Food for Thought

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on July 29, 2009
Posted Under: Environment,Food,India

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.

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Reader Comments


While I agree with your commentary on the impact of overproduction of meat against the overall nature of food production, I would encourage that for the sake of detail you could address the ethical farming movement. It is perfectly possible, and equally supportive to your cause, to consume ethically sourced meat as part of a balanced diet.

Producing, buying and consuming ethically sourced meat is not only beneficial to our lives and our culture, it is also a direct protest against overproduction of meat and therefore deserves a mention.

Written By Paddy on July 29th, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

If anything, ethically sourced meat is more inefficient from an energy perspective.

Written By Jacob on July 29th, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

Paddy, there are many compelling reasons to buy ethically sourced meat, however, as Jacob points out, environmental ones aren’t among them. Ambikia Hiranandani is a passionate animal rights activist and I’m sure she’d be better placed than I to take up the ethical dimension of meat consumption. My main concern in this article, however, was to discuss its environmental impact on developing countries. In this regard, lowering the consumption of meat, ethically sourced or not, can only be beneficial.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 29th, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

That is where you are wrong Jacob – Organic farming for instance, particularly of red meat is in fact, more energy efficient per ton than other modern farming methods. It may be more expensive, and that is because it is more labour, rather than capital intensive, however, it certainly is not less energy efficient. Additionally this kind of organically farmed livestock only eat grass and not grain that wastes food.

Aside from that, there are plenty of ways to obtain meat without farming at all. Hunted/gathered meat, when taken strictly in moderation, is far less damaging to the environment than any form of farming.

Written By Paddy on July 29th, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

That’s interesting Paddy, do you have any sources/statistics?

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 29th, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

Compelling as your arguement is, inate shelfishness and the fact that I have been brought up on a meat diet prevent me from going veggie. Besides, most nutritionists would argue that meat is often completely necessary in some people’s diets. It’s almost ironic that some people I know have been prevented from going veggie despite their own wishes by their doctors. For some (especially young) people, a quick metabolism cannot sustain a meat-free diet.

Still, your arguement does make one consider having at least more balance in one’s diet, at least on environmental and humanitarian grounds. I know that I personally generally have a heart of stone with regards to animals – there’s little sympathy there, and I don’t claim to ‘love’ animals. It does irritate me a little even as an habitual carnivore when some people forget they’re eating a dead animal.

Still, it’s important that we don’t completely exploit God’s creatures, so I think a little bit of everything does just right.

If ever their were an all-encompassing mantra for life, I think ‘moderation’ would be it…

Written By David on July 29th, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

David, I was brought up in much the same way as you. I’m certainly not advocating vegetarianism on the grounds of moral puritanism. That’s why McCartney’s argument is important. If we cut down our meat consumption by one day a week, we are already making a difference to the plant. If 100 people cut meat from their diet one day a week, it’s better than one person going vegetarian. I think you have to look at it in terms over overall impact and sustainability, regardless of the ethical arguments.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 29th, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

The consumption of meat does not contribute to world hunger in any sense that is direct as you suggest. The production of food, as with all commodities, is dependent upon inputs of all three factors of production, land labour and capital (machinery) as well as technology. Increasing any one of these has the potential to increase the output of food. Hence more might be produced from an acre of land in America in 2009 than would be produced from the same amount of land 100 years ago.

It follows from that the production of food is not a fixed given that needs to be allocated between cereals and meat, and moreover that the way to combat world hunger is not to obsessively watch for waste. Food production could be increased by increasing inputs of capital, and to a lesser extent labour. The point here is that the production of meat uses up resources that could potentially be allocated to producing cereals but so, in the final analysis does the production of cars or any other commodity.

The question then really is about how we can allocate more resources to the production of this vital life sustaining commodity so as to ensure that people all have enough and that people have choice. This in turn leads asl to asl how it is that different amounts of labour and capital are allocated to the production of different goods. Why is it that we have 1000000 workers and 2 billion pounds worth of machinery producing good x and a different amount of inputs for good why. The answer is to do with purchasing power and effective demand. If lots of people had enough money to buy ferraris and hose to go out and buy they factories producing them would hire more labour and expand plant. The reason why there is insufficient food production
has alot to do with wildly unbalanced purchasing power inthe world at large. A small number of people have sufficient funds to buy all the food they need and far more. Many people have imsufficent purchasing power to buy the food they need. It is for this reason that from the perspective of basic human welfare that resources are missalocates and that food is underproduced.

Written By Reuben on July 29th, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

Reuben: while you are correct, in that we could boost food production by increasing the inputs of capital, that does not necessarily mean we would be right to do so. It is obvious that our current food production is more than enough to feed the world’s population when one takes waste into account, and it would be possible with more capital input, to increase this current production massively. However, one must bear in mind that is a problematic with overproduction of food, and many modern intensive farming methods are damaging to the environment. Currently predominant methods for production of beef for example, is massively wasteful and destructive.

Getting back to my original point, there is no reason (other than purely subjective moral grounds) not to eat meat, since there are plenty of ways to obtain meat which are perfectly legitimate.

On the other hand, the notion that uncritical vegetarianism is some kind of magic ticket to ethical food production is a nonsense.

It is important that we are critical of the production of all food we eat, and therefore treating vegetarianism as being a perfect solution is unwarranted.

Written By Paddy on July 30th, 2009 @ 1:04 am

In contemporary world, idea of eating animal flesh as a symbol of prosperity, modernism and industrialization dominates global developmentalist logic. Timothy Mitcell critiques the hegemonic role of developmentalist expertise of IMF programs imposed on Egypt. He points a twofold relationship between the analysis and its actual object: The country is evaluated in terms of the limits of nature and this naturalness attributes the analytical object an externality to be examined by the experts. They claim that the country has deficient resources for nutrition based on the evidence that Eygpt is an importer of grains and foodstuff. However, Mitchell shows that engaging to the world capitalist system and the gist of developmentalist discourses increased meat production and consumption; And the imported grain was actually for feeding the animals. “(…) Meat eating is a Western norm that ‘develeopment’ has imposed upon non-Western nations reflecting again a characteristically Western cultural imperialism.” On the one hand, Egypt has become dependent on world market for a product it could produce before opening lands to rear farm animals, on the other hand, taste and consumer preferences is reshaped in such a way that violates the right to life of many beings.


Written By Özge Uraz on July 30th, 2009 @ 7:25 am

Reuben, your economic analysis is, of course, sound. Of course there are means to increase production. But I did not ignore the environmentalist dimension in my article and that was done for a very good reason. At a time when we should be increasingly, as a species, trying to live within our means to avert a climate catastrophe, we should be looking to increase efficiency and cut production where possible. The scientific argument for consumption of non-animal matter is compelling. Energy transfer shows that gaining sustainance from meat is in itself, regardless of economics, a wasteful process. Therefore reducing the amount of meat we consume in a week can only have a positive impact on sustainable production and consumption.

PS. I like how you randomly insert ‘asl’ into your post from time to time. Were you chatting up girls on MSN while you were writing that?

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 30th, 2009 @ 10:22 am

Ozge, meat eating is a Western norm, and to some extent, through cultural dominance, it has found its way into cultures which have traditionally been vegetarian in nature. Indian Hindus are a prime example. However I’m not sure the extent to which it is sensible to generalise or that one can say say that “Meat eating is a Western norm that ‘develeopment’ has imposed upon non-Western nations reflecting again a characteristically Western cultural imperialism.” I’m pretty sure Arab culture, and the Muslim world more generally, developed its own meat eating norms quite independently of the West. You only have to look at kosher and halal dietary laws to see evidence of this in Middle Eastern societies. Similarly, the Native Americans were hunting buffalo long before McDonald’s opened across the plains. Over consumption of meat is environmentally harmful, inefficient to sustain and conscience gives the modern, enlightened individual the choice to exclude meat from their diet. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that humans are evolved predators and that as a species, the world over, we have been consuming meat for thousands of years.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 30th, 2009 @ 10:34 am

Salman, I agree with your statement when I reconsider the facts, that capitalist evolution doesn’t need to follow a single path. Yet, meat consumption is one thing, getting to be dependent on imported grain for intensive farming is quite another, I think.

Written By Ozge Uraz on July 31st, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

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