Meat-eating and the environment: An open letter to Sunita Narain

Global Environmentalist writes: Your blog post has given every urban Indian a free pass to continue to devour animals as it pleases their taste buds, all in the name of ‘saving the farmers’. The question is, will these people be able to save themselves when we don’t have enough clean water, air and good health?

Global Environmentalist,

As an environmentalist born and based in India myself, I have watched with pride and learnt with earnest, the work that you have done at CSE and Down to Earth. It would not be an overstatement to say that you are one of the leaders for the environmental and sustainable development movement in India and your repertoire as an environmentalist who has influenced policy and produced groundbreaking research on sustainability matters is unmatched.

Therefore, you can imagine my (and a lot of other environmentalists who are equally inspired by you) surprise when you wrote a blog titled ‘Why I don’t advocate vegetarianism’ as a response to a journalist’s 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% 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…”

Please note, the journalist did NOT ask you, “Why do you not, as an environmentalist, condemn the way in which slaughterhouses or beef consumption is being banned in some states?” The journalist had specifically asked for your opinion as an environmentalist on meat consumption, on a sustainable diet for the planet and backed it up with scientific facts and studies — seeking a response that should have been responded with appropriate focus on the effects of meat consumption on the environment and society at large. (Environmentalist (n.): a person who is concerned with protecting and preserving the natural environment, for example by preventing pollution).

Instead, you chose to play the secularism and politics card. You equated advocating for vegetarianism/veganism as supporting the ban of illegal slaughterhouses or banning beef; this is where your defensiveness can be seen at play. You said culture overrides everything and is non — negotiable “as it reflects our richness and our reality”. Respectfully ma’am, the people who are implementing these meat bans through violence are also doing it in the name of culture too. In fact, throughout India’s history, the crimes and injustices that were perpetuated on the minorities (be it Sati, or other such social evils) were done in the name of culture. Does that make it right? Don’t you think it would be outrageous if Sati was practiced today and people still wanted to continue it because, culture? We, who have the benefit of hindsight and knowledge, shouldn’t we educate ourselves and step away from continuing what is wrong and harmful from an environmental and health perspective, instead of hiding under the garb of culture? Or does culture only come into play when the victims cannot defend themselves?

Then, you pointed out nutritional security as to why you would not advocate vegetarianism. Yes, there are a large number of people who depend on meat as their primary source of protein. But don’t you think that this is a drawback of the authorities’ poor implementation of the public distribution system (PDS) and the corruption involved? Almost 60 million tonnes of PDS food grains (out of over 250 million collected and stored) are allowed to rot and get destroyed every year. Why is this not reaching the people who really need it? Shouldn’t we be advocating for an efficient PDS and try to solve the issue at its core rather than discredit vegetarianism and its benefits to justify the unfavorable status quo? How about we advocate for investments in efficient production and distribution of vegetarian sources of protein like grains, beans and pulses so that people have a chance to have a wholesome and healthy diet? And how about the rest of us urban folks who don’t have sleepless nights over nutritional security — can you continue to justify meat consumption to them?

Talking about nutrition, let’s not forget that the WHO reported (which you also tweeted about!) the carcinogenic impacts of processed and red meat (including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton). Incidentally, processed meat was placed in the same category of cancer — causing activities (Group 1) as tobacco smoking and asbestos exposure and red meat was categorized as Group 2A, same as inorganic lead. Moreover, in 2014, YOUR organization had undertaken a study and found 40 per cent of chicken samples tested in Delhi-NCR contained residues of antibiotics which could lead to antibiotic resistance among humans and animals. According to Public Health Foundation of India, roughly 58,000 newborn deaths are due to antibiotic resistant bacteria produced each year in India.

So you will understand my confusion when you talk about helping these farmers who struggle to live hand to mouth on one hand and on the other hand you advocate a diet that has known carcinogenic impacts! Even with low consumption levels, the risk associated with red meat and poultry (types of red meat — lamb, beef etc) is still too dangerous to overlook for a farmer with minimal to zero health insurance. As a founder of an organization that disseminates public information based on solid facts and research, this kind of rhetoric is not only a monumental disservice to environmentalists like me (who are trying to walk the talk by reducing their emissions in every way possible, including their diets) but frankly, quite confusing, to the people at large!

Lastly, you talk about how “meat-eating is not the key issue, it is the amount that is consumed and the manner in which it is produced.” I partly concur; currently, the average meat consumption in India is very low as compared to the West. But since when has the West been our benchmark when it comes to how much ‘we are allowed’ to push the envelope with our actions, until we start realizing that ‘oops, we went too far’? What number should we reach for you to start advocating a plant based diet? And would that be too late then? Are you insinuating that we should not worry about our actions till we reach the West’s standards and maybe then we can think about climate change?

Ma’am, India has to be the leader when it comes to climate change because it is our people and especially the poor amongst us that are going to be the first to be most affected when nature strikes (it already has taken effect in a few places).

Especially because you call yourself an Indian environmentalist, let me quote some figures:

  1. Despite being known for its high vegetarian population, India has one of the highest populations of livestock in the world. In terms of livestock population, India ranks:

#1 for cattle (210 mn cattle)

#1 for buffaloe (111 mn buffaloes — 57% of global population)

#1 for goats (154 mn goats)

#2 for sheep (74 mn sheep)

#5 for chicken (866 mn chicken)

(Source: Ministry of Animal Husbandry & UN FAO)

2. India is the world’s largest exporter of beef. We have one of the largest populations and densities of both people and livestock in the world. It is the largest milk producer in the world and the third largest egg producer in the world. We are the fourth largest exporter of soybean meal, an important ingredient in the commercial feed for farmed animals.

3. Livestock contributed 63.4% of the total GHG emissions from agriculture in India. Methane emission contribution from Indian livestock is the highest (>70%) as compared to various other subsectors from agriculture sector viz. rice cultivation and open burning of crop residue. India’s methane emission from livestock is the highest in the world, according to a US based policy action tank.

4. Deforestation to clear land for pastures, fodder extraction, expanding agricultural cultivation of crops in forests and on grazing lands and the widespread use of fertilisers to grow crops like maize and soyabean are all contributing to rising rates of soil erosion, salinization, alkalization, pollution and desertification in India. The need for land for both crops and livestock is also a primary cause of bio-diversity loss. Grazing intensity in India is already very high. It is estimated that about 100 million cow units graze in forests against a capacity for 31 million. The quality and productivity of grazing lands are also showing a declining trend due to improper management, unregulated land use, overgrazing and lack of reseeding of pastures.

5. Animals need much more water than grain to produce the same amount of food. A much discussed study conducted to estimate irrigation water productivity of dairy animals in Gujarat (Singh et al, 2004), found that 1,900 to 4,600 liters of virtual water (total volume of water directly and indirectly used to produce a commodity) was used to produce one litre of milk. A large share of this water is used to produce livestock feed. Milk and meat production, particularly if based on intensive grain feeds and irrigated forages, requires 10–50 times more water than crop production. In drought — affected regions, livestock farming does not even make business sense.

6. The by-products of animal agriculture — animal wastes and run-off from pesticides and fertilizers used on feed crops — enter India’s rivers, streams, and groundwater. These organic and inorganic pollutants contribute to the contamination of an estimated 70 percent of India’s surface water and an increasing percentage of its groundwater. Production of meat resulted in 3.5 million tons of waste-water in 2007. That is nearly 100 times as much waste-water as India’s sugar industry generates and 150 times more wastewater than the manufacture of fertilizer creates. None other than YOUR fortnightly published the research on the sorry state of the Ganga because of inefficient treatment of the waste from the leather tanneries. In your recent appearance on TV, you spoke about how people have the right to clean air. We also have the right to clean and accessibility to fresh sources of water. Meat production is one of the biggest culprit that is polluting our air and water but this is never discussed in the environmental discourse because it is sadly, the inconvenient truth.

7. The increasing demand for grains to feed livestock will create pressure to cultivate (or /and import) feed grains, which will ultimately compete with grain production for human consumption. Currently India produces only 11 million tonne of maize, of which five million tonne are used for the poultry sector.

What does it mean to be an environmentalist if you are not thinking about all these problems too?

You talk about how the animals are produced and that we do not factory farm our animals? According to Humane Society International, over 200 million egg laying hens in India spend their entire lives confined in small, wire battery cages. More than half of the 2 billion ‘meat’ chickens are factory farmed. With an increase in demand domestically and internationally for cheap meat and the influx of foreign investments into the animal husbandry industry, these figures are only going to increase and production methods are only going to become more intensive. According to international non-profit GRAIN, if the meat consumption trends continue, the world meat consumption will grow by a whopping 76 per cent by 2050 and emission will increase by 65 per cent. It is anybody’s guess whether India will be a key supplier to this demand or not.

As an environmentalist, this state of India is non- negotiable for me –where our people’s health is affected by what they eat, where our waters are polluted, where our growing emissions and the one of the biggest culprit for it is overlooked in contradiction to our Paris commitments, where our groundwater is depleted, where those do not directly consume meat/dairy are also left at stake because of the adverse impacts of meat production.

Governments may or may not regulate what we eat but how can environmentalists turn a blind eye to not only how meat consumption affects health but how much impact meat production has on our environment? You focus your efforts on pollution by cars (which is commendable) but you overlook one of the biggest polluter of them all? I am sure you are aware that while transportation creates CO2, livestock farming is hugely responsible for producing methane (methane is 23 times more potent when it comes to warming the planet). India’s methane emissions from livestock is the highest in the world!

Euromonitor states that with our increasing population and affluence, meat consumption is growing quickly, at 9% volume growth per capita in 2014 with the strongest growth in beef and veal. Consumption of beef/buffalo meat grew by 14% in urban and 35% in rural India between 2004–05 and 2011–12 and consumption of chicken has registered a greater surge of 181% in urban and 256% in rural India from 2004–05 to 2011–12. Whether we consume the meat or farm these animals for eggs, leather or milk, it does require a significant amount of finite resources to sustain them until they cease to fulfill their “productive purpose”.

Yes, animals are the economic security for the farmers and their real insurance system. By this logic, asbestos should never have been banned in India because that was the economic security for the people working in that industry! Again, you are supporting the continuance of the unfavorable status quo rather advocating for a better solution — in this case a more dependable insurance and financial eco system for the farmer. Yes, we need more gaushalas…perhaps this could be achieved by a pollution tax charged to the meat exporters? If people in high positions like yours start accepting the unacceptable status quo and creates justification in favor of it, then we have lost the battle already!

Environmentalism has no national boundaries, it only has planetary boundaries. GHG emissions or pollution do not affect just the country that it is emitted from. Of course some of the social problems are unique to India; however, the consequences of making a specific point on being Indian and hence justifying the status quo without providing a solution to better it, puts the world in danger collectively. Collectively being the operative word here.

Militant vegetarianism and vandalism is not the solution to implementing anything. That is what the politicians and the extremists are doing for political gains. But we, we are environmentalists. We are supposed to be independent. We are supposed to be the voice of reason that guards the environment and its people with facts. As an environmentalist, arguing that our meat consumption does not harm the environment and its people in the face of mounting evidence is passé and categorically wrong and more importantly myopic. We have to look towards the future, a future where India’s economic growth will continue to grow and so will her meat consumption and production. If we are to be sustainable, we cannot afford to have a world where meat consumption is condoned, especially by environmentalists. Perhaps, a case can be made that your esteemed organization should do a further assessment of how animal agriculture is affecting our environment and indirectly her people in terms of groundwater pollution, groundwater depletion, air pollution, GHG emissions, land requirement to feed animals vs feeding humans directly, biodiversity depletion, water pollution…and the list goes on. Your blog post has given every urban Indian a free pass to continue to devour animals and their products as it pleases their taste buds, all in the name of ‘saving the farmers’. The question is, will these people be able to save themselves when we don’t have enough clean water, air and good health?

Plant based diet and its benefits can be advocated and propagated by education and policy shifts. This is where you as an influential environmentalist play a key role. So why condemn the cause because of how some elements in society choose to implement it? A properly thought of strategy needs to be put in place that secures nutritional and economic security for our people without depending too much on environmentally and socially damaging means. We are all fighting the same fight of reducing our negative impacts on the environment without compromising on economic development. India has already made policy shifts in moving away to a large extent from coal based plants, the next biggest environmental polluter is animal agriculture…and this is where our efforts should be channeled. At a time when some governments are taking climate change lightly, jeopardizing not only their country but the world as whole, you and people like you in this world are our beacons of hope. Let’s hope that you continue on the path to inspire us, the common people, to guard India’s environment and its people — without pandering to its politics.

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