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Why an Indian environmentalist does not advocate vegetarianism, or condemn meat eating, for her country

Smallholder livestock household in Berhampore Village, West Bengal, India

Typical smallholder livestock household in Berhampore Village, West Bengal, India (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

‘Recently . . .  I was asked a question. “Why do you not, as an environmentalist espousing the cause of traditional and local diets that are sustainable, condemn meat eating? After all, meat production is bad for climate—agriculture contributes roughly 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions and half of this comes from meat production. It also has a huge footprint in terms of land and water consumption since an estimated 30 per cent of the world’s land not covered with ice is used to grow food, not for humans but for livestock. A 2014 University of Oxford study on British diets found that meat-rich diets—defined as eating more than 100 g of meat per day per person—emitted about 7.2 kg of CO2 per day as compared to 2.9 kg of CO2 emitted by vegan diets. So, figuring out the sustainable diet should be a no-brainer, I was told.

I differed. As an Indian (I underline Indian) environmentalist I would not advocate vegetarianism for the following reasons.

‘One, India is a secular nation and the culture of eating food differs between communities, regions and religions. This idea of India is non-negotiable for me as it reflects our richness and our reality.

‘Two, meat is an important source of protein for a large number of people, hence critical for their nutritional security.

‘Thirdly, and this is what distinguishes my Indian position from the global, meat eating is not the key issue, it is the amount that is consumed and the manner in which it is produced. A recent global assessment, for instance, finds that Americans on an average eat 122 kg per year per person and Indians 3-5 kg per year per person. This high meat consumption is bad for health and the environment. In fact, the average American consumption of meat is 1.5 times the average protein requirement.

‘It should not surprise us that the bulk of the 95 million tonnes of beef produced in the world comes from cattle in Latin America, Europe and North America—all produced with extremely high environmental impacts. Meat production in the developing world is very different, says this assessment by the International Livestock Research Institute, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the International Institute for Applied System Analysis. Here livestock subsists largely on grasses and crop residue.

‘But the most important reason I, as an Indian environmentalist, would not support action against meat is that livestock is the most important economic security of farmers in our world. Indian farmers practise agro-silvo-pastoralism, that is, they use the land for crops and trees as well as for livestock. This is their real insurance system, not the banks.

‘Livestock is also not kept by large meat businesses but by small, marginal and landless farmers. It works because the animals have a productive purpose: first, they give milk and manure and then, meat and leather. Take that away and you will take away the base of economic security of millions in the country, greatly impoverishing them.’

In India, livestock is the most important economic security of farmers. Indian farmers use the land for crops and trees as well as for livestock.

This is their real insurance system, not the banks. Livestock is also not kept by large meat businesses but by small, marginal and landless farmers.

It works because the animals have a productive purpose: first, they give milk and manure and then, meat and leather.

Take that away and you will take away the base of economic security of millions in the country, greatly impoverishing them. . . .

This is why I would not support a ban on meat or leather. By doing this we are literally taking away half the potential income the livestock owner possesses.

It is stealing from the poor, nothing less. . . . Banning meat is cruel demonetisation.

Read the whole opinion piece by Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain—director general of Centre for Science and Environment and editor of Down To Earth magazine—on Quartz India: The unbearable cost of being a vegetarian in India, 28 Mar 2017; this article was first published on Down To Earth as Why I would not advocate vegetarianism, 27 Mar 2017.

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