On reading my friend’s latest article in a leading national newspaper, ‘Food Choice in Crisis: Forced Vegetarianism in Gurugram’, I felt a bit sympathetic towards people demanding access to whatever they wish to eat. The argument given against a Tuesday ban on meat supply to markets was that a religious argument should not be pushed to obstruct choice of those who wish to consume meat. Fair enough, if religion comes to the rescue of animals even if it is for a day. Enlightened people exposed to global discourses on slaughterhouse cruelties and climate change imperatives should welcome this move and not refurbish their armoury unnecessarily. The better side of all religions is to gradually do away with all forms of cruelties on the weak and create an Arcadian Bliss where all species are able to live in harmony with nature.
An insistence on ‘food choice’ comes from an overfed population controlling markets of opulence. Growing up in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh where denying a culinary star meat dish was almost heretical in the early decades, most meat eaters would mock such intruders to a dining table as ‘grass-eating people’. My father, on an official tour with Jawaharlal Nehru to China and Burma, had to live on a potato diet for almost a month or more. He was often mocked by his fellow officials on his irrelevance for these tours, but Nehru was relatively respectful and would never forget to sympathetically ask him if he got something to eat. It was in 1971 when the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé first appeared to answer many such arguments on food choice. By this time almost 15% of the Amazon forest had already been replaced by pastures for cattle which had prodigiously increased from 5 million to 80 million in factory farming for British and American food companies such as McDonald and Big Boy companies. The rare Andean Amazonian rainforest ecosystems from eastern to southern Brazilian Amazon covering its key states of Maranhão, Pará, Tocantins, Mato Grosso and Rondônia including the high value rainforest ecosystems of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela were bulldozed for meat industry. This area gradually acquired the title of the dreadful ‘Arc of deforestation’ ready to push the planet into many improbable disasters. However, these countries supplied meat to foreign markets but back home witnessed the worst hunger as the food animals munched all their grains.
I must confess that many of us are encumbered by the power of endurance of so many animals, minced and grilled in the food industry where technical advancement for meat shredding and de-robing pretty birds goes on without guilt just to serve their bodies on plates as this is considered progressive. Ecology offers us a new way of thinking. Most of the precious primary resources of the environment such as water and land are diverted in bulk to the meat industry. Almost 70% of human consumption of water takes place in the global agriculture sector including the agri-meat industry. To produce one kg of wheat only 1,500 litres of water is consumed, while it takes ten times more to produce the same amount of beef. For making 20-30 chapatis or a kilogramme of rice only 2,497 litres or less of water is used but for producing the same amount of beef 15,415 litres and for chicken meat 4,500 litres of water is used. One hamburger alone sucks 212 litres of water and by that standard an average American who consumes around 280 lbs of meat in a year may require 232,000 litres of water per year just to eat a hamburger.
The land statistics of meat consumption may also be disconcerting to many. It takes 1.8 acres to feed a cow for a year. The size of an average landholding in India is 3.7 acre per family which suggests that their inclination for rearing animals for the meat market may divert food and water from family members to the animal. Yet, there is another argument on slaughterhouse animals as sentient beings. As Peter Singer the legendary author on planetary ethics, questions, ‘Why the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests be arbitrarily restricted to members of our own species?’ It has been a powerful world of meat eaters since meat was power, sophistication and opulence. In 1990, I was exposed to a new direction of arguments from Carol J. Adams whom I met at a women’s conference at Hunter College of New York. She had already gained a huge following from students and intellectuals from many countries and most people were walking around with her much in demand book The Sexual Politics of Meat. During those five days of this global meet I was introduced to a male language of meat eating in which vegetable becomes a symbol of feminine passivity and meat of patriarchy. Her provocative feminist-vegetarian critical theory found ‘the rape of animals and the butchering of women’ synonymous with crimes as products of power hierarchies. In India an ideal subservient vegetarian wife would still be expected to cook, serve and feed meat to her husband and son to increase their masculine sturdiness and she in turn expects the same from her son’s wife.
Lately, Indian television media is going berserk on advertisements from meat companies. These ads get on to prime time popular slots to show disturbing images of animal bodies as delicious food products. For this reprehensible display which blatantly disparages smaller species is aggressively splashed through popular Bollywood stars. These advertising companies hurt sentiments of animal respecting people with brazen thoughtlessness as if the world was all theirs and a rampant demonstration of animal bodies carelessly put on fire was an ideal planetary ethics with men in driving seats. In reality, it is this brute force of a callous Anthropocene which has disturbed the balance of life on our planet.
Who are these animal respecting people (ARP)? Adams’ curt response that the world is divided into intellectually superior meat eaters and inferior plant eaters account for conquering other cultures such as the rice-eating Hindu and Chinese and the potato-eating Irish peasant by a well-fed beef eating English. Russell Baker’s account of the second World War highlights what he calls the ‘beef madness’ when American soldiers were force fed richly fatted beef to win the war. The result is everyone’s knowledge. This has also been a pet argument to promote meat by markets across the benign plant-based agrarian communities. The decades of 1960s and 1970s had shown animal respecting people as aggressive animal liberators who would break through laboratory cages or slaughterhouses to liberate suffering animals and that’s when in 1975 Peter Singer’s formidable Animal Liberation, a true story of slaughterhouses, was published. This book had many editions but in 2009 the author was still found face to face with the untold cruelties in slaughterhouses. He begins the new edition with the story of an undercover video on evening news reported from the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in California that shocked Americans. The world watched in horror as cattle too sick to even walk were being kicked, shocked with electric prods, jabbed in the eye with a baton and pushed around with a forklift all so that they could be driven near enough to the ‘kill box’ to be slaughtered and processed into meat. Yet, people can still cry for their right to eat Kebabs from their choice shops.
Ironically, the liberation movement for animals did not come from religious communities across the world spread around the Hindu, Jain and the Buddhist terrains but from the Western educated scientifically trained professional communities in the Western world. A realisation was writ large on the rising new generation that compassion cannot be left to the mercy of scientists in labs or those high tech 40 categories of butcher knives to dig out intestines of a dying animal in slaughterhouses. The meat eaters were now restraining themselves from mocking plant eaters at least in public. The KFC and McDonald ads on American TV showing a meek half-starved vegetarian playing his sad violin in the midst of energetic, smart and happy meat eating youngsters were being withdrawn silently. This movement was led by the People for Animals group of Maneka Gandhi in India. It picked up intimidating personalities such as former Chief Election Commissioner late T.N. Sheshan for his tough and straightforward administrative leadership reflecting high integrity. Sheshan would brutally cut a carrot between his teeth to say he does the same to the corrupt, was an act which brought a brilliant change of image for vegetarians who could come out from their self-proclaimed guilt of not being the mainstream people. I was also handed over a stupefying video film by animal activist Camelia Satija in 1992, shot by much driven braveheart animal activists in India›s best known slaughterhouses. This film was then shown in an exhibition organised at Kamala Nehru College and animal activists from St Stephens in Delhi, titled by students as ‘Leave Meat, Be Compassionate to Animals’. The impact was a series of street plays and a massive number of students taking public pledge to follow a vegetarian path.
The word vegetarian is a bit out of place as a visibly different lot of people. This word did not even exist till 1847 when the English Vegetarian Society was inducing moral and philosophical arguments to life. The Oxford English Dictionary was comfortable with the idea that the word represented centuries of protest against the killing of animals. The world currently has around two billion vegetarians by choice, a number that is growing gradually with increasing affluence combined with education and realisation. The other 1.5 billion are vegetarians of necessity. They will start to eat meat as soon as they can afford it or if health permits. Rising incomes in this latter group which lacks appropriate exposure to global environmental or political discourses adds numbers to meat eaters. India tops the number of vegetarians by choice to be around 40% or more, with Mexico following it with 20%. It is interesting to note that the percentage of vegetarians in UK, Brazil, Israel and Australia is fast rising to go beyond 15% but to add to this, countries which knew little beyond meat in their food like Scandinavian countries, Vietnam, New Zealand, Japan and Germany also show a rising graph of people with complete ‘no meat food’ simply as a response to anti-cruelty movements.
This meat industry as any other market encounters problems of demand and supply management. While around 80 billion animals are slaughtered for food in a year, almost 30% of them are wasted for lack of demand. This suggests that like any other capitalistic market the cumulative surplus comes from animals’ lives butchered unnecessarily. Amy Fitzgerald, a criminology scholar, had indicated in her 2009 writings that those who work in slaughterhouses are much more vulnerable to violent crimes, arrests for rape and other sex offenses in comparison with other industries. Mind is dreadfully affected as workers are hired to kill animals, such as sheep, goats, pigs and cows that are largely tender and gentle creatures. A disconnect with suffering and with pleading eyes of a helpless creature deadens their behaviour as they become numb towards domestic violence, rape, killing on trifling incidents, alcohol abuse and are easily pushed sometimes to devilish outbursts.
It’s our moving away from plant-based diets that a bowl of food today needs ten times more energy for its production than it did in the 1960s. As India moves towards the 2030 deadline for achieving sustainable development goals and also commitments made under the Paris Pact for energy sustainability, governments may have to inspire, encourage and motivate populations to reduce consumption of animal-based diets. It is not the right time for aggressive advertising of meat products as above arguments establish that a ‘food choice’ is not absolute as it is limited by the carrying capacity of planet earth and the rights of animal respecting people.
So what is the harm if the much sullied side of human life, as described by Tillie Olsen in Yonnondio, ‘Geared, meshed: the kill room: knockers, shakles, pritcher-uppers, stickers, headers, rippers, leg breakers, breast and aitch sawyers, caul pullers, fell cutters, rumpers, splitters, vat dippers, skinners, gutters, pluckers’, are all sent on a one-day holiday to rest so that vibrations on the earth’s atmosphere are not disrupted by the loud and deafening screams of animals from slaughterhouses. Hope environmentalists and animal-respecting people should demand more ‘no-meat’ days in cities.
The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.