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Honing Academic Expertise for Alternative Proteins

New technologies and innovations seldom break through all at once. Instead, they gradually gain traction among the populace according to a pattern that can be visualised as an adoption curve.

And the adoption of alternative proteins is intended to have a measurable positive impact on the environment, supporting a number of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals including responsible consumption & production, and zero hunger.

But these protein alternatives are yet to gain a stable footing in the mass market. Many still see them as a passing fad. One of the greatest obstacles from the customer’s perspective is price. The majority are not prepared to pay a higher price for a tofu cutlet compared to a regular one. As a result, providers need to make their products as expensive or less expensive than animal-based ones going forward, in order to appeal to customers.

While consumer interest and sales slowly pick up pace for this segment, along with a gradual surge in private sector investment, one critical aspect still remains to be explored- ‘building the talent pool’. The alternative protein field has a significant need for scientists and engineers who can advance plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat, egg, and dairy products.

While a growing number of students are eager to join this emerging field, there is a notable workforce bottleneck. This labour gap stems from the lack of educational programmes dedicated to alternative proteins. Because educational institutions are responsive to student needs and interests, students can play a crucial role in accelerating the creation of alternative protein courses, majors, and other institutional programmes.

Meating the opportunity

A major global initiative in this direction comes from the Good Food Institute (GFI) termed as the Alt Protein Project; a global student movement dedicated to turning universities into engines for alternative protein education, research, and innovation with 36 student chapters across 17 countries and 5 continents.

Since 2020, GFI has established student groups at key universities that might be well-positioned to lead the alternative protein revolution. Each group has members from different disciplines and academic stages working together to define and launch the high-impact initiatives needed for alternative proteins to succeed.

GFI Israel launched the first pilot course at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the spring semester of 2020. Appropriately named “Cultivated Meat and Plant-based Meat”, the course was offered in the Faculty of Biochemistry and the Food Sciences. Since then, the course has expanded to two additional universities: Tel-Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. In Tel-Aviv University, the pilot course on alternative proteins broke the registration record with 70 graduate students joining the course.

When students of the Stanford Alt Protein Project noticed there were no courses about alternative proteins offered by their university, they got to work. In Spring 2021, they debuted Stanford University’s first course in the field: “Rethinking Meat: An Introduction to Alternative Proteins.” The inaugural class was a smash hit, with 100 enrollees Zooming in each week to learn about various aspects of alternative protein science, entrepreneurship, and policy.

In line with this project, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore emerged as the first in Asia to approve a new undergraduate course titled “Future Foods – Introduction to Advanced Meat Alternatives”, for the 2021-2022 academic year. The elective course is being offered to third and fourth-year science and engineering students with a major in Food Science and Technology.

“Alternative protein production has emerged as a powerful economic engine in Asia, potentially creating lucrative job opportunities for skilled young people from across the novel food industry landscape. We look forward to working with other Asian universities to prepare students for a future technology-driven world, contribute to enhanced food security, and create real societal impact in the region”, says Prof. William Chen, Director, Food Science and Technology Programme, Nanyang Technological University.

National University of Singapore (NUS) also announced a 13-week graduate module on future foods as of January 2022- “Introduction to Advanced Meat Alternatives”. The module is offered by NUS’ Department of Food Science and Technology.

Turning towards the West, John Hopkins University in the US recently launched ‘Food of the Future’, the school’s first academic course devoted to alternative protein education. The virtual course teaches students the intricate science behind the production of plant and cultivation-based meat, dairy, eggs and seafood.

Further down at the south eastern part of the world, Australia, Cellular Agriculture Australia (CAA) has launched the first online course in cellular agriculture in August 2022 to prepare what the organisation describes as “the massive wave of talent” that will be needed in future. Consisting of six modules covering areas such as precise fermentation and scaling cellular agriculture, the course is huge for the future food movement.

What’s happening in India?

India’s smart protein sector has truly taken off over the last two years – with new products going to market every few months, more than 50 startups now active in the space, and an ecosystem of 80+ companies supporting the growth of these startups. And now the country is addressing the critical needs around capacity building in this sector.

“The total economic opportunity (domestic market size + exports) for smart protein in 2030 ranges from Rs 12,075 crore ($1.5 billion) to Rs 33,194 crore ($4.2 billion) in India. Out of this, plant-based dairy exhibits highest domestic growth, while plant-based meat might hold the highest export share. In addition, the smart protein categories such as plant-based meat, plant-based dairy, plant-based eggs, fermentation-derived meat and cultured meat, could create 4 lakh jobs by 2030”, says ​​Varun Deshpande, President, Good Food Institute Asia.

Delhi Smart Protein Project (DSPP) has been launched as India’s first chapter of the Alt Protein Project in October 2022. The objective is to build a dedicated talent pool in India with diverse expertise in biochemistry, molecular biology, food science, meat science, agriculture science, plant physiology, tissue engineering, protein chemistry, and much more.

At present, students from Delhi University (DU) colleges such as Hindu, St Stephen’s and Gargi are leading an active community to raise awareness and generate discourse around smart protein.

“We at DSPP are currently mapping all 77 colleges that come under DU, comprising of around 1 lakh students in order to collectively harness the infrastructure and resources that DU has to offer, to build a dedicated talent pipeline for the smart protein space. Also, we are not limiting ourselves only to DU, we will be including more universities and institutes such as National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT),  The All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), etc.”, says Samarth Bhatnagar, Co-organiser, Delhi Smart Protein Project.

With DSPP as the first chapter, GFI plans to launch more chapters across cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, Guwahati etc. in the coming times.

Playing a crucial role in this initiative, Dr Chindi Vasudevappa, Vice-Chancellor, National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), under the Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) says, “A few of our B-tech students at NIFTEM have achieved great things in the alternative protein space by developing vegan and plant-based protein products. They have also received encouragement from entrepreneurs for taking their products to an international level. It is good to see that the momentum is picking up all over the world towards plant-based food. Although many institutes in India are working on this aspect, we need to collectively build a curriculum to promote this sector further at the academic level.”

Recognising the challenge that designing courses from scratch can be time-consuming for some educators, GFI has created an exclusive curriculum repository to facilitate the creation of new educational offerings. This resource aims to equip both students and educators with the tools needed to support developing meaningful careers in the alternative protein field.

By creating flagship alternative protein courses, instructors or faculties can indeed position their universities to attract top talent deeply interested in alternative proteins. Universities that offer expanded course offerings will ultimately be able to develop full certificate programmes, majors, or minors as well as develop a reputation for excellence in the field of alternative protein science and innovation.

Sharing her opinion, Amrita Sadarangani, Director, Gujarat Biotechnology University (GBU) project at the University of Edinburgh says, “We are planning to develop elective programmes where smart protein is definitely a focus. We have collectively had a good engagement with GFI over a long time and now is the time to coalesce this association as we look forward to showcase what we have made at GBU which is very relevant.”

Building a robust workforce in any field requires talent from all walks of life and parts of the world, not just students on a traditional academic path. That’s where collaboration of all stakeholders will have a high impact in taking this space of alternative proteins to the next level.

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