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India’s plant-based food market set to boom, reaching $5 bn by 2032: PBFIA

Fueled by health consciousness, ethics, and a large vegetarian population, India's plant-based food market is experiencing a surge, says PBFIA’s Sanjay Sethi

Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director, Plant-Based Foods Industry Association

Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director, Plant-Based Foods Industry Association

The recent India Plant-Based Foods Show, a game-changer event organized by the Plant-Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA) and the Indian Chamber of Commerce, attracted much international attention and investors. Held at G20 venue, Bharat Mandapam, with the backing of key governmental bodies like the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, the event showcased over 25 Indian brands, solidifying the country's prominence in the plant-based food sector and propelling it as a global leader in this booming industry. With upcoming investor sessions planned at the third Plant Based Foods Summit on May 21, 2024, and support from organizations like ProVeg Incubator, Thryve, USSEC, and various embassies, the future of plant-based food in India is looking delicious. Bizz Buzz spoke to Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director, Plant-Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA), to understand India's prowess in the plant-based foods sector

The Indian plant-based food market is experiencing a surge. Can you quantify this growth and pinpoint the key drivers?

Absolutely, in India, people are getting more health-conscious, thinking about the environment and the ethics of animal agriculture. It's like a whole movement. And as more consumers realize the benefits of plant-based diets, the demand for these products is shooting up. India's got some unique factors in the mix, like our huge vegetarian population and cultural preferences for plant-based eating. Plus, with the middle class growing and changing their consumption habits, the market's ripe for growth. Today, there are many emerging startups and companies diving into plant-based alternatives. They're really shaking things up and investing in new ideas. With the right moves, we could easily see India's plant-based food market hitting the $5 billion milestone by 2032. But it's not just about the money—it's about shaping the future of food. We're talking about a solid 15 per cent growth rate year after year until the next decade. To make it happen, we've got to get creative, innovate, and build products that not only taste great but also keep things simple with minimal ingredients. We've got to stay on top of what consumers want. It's a real game-changer, and we're all in this together.

Beyond the domestic market, what key strategies can Indian plant-based food companies adopt to compete and export their products internationally?

Indian plant-based food companies have a golden opportunity to tap into the global market, thanks to our rich tradition of plant-based foods and cost-effective production methods. We're talking about quality at an affordable price point here. Our flavors pack a punch and are our secret weapon. With the Indian diaspora spread worldwide, from the Middle East to the USA, there's a hungry market waiting for products like plant-based meats, tofu, and tempeh. Plus, our lower food processing costs give us a competitive edge. Innovation is, of course, key. With our diverse array of spices, we can create unique plant-based recipes that cater to global tastes without skimping on quality. Getting those organic, non-GMO, and vegan certifications can boost our products' credibility overseas. By really tuning in to what consumers want and ticking all the regulatory boxes, we can rule the international markets. We will need solid distribution networks, logistics, and some serious brand-building mojo to make our mark.

Since India already has many vegetarians, what's the PBFIA doing to make plant-based food even more appealing and accessible for everyone?

PBFIA, being the only national association in India for plant based foods, is adopting a multi-faceted approach that encompasses research, education, advocacy, collaboration, consumer engagement, and investment for innovation.

We are actively raising awareness about the benefits of plant-based diets and the availability of plant-based alternatives through educational campaigns, workshops, and outreach programs. One such initiative, the Plant Based Navaratri campaign, was aimed at empowering consumers to make informed choices that align with their dietary preferences and values.

We also advocate for policies and initiatives that support the growth of the plant-based food sector by regularly communicating with government bodies such as FSSAI, APEDA, MoFPI, MoA and more. We advocate for subsidies and incentives for plant-based food manufacturers, promote labeling regulations to ensure transparency and consumer choice, and encourage the inclusion of plant-based options in government programs and institutions. We also work to expand the market for plant-based alternatives by collaborating with retailers, restaurants, and food service providers to increase the availability of plant-based options in the marketplace. We are working together with stakeholders across the food industry and leveraging collective resources and expertise to accelerate the transition to plant-based diets.

India boasts a strong agricultural base. Can you identify underutilized crops or ingredients with high potential for developing indigenous plant-based protein sources?

India's got an amazing agricultural scene. There are tons of crops and ingredients that we're not really tapping into yet, but they've got immense potential for making plant-based protein.

While pulses like lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans are commonly consumed here, varieties like moth beans (matki), cowpeas (lobia), pigeon peas (arhar/toor), and horse gram (kulthi) are underutilized and can contribute to diversifying protein sources. Millets such as finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (bajra), foxtail millet (kangni), and sorghum (jowar) are protein-rich, gluten-free, and nutrient-dense, and can be used in cereals, snacks, and baked goods. Oil seeds like sesame seeds (til), pumpkin seeds (kaddu), sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds (alsi) are all rich in protein and healthy fats, along with the foundation of our industry, soybean. They can be used in plant-based protein bars, spreads, or snacks. Jackfruit can be used as a plant-based meat alternative or in protein-powders. Moringa oleifera, commonly known as drumstick tree, is a highly nutritious plant with edible leaves and pods rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Moringa leaves or powder can be used in soups, sauces, or smoothies. Buckwheat is rich in protein, fiber, and essential amino acids and its flour can be used in gluten-free baking or to make noodles, pancakes, and porridge. Aquatic plants like water chestnuts (singhara) and lotus seeds (makhana) are traditional foods in India with high protein content. If we focus on these crops and really get creative with research and innovation, India could become a powerhouse in sustainable plant-based protein production.

So, with India's strong agricultural muscle, how do you think we can lead the charge in sustainable plant-based protein production?

The key to leading sustainable plant-based protein production lies in our "Plant Protein Clusters" - one-stop shops offering shared resources, funding, and top-notch ingredients for creating healthy, sustainable, and delicious plant-based food. We are building India's first plant protein cluster at Bhiwadi and shall eventually expand across 12 states. By bringing together researchers, entrepreneurs, and food manufacturers, these clusters are basically brainstorming and development hubs for the future of plant-based food. They'll help companies develop new technologies and recipes to create even more exciting plant-based options. They will bridge the demand-supply gap, promote local sourcing, and act as hubs for research, ultimately making India a leader through increased production capacity, diverse plant-based options, and a greener food system. As governments play a pivotal role in shaping policies and regulations, we continue to engage with them to garner support for our initiatives and promote sustainable practices across the food supply chain.

Affordability is a big deal here in India. How's the PBFIA making sure everyone can get their hands on plant-based options?

At the PBFIA, we're rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with manufacturers to tackle this head-on. With the establishment of India's first plant protein cluster, raw material procurement hurdles are resolved and machinery is democratized. By facilitating cost-efficient production processes, we're making plant-based options more accessible to a wider audience. We're nudging big players like Nestle to jump on board with local manufacturing using homegrown crops. We're big on local sourcing too. It helps in cutting transportation costs, minimizing supply chain disruptions, supporting our farmers and the local economy, and keeping products fresh. We're also spreading the word far and wide through our campaigns, showing folks just how accessible and budget-friendly plant-based diets can be. From capacity-building programs to enabling financing, we're empowering consumers to make smart, sustainable choices. We're teaming up with government agencies, nonprofits, and other movers and shakers to push for policies that make plant-based options a no-brainer for everyone.

Plant-based foods sometimes get a bad rap for being bland or boring. How's the PBFA shaking things up in the taste department?

Indeed, misconceptions can hinder the adoption of plant-based foods. At the PBFIA, we're working hand-in-hand with food scientists and chefs to whip up plant-based alternatives that are not only nutritious but also delicious. Through innovative flavor profiles and texture enhancement techniques, we're proving that plant-based foods can be just as satisfying and flavorful as their animal-based counterparts. We're teaming up with manufacturers and retailers to make sure these products hit the shelves in supermarkets and restaurants. We actively engage with consumers through product tastings organized by brands at food institutes and malls. We highlight success stories during conferences and sessions, and are dedicated to changing perceptions through collaborative efforts with stakeholders across the food industry.

These days, consumers want to know what's in their food. How's the PBFIA making sure labels are crystal clear on plant-based products?

Transparency's key. At the PBFIA, we're working hand-in-hand with regulatory bodies and industry players to make sure labels on plant-based products are as clear as day. We encourage our members to create clean label products as per the consumer demand and promote robust traceability systems throughout the supply chain from farm to fork. That way, consumers can trust that what they're eating has authentic ingredients—and that integrity and accountability is something we take seriously.

What are the biggest hurdles facing the plant-based food industry in terms of regulations? And how's the PBFIA pushing for change?

Navigating Indian regulations on clear labeling for plant-based products can be a real headache, especially for newcomers to the market. Take plant-based dairy alternatives, for example—they can't even call themselves "milk" or "butter," which makes it tough for consumers to spot them on the shelves. Then, let's talk about taxes: while animal-based products get off with a 0-5 per cent GST, plant-based ones can get slapped with a hefty 12-18 per cent bill. Also, obtaining certifications like vegan or vegetarian labels comes with a laundry list of criteria that can be a real pain to meet. Especially, for startups trying to import or export their plant-based goodies, it's like wading through a regulatory swamp. From tariffs to customs codes to the lack of clarity in the HSN codes, it's enough to make your head spin. We're in talks with regulatory bodies and government agencies to push for clearer labeling regulations, smoother certification processes, and policies that support the growth of the plant-based food industry. It's all about creating an environment where we can thrive.

So, what's your vision for the future of the plant-based food industry in India?

Ah, the future's looking bright. We are looking forward to a world where sustainable, ethical, and healthy eating is the norm. And plant-based foods are right at the center of it. To make that vision a reality, we've got to invest in research and development, support startups and small businesses, advocate for supportive policies, and promote consumer awareness about the benefits of plant-based diets. With a little elbow grease and a lot of passion, India can lead the charge in the global plant-based food scene. It's an exciting time to be in the game!

Heena Kohli
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