Boosting agrifood life sciences is key to India’s agricultural future

News: Innovations in Agrifood life sciences in India remain deeply neglected by venture capital investors and even entrepreneurs.

For instance, globally, $6 billion was invested in agrifood life sciences startups in 2020, while India raised slightly over $10 million.

India is becoming a global outlier, with the US, Israel, Europe, and China all building unicorn startups in this sector.

Agrifood life sciences is the reverse salient in Indian agritech and will ultimately hold back the transformation of Indian agriculture and food systems until it is addressed.

Note: Every technological revolution, at some point in its evolution, faces strong limiting factors that prevent the technology from attaining its full potential. Technology historian Thomas Hughes called these limiting factors as reverse salients.
What is Agrifood life sciences?

It encompasses four broad categories:

i). Agricultural (Ag) biotechnology: it includes, on-farm inputs for crop and animal agriculture, including genetics, microbiome, breeding, and animal health.

ii). Novel farming systems: It includes indoor farms, RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) aquaculture, insect protein, and algae production

iii). Bioenergy and biomaterials: It includes agri waste processing, biomaterials production, and feedstock technology

iv). Innovative foods: It includes various forms of alternative proteins (plant-based, fermented, and cell-based), functional foods, and other novel ingredients.

How investing in Agrifood life sciences will benefit India?

Critical innovations in synthetic biology, chemistry, and biotechnology are very vital for the future of Indian agriculture and food systems.

Innovations in Agrifood life sciences can play a critical role in tackling both climate mitigation and climate adaptation/resilience (securing a future for India’s farmers).

Create opportunities to completely reinvent agricultural value chains. For instance, India’s millets and pulses can be transformed into innovative plant-based proteins to meet global demand.

It will help to replace unsustainable animal and aquaculture feed ingredients like fishmeal with insect protein, creating a circular economy at scale.

Biological substitutes can be developed for traditional chemical fertilisers and pesticides, improving human and planetary health simultaneously.

What is the root cause for the stagnation in India’s Agrifood life sciences ecosystem?

Regulatory challenges: for example, ban on new transgenic traits in seeds.

Lack of talent: Because life science talent in India continues to migrate abroad.

Capital availability: venture capitals are reluctant to invest in Agrifood life sciences.

Inadequate infrastructure – for example, lack of wet laboratories and other critical infrastructure for synthetic biology.

Opposition to exclusive technology licensing discourages Universities and institutes (including CSIR and ICAR) to commercialise their intellectual property.

What is the way forward?

Life sciences research and development infrastructure needs to be made available to entrepreneurs.

Life sciences talent in the NRI community should be actively recruited to return to India and build the ecosystem here, as founders and senior leaders.

Venture investors of every stage need to step forward with funding to turn these dreams into our new reality.

Source: This post is based on the article “Boosting agrifood life sciences is key to India’s agricultural future” published in Indian Express on 15th Dec 2021.

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