Can India lead the 'vegan economy' against future pandemics?

The global market already has a huge demand for Indian organic supplements and medicines. The 'Vegan India' brand construction promoting cleanliness, nutrition and safety could be a goldmine of opportunity as the world moves towards the healthy and organic

Updated: Jul 17, 2020 05:33:13 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

The WHO estimates that 75 percent of new diseases discovered in the last decade have originated in animals (zoonosis). This is primarily because more than 90 percent of the meat we consume is sourced from a vast industry of factory farms that house farm animals in unhygienic conditions. This presents a perfect breeding ground for viruses. To prevent future virus outbreaks, a part of the solution may lie in moving towards a more plant-based diet. In this regard, India might be sitting on a gold mine of opportunity.

The vegan movement advocates for a shift to a 100 percent plant-based diet with the objective of ending animal cruelty. While India is still a milk-loving nation, it is well placed to anchor the movement away from meat consumption. The hostility against the slaughter of animals, immense regulation of abattoirs, and prevalence for meat and egg-free apartments and localities are all proof of India’s natural inclination towards this cause.

The WHO estimates that the herbal and ayurvedic market will reach $5 trillion by 2050 from the existing $62 billion, with China and India having 13% and 2.5% shares, respectively. In 2019, Barclays Plc estimated the meat substitute industry would grow to $140 billion in the next decade; this is likely to be higher owing to the present crisis. The time couldn’t have been riper for India to capitalise on this huge opportunity to promote its vegetarian philosophy, products and beliefs.

India should leverage its natural strengths by strategic actions

The image that India is one of the only major vegetarian-friendly economies in the world can work to its advantage in the global marketplace if we work hard. India has mastered the vegetarian supply chain for snacks and other packaged food items, which are not the case in animal oil-rich global packaged-snack supply chains.

In recent years, the Indian state of Kerala has immensely profited from the export of jackfruit for the global vegan market as a substitute for meat. The otherwise nuisance crop in the state is now being exported to the tune of more than 500 tonnes yearly.

The global market already has a huge demand for Indian organic supplements and medicines. Organic products include original harvested honey, juice of fruits and vegetables, herbs, etc. Ayurvedic products alone are exported from India at close to $500 million yearly. As the popularity of Yoga, Spiritualism, Ayurveda, etc. has spread like wildfire in the West, India has claimed the spot as the original source of herbal and organic goods for a healthy life. Having strong demand, these products are already sold at great prices abroad.

The 'Vegan India' campaign, with respect to food products, can be constructed as a symbol of the global fight against Covid-19. The brand construction promoting cleanliness, nutrition and safety should be complemented by on-ground institutional mechanisms. Though vegan conferences are not a novel idea, India should strive to create a Kumbh Mela of sorts for vegans to flock to the Indian shores to indulge in Indian vegan delights.

It is interesting to note, many vegans abroad choose Indian vegetarian restaurants over others as they guarantee a cuisine closer to their dietary preferences. In this regard, India has the potential to export its diverse culinary arts in addition to limited Indian cuisines available abroad and promote them in the line of plant-based, healthy, tasty and nutritious food for good health.

Not too long ago, Indian products such as ghee were rendered unhealthy for the body by western media. However, these views have presently been overturned upon latest research and, along with ghee; other products such as cold-pressed oils of mustard and coconut have also gained traction.

With India’s image as a vegetarian powerhouse and the variety of climatic zones and soil conditions it has, there is ample scope in gaining a foothold in the global vegan economy. India has 45,000 diverse plant species spread over 16 different agro-climatic zones. Its rich history of Ayurveda and herbal medicine is recorded since Vedic times.

India, however, despite its potential, unfortunately focuses more on the export of crude substance or primary extracts. Alternatively, the market for branded finished products should be tapped. Imagine a scenario where Indian brands like Haldiram's filling the aisles of global supermarkets and Indian fast-food restaurants delivering a healthy alternative to the ubiquitous western fast-food chains. The time to act is now as global crises have a history of creating new global champions.

The government has already given incentives to drug manufacturers, entrepreneurs, AYUSH institutions etc. for registration of their products for exports to targeted countries. A further push with the help of Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), to identify the strengths of Indian agricultural products with respect to vegan requirements, is the need of the hour.

For India to be able to tap into the global vegan market, it has to improve (1) efficiency in agricultural practices and knowledge, (2) R&D of food supply-chain, (3) quality of supply chains linking the producers with the global demands and regulations, and (4) standards and labelling of vegan products.

India has a potential for moral leadership in a number of areas; anchoring global vegetarianism/veganism is one of them. It’s up to the foresight of decision-makers and entrepreneurs to find these opportunities and take advantage of them, and push India’s image as a global vegan economic powerhouse.

Ankush Das is a Policy Analyst at ETTMA and Kowthamraj VS is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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