This article, which I co-authored with environmental lawyers Ambika Hiranandani and Roland Miller McCall, was first published in The Times of India
What do George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Leonardo Da Vinci, Paul McCartney, and Pythagoras have in common? If your answer is they’re all towering figures of European culture, you’re only half right. The answer is: they’ve all been passionate promoters of vegetarianism. While Pythagoras dealt with three straight lines, McCartney sang about the long and winding road. Indeed, the effort to promote vegetarianism has been a very long and very winding road. But with the former Beatle’s initiative of meat-free Mondays, and the Belgian town of Ghent pledging to go vegetarian one day a week to do its share for the planet, the only direction that road is heading is forward.
While these laudable actions are finally grabbing headlines in the West, in India vegetarianism has quietly been a way of life for centuries. But, whereas in Europe and America vegetarianism goes hand in hand with liberalism and progressive values, the opposite seems true in India. It is almost as if meat eating is seen as an act of rebellion against ‘orthodox’ society, a sort of status symbol drawing on western ideals. With many Indians upwardly mobile, increase in purchasing power has seen a parallel rise in meat consumption. Unfortunately those who have turned non-vegetarian are often unaware of the direct causal relationship between what they eat and the poorest having nothing to eat. Put simply, over-consumption of meat directly contributes to world hunger.
India, where precious national parks are already under threat from illegal cattle-grazing, is the world’s eighth largest producer of meat. Despite the sacred place cows occupy in Hindu culture, and despite the importance of buffaloes in agricultural work, India continues to churn out an annual 4.9 million tonnes of meat. Statistics compiled by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that the total number of animals slaughtered for meat in India nearly doubled from 66,299,600 in 1980 to 106,239,000 in 2000. In a world increasingly facing scarcity with regard to basic human requirements, as evidenced all too clearly in last year’s global food shortages, increasing meat production looks to be progressively unsustainable.
Rearing animals for human consumption is a grain-intensive process. According to Kaushik Basu, professor of economics at Cornell University, as the populations of India and China begin to consume more meat, an increasingly greater strain will be placed on grain supplies, exacerbating world hunger. It’s a point also made very clearly by David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University: “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.”
Ksenia Glebova, a member of the Finnish Green Party turned vegetarian after volunteering in India. “The meat industry wastes huge quantities of food and water which are required to raise animals. Instead these resources could be used far more efficiently and equitably,” comments Globova. Her call is supported by research from Cornell University, which reveals that for every kilogram of grain-fed beef, 100,000 litres of water are used. This finding is nothing new to animal rights organisations that believe alleviating the suffering of animals also helps alleviate human suffering.
Most crucially, as governments around the world struggle to lower their dependence on fossil fuels responsible for pumping millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we must also recognise the part played by our diet. The FAO has found that global livestock production constitutes 18 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. This figure is expected to more than double by 2050, precisely because of increased meat consumption in developing countries such as India.
“In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, going vegetarian clearly is the most attractive opportunity,” says Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
There are various compelling ethical reasons to abandon animal slaughter. The conditions of animals in slaughterhouses are heart-wrenching. They led Bernard Shaw to highlight the key point that slaughterhouses are kept far away from human eyes because that makes meat much easier to digest. As Jane Goodall so succinctly said: “Thousands of people who say they ‘love’ animals sit down once or twice a day to enjoy the flesh of creatures who have been utterly deprived of everything that could make their lives worth living and who endured the awful suffering and the terror of the abattoirs.”
Perhaps the next time we sit down to dinner, we should think about what we are doing. Not just to the animals, but to the planet too. It may be a long and winding road to a green future. But there’s only one way to go.
Hiranandani is an environmental lawyer, Shaheen studied social & political sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge, and Miller McCall studied climate law at the Australian National University College of Law.