Why burning food as fuel is a bad idea for India

India is making the grave mistake of premature imitation of the West by advancing the mandate for 20 percent ethanol blending in petrol. Almost all bioethanol in India is derived from sugarcane and food grains. This is guilty insanity in the midst of a looming catastrophic food shock and while our demographic dividend is imperilled by the adverse consequences of intergenerational protein malnutrition. Instead of burning food-as-fuel, we should deploy proven biotechnology to convert starch and sugar to high quality protein at India Scale and India Price.

Is India burning food-as-fuel?

Indeed we are. As Lydia Powell, Akhilesh Sati, and Vinod Kumar Tomar of the Observer Research Foundation pointed out in a January 2022 paper, there are serious concerns about: “The potential food security and water challenges posed by the revised targets for ethanol blending. Sugarcane is a water intensive crop grown on land meant for food production and it is easy to see how the competing demands from the fuel sector could threaten both water and food security. The response that only surplus sugarcane and rice are diverted to fuel production may not hold in the longer term… Increase in domestic production will remain a challenge and may come only at the expense of food security as arable land is scarce for a significant increase in domestic production of biofuels. The gains in tailpipe emissions from ethanol blending are not only too small but also redundant given India’s goal for electrifying surface transport. Benefit to farmers and rural economies from biofuel production is the key political driver of biofuel production across the world. For resource challenged India, this may bring only few benefits at very high cost. ”

Burning of sugar-as-ethanol

Recently the central government approved the amendments to the National Policy on Biofuels for advancing the target of blending 20 percent ethanol in petrol to 2025-26, from 2030. Ostensibly, “as many more feedstocks are being allowed for the production of biofuels, this will promote the Atmanirbhar Bharat and give an impetus to Prime Minister’s vision of India becoming ‘energy independent’ by 2047 ”. Premium rates have been announced for ethanol produced from sugar cane juice, syrup, and molasses. Although insignificant in amount compared to sugar-based feedstock, the use of “excess rice or damaged food grains” to produce bioethanol would also benefit from the proposed incentives.

DINDIGUL: TAMIL NADU: 12/01/2022: Workers harvesting sugarcane at a farm at Chettinaickenpatti near Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 for Pongal festival.  Photo: Karthikeyan G / The Hindu.

DINDIGUL: TAMIL NADU: 12/01/2022: Workers harvesting sugarcane at a farm at Chettinaickenpatti near Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 for Pongal festival. Photo: Karthikeyan G / The Hindu. | Photo Credit: KARTHIKEYAN G

How did we reach this situation?

The Green Revolution was successful in making India self-reliant in food grains, but also created a set of perverse incentives to produce evermore surpluses of wheat, rice, and sugarcane. The true cost of the Green Revolution is sadly seen in the chronic shortage of pulses, and in the degradation of soil, air, and water across the country. Massive air pollution occurs all over the country from inappropriate burning of rice straw. Sugarcane and rice fed by ‘fossil water’ should never have been grown in these arid areas at all – rather, pulses should have been.

Climate change effects would only worsen the conditions we have created for ourselves: a monsoon-dependent food system growing water-intensive crops in the wrong places at the wrong time, for the wrong markets, misguided by the wrong price signals distorted by unintended consequences of well-meant ‘pro-poor’ policies.

In India therefore, we face the problem of ‘too much starch and sugar, and not enough protein’. Consequently, every other child born in 21st Century India is stunted both physically and cognitively due to protein deficiency and malnutrition. India has suffered endemic protein malnutrition for at least three generations in the 20th century. And now in the 21st century, there is an epidemic of rural diabetes and obesity.

Indian consumers do not have much choice of proteins that satisfy their preferences in nutrition, taste, price, and convenience. Indian meat availability and consumption at ~ 6 Kg per person per year is just 10 per cent of the Chinese average (it is over 100kg in the US).

There are too many environmental and public-health risks (pandemics, zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance, soil and water degradation) associated with industrial animal killing for food. Globally too, consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics, sustainability, and provenance of their foods and beverages. Over 5 billion people in the world today have no meat as known in rich countries, and have only limited access to other edible proteins. Industrialized killing of animals for food will neither scale in time, nor sustainably, to feed a world of 10 billion people.

What are the better options for India?

We need food technologies that are resilient in extremes of climate change: in both climate warming as well as climate cooling scenarios (supervolcano eruption). Truly sustainable proteins such as mycoprotein would be the best hedge against all risks of climate change impacting conventional agriculture and industrial animal farming as we know it.

Plant based burger as fake meat or vegan hamburger representing a vegetarian protien in a 3D illustration style.

Plant based burger as fake meat or vegan hamburger representing a vegetarian protien in a 3D illustration style. | Photo Credit: wildpixel

There are now a few firms making meat-analogues based on different fungi, including mushroom mycelia, the tempeh fungus, and other traditional and novel organisms that are neither plants nor animals.

An elegant, proven, and profitable solution has been available for over 40 years, to abolish forever, both the protein deficit and the starch surplus.

Around the same time as our Green Revolution, leading industrialists and philanthropists in the UK began to worry about securing enough protein to feed the exploding global population. Initially, this meant using crops and feed supplements to feed animals raised for meat. A class of ‘single-cell-proteins’, best known in the form of the biomass of brewer’s and baker’s yeasts, had been industrially produced before WW1, and had also been used as food. WW2 spurred massive increase in cereal grain production, and in the West, threats to food security seemed to diminish. Only recently have rising concerns about Climate Change pushed further massive investments in scaling up sustainable alternatives to meat.

The miracle of mycoprotien

In the late 1960s Britain, however, Lord J. Arthur Rank and others continued to seek ways of not only industrially producing protein, but also utilizing the surplus starch being wasted in the flour mills. After a search involving over 3,000 microbial candidates, the edible filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum was found the most suitable. The collaboration between the bakers RHM, and ICI came to be known eventually as Quorn Foods, now part of Monde Nissin of The Philippines.The world’s only large scale production facility near Stokesley in the North of England makes around 40 million kg of mycoprotein paste that is formulated into a range of meat-analogues.

Mycoprotein is the name given to the biomass of the filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum, cultured in industrial 150,000 liter continuous air-lift fermenters. This process utilizes glucose as feedstock, along with nitrogen in the form of ammonia, and added micronutrients to ensure optimum growth. The mycoprotein biomass is isolated by centrifugation to remove excess water after heat treatment to reduce nucleic residues. This dough-like paste is then bound with egg protein or a vegan protein such as potato protein; flavors are added and the meat-like texture is created by pressure cooking and controlled freezing to bind the filaments together to simulate muscle-bundles found in animal-meat. Further formulation results in a full range of meat-analog products such as pieces, mince, burgers, sausages, nuggets, and deli-style variants. Presently all these chilled and frozen products require a cold-chain.

Mycoprotein is probably the most scalable, sustainable, versatile, and healthy protein, and is ideal for India. Mycoprotein also has potentially multiple metabolic benefits, especially in the Indian context. It promotes satiety, healthy gut microbiome, liver health, and muscle mass. It also enables better control of diabetes and obesity.

All other meat-alternative products available today compete for the limited supply of plant-based proteins (from wheat, soy, pea, etc.). However, mycoprotein is an established category of nutritionally complete protein not reliant on pulses, but cultivated on glucose feedstock. It offers an additional source of vegan protein suitable for all.

Mycoprotein from glucose feedstock has established price parity with industrially farmed animal meat. However, for long term success in the Indian market, the products need to achieve a price level matching pulses and cereals.

To make mycoprotein even more affordable at ‘India Stairs, India Price’, we at Sustein Ltd., are working on lower-cost feedstock such as sugarcane juice available in excess in India. Agri-residues (rice straw, bagasse etc.) could also be broken down to simpler sugars for use as lowest-cost feedstock in mycoprotein production. This would ensure a limitless abundance of high-quality complete protein to make a variety of meat-free meals, snacks, beverages, and even desserts.

One of the key pillars of the Indian economy is our much vaunted Demographic Dividend, driving internal consumer demand. With the increasing threat of automation and premature deindustrialization, the cognitive capability of our workforce assumes even greater importance in a 21st century knowledge-driven economy. Our demographic dividend is at serious peril of turning into a demographic disaster unless protein malnutrition is abolished with haste.

The author is managing director Sustein Ltd and Ahimsa Investments

Published on

May 23, 2022

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