forward-50 list) in this Canteen Class we looked at the solution #4 Plant Rich Diet to understand the growing innovation in plant-based foods (from retail to restaurants) in India.

According to Project Drawdown:

If 50% of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduces meat consumption overall, we estimate at least 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone.

If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided, making healthy, plant-rich diets one of the most impactful solutions at a total of 66 gigatons reduced

We were thrilled to bring together a panel from different backgrounds and professions who are committed to solving a spectrum of problems through a plant-forward future in India.

We had Amit Mehta CEO and founder of UNIVED, India’s first vegan-organic certified plant-based healthcare brand especially targetting athletes, that is now putting plant-based “vegan meat” products like their Jackfruit Indian Curry on the shelves. Amit started UNIVED 10 years ago and has seen the progression of protein sources switch from meat-based to plant-promising over the course of the decade.

Karan Bajaj, an entrepreneur with a background in sustainability and Keertida Phadke a plant-forward chef-entrepreneur joined us to chat about their new venture in building a plant-forward retail product based on jackfruit.

Marissa Bronfman, Founder of My Shot of Gold and Bowl Bar gave us some global insights from the plant forward movement and India’s potential to leapfrog problems of the west.

Thomas Zacharias, Chef-partner at The Bombay Canteen shared insights on how he has seen the market for local vegetables and fruits grow in the last year and how restaurants can change the narrative of being plant forward by serving delicious food.

Varun Deshpande, Managing Director, India, Good Food Institute, tied things together with the economic and social importance of this movement benefitting trade, farmer welfare, and, health and nutrition of the people of India.

Here’s what we talked about:

Social and Cultural Perceptions of “Plant-Based” Eating in India:

Although conscious eaters are a niche market, there is a transition seen as consumers are focusing on health (first) and sustainability. Protein is an increasingly growing trend and as per capita income increases eating meat is being regarded as a mark of affluence. In 2017 the National Family Health Survey (2015-2016)  reported that 70% of Indians self identify as Non-Vegetarian, even though most only eat eggs.

Although as per capita income increases and meat becomes a main source of protein, Amit observes a decline in meat consumption of his customers as vegetarian alternatives are being offered into their daily diets. His customers who are mostly athletes and who were primarily non-vegetarian (consumed meat on an average of four times a week) have over a period changed their diet to eating meat maybe once or twice.

“The younger generation is growing up with sports and health being thrown at them, they are growing up with a consciousness towards health and well being.”

Amit Mehta

As awareness grows and health becomes a priority it is a possibility that the more affluent people become meat consumption is likely to rise but with an early education or awareness on health (like at UNIVED) there could be a shift towards a more conscious diet for personal health and plant health.

The Current Narrative on “Plant-based” Foods in Retail and Restaurants:

Common buzzwords we are seeing marketed on plant-based foods are Heath, Nutrition, Fibre, and a lot of Protein. According to a survey 2013 -17 packaged goods mentioning protein doubled. Bread a product that had minimal protein had it mentioned on the label.

Although studies do indicate Indians are protein deficient is it true to those of us who have full access it. And if the protein is what we want, do we really understand it?

Keertida suggests we need to move away from the protein-centred discourse and simply to a one on making vegetarian food delicious. Currently at her restaurant Karlo Art Kitchen and Cafe she finds “hard-core” non-vegetarians saying, “I can’t believe the food is vegetarian, it’s so good!”. Changing the narrative of plant-based foods being inferior to meat is an important one that restaurants and chefs can take up by being ingredient focussed. “Health is important,” she says, “but it shouldn’t be the only reason why we are eating plants.”

Marissa shared examples of how plant-based brands like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are even changing the face of fast food by addressing the environmental issues (emission from factory farming) and claims to be nutirionally superior to meat.

“People are eating this food simply because it’s tasty”

Marissa Bronfman

Varun agrees and points out that “this is the promise of this country”. Similar to India’s technology transformations, disruptions in energy and digital connectivity, we can accelerate plant-based innovations and leapfrog the environmental and health issues that we see in the “west”.

Who’s shaking my (Culinary) Confidence:

Chefs and Cooks have a lead role to play in how people are encouraged to take up eating plant forward food. Even Gordan Ramsay’s restaurant in Singapore is now serving the Impossible. So as cooks and restaurants are progressing towards plants, culinary schools are also looking to reform their syllabus, to teach more on techniques and cooking with varieties of vegetables.

Chef Thomas sees this progress at his alma mater WGSHA but says that it is not just up to culinary schools and institutions but also chefs who need to motivate and inspire themselves from the bounty of vegetables, spices, pulses, and, fruits we have around us.

“As chefs and restaurants we can change the narrative.” says Thomas, “Some times even vegetarians feel some vegetables are inferior. We are responsible to expand peoples palates beyond the current offerings.”

Here’s what young cooks say they can do to reverse climate change.

Inclusivity in this transition

Varun gives us a great example of how David Yeung the founder of Green Monday created to embrace “the positive adoption of green practices rather than refraining people from meat consumption. The goal is to raise awareness and inspire the public on the benefits of green diets, nurturing the love towards our planet, and the pursuit of harmony in life”.

The positivity and inclusion of Green Monday vs the exclusion of a “meatless Monday” reflected in a study that dropped the ratio of “hardcore meat lovers” in Hong Kong from 27.1% in 2014 to 17.2% in 2016, and further dropped it to 15.2% in 2018.

Amit also stressed that companies and influencers need to think of the transition to being broader than just protein or a health trend. What makes a meat dish in India so tasty? He asks. Marinations,masalas, and cooking techniques are the main processes that create spectacular flavoured meat dishes. Why not apply the same to vegetables?

“We can make vegetables taste really great with these same spices and techniques and with that comes nutrition too.” Amit Mehta

Labelling of products is also an important part in getting people to try and taste. On the global mission we learnt about a study at Stanford University, that found students were less likely to eat food labelled as “vegan” or “vegetarian” but more likely to try dishes that had no labels or were labelled by the ingredients.

Some questions answered:

What’s the market or economic advantage of plant-based foods or restaurants?

Vox’s recent article mentioned that In India and China, consumers are eager meat alternatives. We already see this in parts of Asia as restaurants and hotels like the Hyatt group are having major success with its plant-based foods initiative. Restaurants that are plant-forward have higher mark-ups because of the trend.

Plant-based foods solve multiple layers of problems- reduced carbon emissions, better nutrition, lesser water use, creating lucrative markets for farmers, the potential for trade from producing more pulses and legumes because of demand, regenerative agriculture, organic focus, animal welfare, Etc. This creates a great deal of appeal for investors.

The kids are plant-negative. How do we get the kids to eat more fruit and veg?

Food Education is growing in schools with programs to teach kids to grow their own food, cook it and learn about science, math, politics, environment through food. Projects that are focused around food education: Flavour School, Chukuwata, The Green Bronx Machine

What’s the best way to substituting ingredients while cooking towards plant-based or vegan?

In Thomas’ words “Celebrate the ingredient and don’t substitute it. Large amounts of our food in India is vegan. Let’s just focus on the deliciousness”

How do we address the Socio-Political narrative of being a vegetarian in India?

From what we’ve understood baing plant-forward stands for inclusivity and collective health of the people and the planet.

Reports on Cow Lynchings have increased in increased frequency and in protest, we are seeing beef fests held across Kerala with people cooking and serving meat to oppose new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act ban the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets.

With the history of religion and politics and caste lining our plates and policies, the plant-forward movement in India ideally should not be intertwined with any one of those narratives.

In Conclusion: What do we envision for the future?

We need to invest more in plant-based start-ups so we can spend on prevent health problems rather than solve health problems Marissa Bronfman

Can we leverage the pulses market and growing technology?  Can India create the next Impossible or Beyond Meat? By being plant-forward India is competing for the global supply chain. And as consumption of plant-based foods rises we can avoid intensive animal agricultural systems. Varun Deshpande

A plant forward future seems inevitable. Whatever transition happens will affect our farmers first. How can they be included in this conversation? Thomas Zacharias

Great to look at the west for inspiration but it is important to look at the options that are sustainable to our ecosystem. Keertida Phadke

The greatest impact is on ourselves and on our families. We should start there and see the possibilities of the future we can have. Amit Mehta