Should Indians eat beef?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 09 Nov 2018 37 Comments

The question is explosive in the current Indian socio-political context. Many factors are intertwined, emotionalism, religiosity, and what not. As a scientist, I look at the question with a rational mind. Let’s first discuss the current global food situation vis-à-vis that of India. According to the most recent data made available by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, on global food demand projections, the world needs to bridge a 70 per cent “food gap” between crop calories available in 2006 and expected demand by 2050.


This food gap stems primarily from the burgeoning population growth in the developing world, India included, and the changing diet pattern. We are now close go 1.3 billion; a large number are in the prime of youth whose food demand is large. A casual survey in many metros shows that fast food outlets are mushrooming like anything; hamburgers stuffed with beef and/or chicken (rarely pork or fish) are the order of the day for the young. Simply put, the young Indian in a metro like Bengaluru is fast imitating his/her counterpart in the US/Europe. Idli, dosa, vada, puri etc., have simply vanished from these fast food joints. Meat is the predominant food ingredient.


The global population is projected to grow nearly to 10 billion by 2050, with nearly two-thirds projected to live in cities. Additionally, at least three billion are expected to join the middle class by 2030, most of whom will be meat eaters (primarily beef). As nations urbanise and citizens become wealthier, people generally increase their calorie intake. Interestingly, this enhanced calorie intake comes mainly from meat and dairy sources. China is the classic example, and India is following suit.


Simultaneously, technological advances, business and economic changes, and government policies are transforming entire food chains, from farm to fork. MNCs are influencing what is grown and what people eat. The sensible “organic movement” in India is still weak, as eloquently illustrated by the recent week-long “Global Organic Meet” at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, where this author had the privilege of delivering the keynote address on the importance of organic agriculture and vegetarianism.


The dietary shift in India is unequivocally towards flesh consumption. The Kentucky Fried Chicken counters are more popular than the masala dosa, puri baji counters. Together, these trends are driving a convergence toward Western-style diets, with grilled beef steak or roasted pork or mutton, which contain high amounts of protein, leading to more calorific value.


Although some of these shifts may reflect in better health and welfare gains for many people, the scale of convergence in diets will make it harder for the world to achieve several of the United Nations Millennium Goals, including those on hunger, healthy lives, better water management, combating global warming and climate change which very adversely affect terrestrial ecosystems. 


The Crucial Questions


A basic premise one has to understand is that far too many people, if one takes the example of countries like the USA, eat much more than what is actually required for their normal daily body metabolism. An average, a North American (in USA and Canada), European or  Russian consumes as much as 75-90 grams of protein per day, of which only about 30 grams come from plant sources and more than 50 grams come from animal sources; an adult with an average weight of 62 kg needs no more than 50 grams of protein per day. In comparison, Indians and their counterparts in South Asia, with the exception of China, consume just about 52-55 grams of protein per day, which come largely from legumes (like peas, beans or vegetables), fish, eggs and poultry. The same is true of Sub Saharan Africans, though, comparatively, their protein consumption is derived from meat sources. The real emerging global food problem is that China and Brazil, whose economies are looking up, are imitating Western lifestyles, and their meat consumption has scaled up dramatically since the globalisation of the early 1990s.


The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that the global demand for beef may increase by a whopping 95 per cent from the current level by the year 2050. This is despite the fact that beef eating, especially eating “red meat”, which many Americans like, in the US has dropped due to health concerns like chronic heart diseases. India is emerging as one of the biggest “beef exporters”, and we have very unscrupulous beef exporters who are involved in money laundering, with the blessings of top politicians, including top officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation.


Lessons for India


Policy-makers in New Delhi would do well to introspect on some of these issues concerning changing dietary patterns and frame an agricultural/food policy for the country to stave off a difficult situation in the years to come. First and foremost, is to inculcate in the minds of the affluent that there is no need to gorge or overeat, especially when it comes to meat products. A normal adult needs just about 2000 calories per day and not 2500, as is touted. I have keenly observed that many young children among the affluent now are on the verge of obesity.


Consider: Breeding cattle for meat makes a huge demand on land for pastures, as nearly 25 per cent of the land mass would be needed for pastures. As it is, India is facing a huge environmental problem, thanks to the mindless, highly soil exploitative and soil extractive, fertilizer-centric farming technique, euphemistically called the “green revolution”, a model imported from the USA and thrust on us by vested interest “scientists”. 


Of India’s 328.73 million hectares of geographical area, as much as 120.40 million hectares (almost 35 per cent) have degraded soils, thanks to the green revolution. The State of Punjab, cradle of the “green revolution”, is the best example, where one sees hundreds of acres where not even a blade of grass will grow. Soils are so badly degraded, ground water is polluted due to excessive contamination with fertilizer residues, and, in districts like Gurdaspur, cancer has raised its ugly head (the district is becoming the “Cancer Capital” of India) due to unbridled use of chemical pesticides, both insecticides and weedicides. 


Moreover, cattle rearing contributes to global warming from the belch, containing methane, (a strong greenhouse gas), that could contribute as much as 60 per cent to global warming. The World Resources Institute specifically recommends “reduce beef consumption”. Cutting down beef in the daily diet offers both dietary and environmental benefits. The environmental benefits are clear: it saves agriculture for land use and reduces emission of greenhouse gases. Rather than beef, one can turn to poultry, pork, fish, and of course, proteinaceous legumes.

Do these imply that Indians should turn vegetarian? The WRI does not specifically advise this, but it is my well-considered opinion that it would help. This, of course, is a tall order, and would directly impact socio-cultural shifts. Humans have been consuming meat since millennia, and it will be impossible to persuade people to give up this habit. The Jaina philosophy of non-violence, partly endorsed by Buddhist thought (though Buddhists, even monks, eat meat) propelled India to give up meat eating, as killing another life was held to be morally wrong.


Nowhere in the Hinduism is meat eating considered a sin. Here I would like to narrate some personal experience. Having grown up in a rural setting where we had cows at home, I have observed tears trickling down the eyes of the cows when there was a death or tragedy in the family. This shows that cows have deep feelings like human beings. Even Greek religion and philosophy uphold the idea of non-violence, most notably the sage Pythagoras.


Nearly 300 million people, roughly a quarter of our population, are vegetarians. As a soil scientist who spent close to five decades in understanding and tending the soil in four continents (Europe, Africa, Asia and to a lesser extent Latin America), may I prod all Indians to switch from beef-eating to vegetables, or at least shift to fish or poultry for their animal protein requirements.                                                                                            

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