Demolishing the meat mountain

January 26, 2018


Indians must reverse the rapid increase of non-vegetarian diets that has taken place in recent years. The need is to create awareness that vegetarian cuisine is nutritionally complete and adequate

A recent article published by Forbes has quantified and documented the alarming increase in meat production and consumption in India. The common perception across the world is that India is a country of vegetarians, based on religious and humane reasons, fostering the belief that animals, birds and fish should not be killed. Against this background, the article under reference reveals that according to the “sample registration system (SRS) baseline survey 2014, released by the Registrar General of India, 71 per cent of Indians over the age of 15 are non-vegetarian.” This translates into the fact that of the total population of over 1.2 billion in the country, only 330 million are vegetarian, and the percentage of those converting to the consumption of non-vegetarian diets is expanding very rapidly.

India’s shift towards non-vegetarian diets is no doubt a function of higher incomes, but a more significant factor is the growing fascination with Western lifestyles and dietary practices, which like many other practices adopted almost thoughtlessly in our part of the world, are seen as symbolic of a better life. At the global level, meat consumption reached record levels in 2017. During the year, a total of 262.8 million tonnes (MT) of meat are estimated to have been consumed worldwide, which represented a historical high never estimated earlier. Of this, beef consumption was 61.3 MT, pork around 111 and chicken 90.4. These figures do not include fish and other seafood.

While there may be religious and ethical reasons against the growing consumption of non-vegetarian food in the world, what all rational citizens must consider are the ecological and health implications of the growing obsession with non-vegetarian diets. In the US, it has been estimated that to produce one pound of beef requires a total of 1,800 gallons of water, a large part of which goes into production of grass, forage and feed for cattle reared specifically for beef production. An average American consumes an estimated 167 pounds of beef annually.

In its August 2016 issue, the National Geographic magazine focused on a large underground reservoir in the mid-west of the country, which is being depleted rapidly. One of the activities responsible for this depletion covered a large farm, which was used for production of beef. The startling estimate related to this farm came up with the figure that anyone eating a quarter pound hamburger, using beef produced on that stretch, was indirectly consuming 760 gallons of scarce water from underground sources. Quite appropriately the title of the article read ‘What Happens to the US Midwest When the Water’s Gone?’

The biggest ecological impact of growing factory-based meat production is the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with production and consumption of meat. Almost a decade ago, this writer had highlighted the global implications of growing meat production and consumption and the increasing risks from climate change. In an address delivered in London, where this scientific threat was explained, there was almost a hysterical response from the UK beef producers lobby, and even the BBC derided the analysis presented in what it disseminated under the title “Pachauri’s at it again — shun meat, he says (but what about the buffalo?)”. Even more hilarious was an article that the current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph with the title, ‘Save the planet by cutting down on meat? That’s just a load of bull’.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had carried out a study over a decade ago, in which it had estimated that the meat cycle contributes 18 per cent of GHG emissions. At that stage, the entire transport sector accounted for only 13 per cent of total emissions. The FAO figure has been challenged by many researchers as an underestimate, including the intrepid World Bank senior official, the late Dr Robert Goodland. With an increase in meat production and consumption, in any case, the current estimate will have to be revised upwards not only because of the associated scale effect but also because the entire meat industry is moving more and more towards factory farming and processing. And the scale of increase in the quantity of meat consumed globally is daunting. In 2002, the total production was 200 MT globally, as against the estimated 262.8 MT in 2017, which was twice the quantity produced in 1986.

Another major externality of excessive meat consumption by humans relates to harmful health effects. The organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), mentions that “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegetarians and vegans enjoy a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension and type-2 diabetes, and lower body mass indexes, as well as lower overall cancer rates.”

The votaries of non-vegetarian diets highlight that vegetarians suffer from a serious deficiency of proteins, which must only come from non-vegetarian sources. A recently produced documentary film dispels this myth. The film, which has the title, ‘From The Ground Up’, provides the real life examples of several athletes who are at the pinnacle of global excellence, and are vegans. One of the athletes featured in the documentary is Rich Roll, whose endurance feats are unparalleled. He states, “There is this very common misconception that if you’re eating a plant based diet, if you’re not eating meat, that you’re going to suffer a protein deficiency.”

There is an urgent need for creating awareness among the public on some of these facts so that the spiraling growth in factory-based production meat, and the demand for it is reversed. The first step would involve reducing meat consumption through voluntary actions, aided by regulatory measures.

This writer addressed a large audience in the small town of Ghent in Belgium, and made the plea “Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there. In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.” As a response, that city declared Thursday as a meatless day, and the measure found effective implementation.

Another option would be the production of meat directly from vegetable sources. Several efforts are in hand in this direction in different parts of the world. A distinguished Dutch scientist MJ Post, who is Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University, has had remarkable success with his research, and was recently interviewed by CNN.

Perhaps, his work and that of others would provide an option to meat lovers to indulge their tastebuds with vegetarian meat. But as globally responsible citizens, Indians must reverse the rapid increase of non-vegetarian diets that has taken place in recent years. India has the largest range of vegetarian cuisine, which is nutritionally complete and adequate.

(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)

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