The Ugly Underbelly of Veganism in India

The Ugly Underbelly of Veganism in India

Practicing veganism in India requires more nuance than simply switching over to almond milk. Here's what you need to know.

Food is far more than nutrition and sustenance; food is politics. In India, what you eat can mean the difference between life and death, harassment or pride. It is no secret that vigilantism in the name of food habits has been on the rise. Pro-Hindutva groups and the government have been pushing for vegetarianism as a way of life. Last year on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, October 2nd, the Indian Railways tried to enforce a vegetarian menu across the railway network. In numerous other well-documented incidences, people have been lynched for eating beef, to a point where farmers now fear even taking their cow to the hospital. In a country where ‘pure veg’ is marketed and perceived as superior, we have a problem.

The vegetarian myth, that India is a predominantly a vegetarian country, is false. The actual figures show that only about 23%-37% of Indians are vegetarian. This data has been collected and corroborated by both official government figures as well as independent researchers. This well-researched article by Balmurli Natrajan and Suraj Jacob pieces together official government data from multiple sources to bust this myth. The detailed research by these authors can be found here. 

When people’s lives and safety are threatened on the basis of what they eat, the bare minimum one can do is research the effects of their choices on the delicate ecosystem of food politics in the country. The latest food trend to wash up in India is veganism. This relatively new fad (for a lack of a better word) is catching on in urban India, and it appears that practitioners of veganism share the ugly traits of food shaming and evangelism as certain other fundamentalist groups in the country.

It would be wise to check the facts before turning vegan in India. The concept of veganism is a direct import from the West and has not found any form of local nuance as yet. The philosophy and reasons to go vegan are the same as the ones being peddled in the West. Vegans stake claim to the moral high ground with statements like ‘Save the planet’, ‘Stop animal cruelty’, ‘Eat healthier,’ and the like. None of these are factually correct; but the tireless tirade by vegan advocates would have you believe that those who don’t follow this philosophy are a bunch of cruel inhumane beasts.

Almond butter is a popular vegan food, that comes at a high cost to the planet.  Image credit:  Amy in the Kitchen

Almond butter is a popular vegan food, that comes at a high cost to the planet.
Image credit: Amy in the Kitchen

But let’s take a closer look at these claims: The primary driver behind climate change and destruction of the planet are not personal day-to-day choices like eating meat or taking the car to work, by ordinary citizens. Yes these do have an impact, as any action to live has an impact. But the real culprits behind the planet’s erosion are unlimited growth-based economies, and large-scale corporations that view nature and the planet as a resource to be exploited. While we busy ourselves trying to be eco-friendly by carpooling and using steel straws, happy to take on the blame for climate change, it diverts attention from the real issue. Making personal lifestyle choices and generally reducing your carbon footprint is a good thing, but it is crucial to make the distinction between symbolic action that shows dissent and raises awareness, versus political action that demands systemic change. While there is certainly room for symbolic action, we need to demand laws that limit corporate greed because that is the real, ruthless killer of the planet.

Every region has local context, and that context is almost always significantly different in every region of the world. The only real ground vegans can lay claim to (again, without much nuance) is that of animal cruelty. We say there is no nuance in this argument because in our context, free-range meat really does mean free-range: the mutton we eat has been grazed on savannah grasslands, and helps preserve the ecosystem in which these animals are raised. Without doubt, eating meat that has been raised locally is less cruel to the planet than eating avocados that have been flown in from Chile.

When we talk of cruelty to the planet, sustainability, and low carbon footprint, we need to pay attention to the interconnectedness of landscapes, ecology, communities, and food. For example, in the savannah grasslands of India, sheep and goat-rearing is a primary form of livelihood. At times, almost half the diet of the endangered Indian Grey wolf is composed of these livestock. In this context, eating mutton in Rayalseema, Andhra Pradesh, is far more sustainable than importing soya for human protein requirements. Soya cuts down large tracts of rain forest to supply vegan diets. One of the primary arguments to promote veganism is that large swathes of rainforest are cut down to support cattle farming. But the more educated eater will tell you that all forms of industrial farming, whether animal or plant-based, are harmful, cruel and destructive.

A leading pro-vegan organisation put out a study called ‘Meat Is Gross,’ based on the bacterial content of supermarket chicken — an argument to stop eating meat. What they didn’t mention are the numerous studies done on the bacterial contamination of fruits and vegetables. One such study undertaken by Beuchar, shows that human pathogens such as L. monocytogenesE. coliSalmonella can be associated with the everyday fruits and vegetables that we eat. Additionally, a lot of fresh produce is consumed raw, allowing these pathogens to cause widespread disease outbreaks. The point here is that meat and vegetables can contain pathogens harmful to humans, which is why we need to ask where our meat or vegetables are coming from — are they farmed, grown in the wild, free-range, or industrially grown? Are they injected with antibiotics, are they pesticide-free?

Lierre Kieth, author of The Vegetarian Myth, argues that we don’t get the necessary proteins from vegetarian or vegan food as we can’t digest cellulose. “We are not ruminants,” she writes. Another argument Kieth uses is that humans have been eating meat for over four million years, an important factor that has led to our development as the dominant species. In other words, as primates with the largest brain and the smallest digestive tract, we are at the top of the food chain largely thanks to a meat-eating diet. Kieth also points out that fat soluble nutrients like Vitamin K, vitamin K2, vitamin E and Vitamin D are available only in diets with meat. 

Using animals for farming, or eating meat, are cultural and personal choices. Different communities and cultures are responsible and accountable in a proportionate manner for the wellbeing or destruction of the planet. To hold the forest-dwelling Soliga as accountable as a Caucasian New Yorker seems absurd, and unfair, to say the least. We need to bring more nuance into our views on food, communities, and the interconnectedness between humans, plants, animals, and the land. For those who care about the planet, it is important to understand that horizontal hostility is wasteful and destructive. We need to be clear about who we’re targeting with our actions, campaigns and wrath.

Siddharth Rao is a conservation biologist and Manisha Kairaly is an organic farmer and trainer. They live on an off-grid farm alongside a host of other domestic and wild creatures.

Banner image: The Minimalist Baker