Veg or Non-Veg? India at the Crossroads

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2012:

Veg or Non-Veg?  India at the Crossroads
by Mia MacDonald & Sangamithra Iyer
Brighter Green,  2012.  Free 46-page download: <>


Brighter Green founder Mia MacDonald and associate Sangamithra Iyer ask,  “Can India provide enough food for its people as well as support hundreds of millions of cows and buffalo and billions of chickens in increasingly industrialized conditions?  And can it do so while protecting its natural resources and the global climate,  and ensuring progress in human development?”

MacDonald,  previously a researcher for the United Nations Population Fund,  World Wildlife Fund,  and Worldwatch Institute, describes Brighter Green as a “public policy action tank” addressing “issues that span the environment,  animals,  and sustainable development.”

The questions that MacDonald and Sangamithra raise are not new.  They also troubled Sir Sardar Datar Singh, founder of the first modern dairy farm in India.  Singh headed the Indian Dairy Science Association from 1948 to 1955,  by appointment of the first Indian prime minister,  Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru,  at recommendation of Mohandas Gandhi.

Singh on the one hand led Indian animal agriculture in the present direction,  and on the other,  inspired and encouraged his granddaughter,  Maneka Gandhi,  who has for 30 years been the most prominent vegan in India,  and the most caustic critic of the Indian dairy industry .

Veg or Non-Veg?  India at the Crossroads does not introduce much that Singh did not consider,  though he is not known to have foreseen global warming.  By now,  however,  the consequences of the various trade-offs that Singh promoted in his efforts to help feed India are much more evident.

India in Singh’s time had recently endured several of the most catastrophic famines of the 20th century.  India today feeds nearly four times as many people,  and is a net food-exporting nation.  Yet much of the progress that Singh helped to introduce was possible only because most Indians of his era were vegetarians,  who rarely consumed non-dairy animal products and byproducts.  Neither then nor today could India grow enough fodder and pump enough water to sustain high-volume production of meat and eggs.

Whether India can sustain the present volume of dairy production is among the questions that MacDonald and Iyer examine.
“India has a several-thousand-year history of ethical vegetarianism,”  MacDonald and Iyer open.  “Vegetables,  legumes, and grains lie at the center of the country’s varied regional cuisines,  but cultural,  ethical, and economic strictures on meat eating are weakening.  India is no longer a majority vegetarian nation.  Only about 40% of India’s 1.2 billion people identify themselves as vegetarian,  according to a 2006 survey.”

India’s fast-expanding middle class “is driving growing demand for meat,  eggs,  and dairy products like ice cream and cheese,  as well as milk,”  MacDonald and Iyer assess.   “India is now among the world’s largest producers of milk,  poultry meat,  and eggs.  It has the world’s biggest dairy herd,”  leading the world in production of buffalo milk,  ranking second in production of cows’ milk.  Total Indian milk production increased by 44% during the first decade of the 21st century.

“An estimated eight million male buffalo calves die from neglect or starvation each year in India,  to preserve their mother’s milk for human use,”  note MacDonald and Iyer.  In response, “India’s national Department of Animal Husbandry,  Dairying,  and Fisheries has launched a program to encourage raising male buffalo calves for meat,  specifically for export.”

“Cows are sacred to Hindus,”  who are about 80% of the Indian population,  MacDonald and Iyer explain, “and their slaughter remains controversial,  but beef from buffalo is now the second most widely consumed meat in India after poultry.

“India is also the world’s fourth largest producer of eggs and fifth largest producer of poultry meat,  principally from chickens,”  MacDonald and Iyer continue,  offering frequent footnotes and sidebars to document their contentions.  “In 2010,  India was the world’s fastest-growing poultry market,  outpacing Brazil,  China, the U.S.,  the European Union,  and Thailand.  The costs of producing chickens for meat in India are the world’s second lowest,  and production of eggs in India is cheaper than in any other country, according to the Poultry Federation of India.”

World Society for the Protection of Animals president Mike Baker has enthusiastically endorsed the Rural Backyard Poultry Development program,  introduced by the Indian Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in 2009.   The idea was to help local egg producers keep the 30% of Indian national egg market share that they then still had,  after losing 70% to industrial poultry conglomerates.  But that battle has already been lost.  “Just 10% of India’s poultry production remains small-scale or ‘backyard,'”  wrote MacDonald and Iyer just two years after the Rural Backyard Poultry Development program debuted.  “About 90% of the more than two billion meat chickens produced in India each year are raised in industrial-style facilities,”  MacDonald and Ayer report.

“In the 1950s an average of five eggs were produced each year for every Indian,”  MacDonald and Iyer write.  “Now, 50 eggs are technically available for each Indian,” but while urban Indians eat an average of 100 eggs a year,  “a rural Indian eats an average of 15,  slightly more than one egg a month.

The poor & the food chain
“Although more Indians are eating higher up the food chain, under-nutrition remains stubborn and persistent,”  MacDonald and Iyer emphasize.  “Forty-four percent of Indian children under age five are malnourished.  One of every three of the world’s malnourished children lives in India.”

Yet,  paradoxically,  “More than 20% of Indians in urban areas are overweight.  In India today,”  MacDonald and Iyer summarize,  “both malnutrition and obesity-related diseases are among the leading causes of death.”

The situation is not improving,  especially for the rural poor.  “India is the world’s third largest producer of cereals,” MacDonald and Iyer explain,  “after China and the U.S.  But after decades of increases in the post-Green Revolution period, availability of food grains per capita is now declining.”

Increasingly the rural poor are squeezed between drought cutting into grain and vegetable production and food prices driven up by rapidly increasing demand from livestock producers.  But the steep rise in meat production and decline of vegetarianism paradoxically do not mean that Indians are on average eating more meat.  “Consumption of meat [in India] is less than one-sixteenth of levels in China, and one-thirty-fifth of those in the U.S.,”  MacDonald and Iyer explain.  “Data show that for the period 1997-2007,  per capita meat consumption was static or declining.  Most of India’s meat,  eggs, and milk are consumed by those in middle and upper economic brackets. And while India’s middle class comprises at most just one quarter of the population, it is the segment growing most quickly-and where shifts in diet are seen most clearly.

“Livestock industry analysts predict that Indians will never eat as much animal protein as people living in the U.S. or China,” MacDonald and Iyer continue,  but because the Indian human population is so large,  and because the Indian middle class is growing rapidly, “small shifts can have large consequences.”  In particular, MacDonald and Iyer warn,  “Water scarcity is a reality in all of India’s states,  and animal agriculture is a significant source of water pollution.”  Much of the Indian subcontinent is already arid.

Global warming is exacerbating the trend.  United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization director Jacques Diouf recently warned that as much as 18% of Indian grain production might be lost to drought resulting from anticipated effects of climate change.

Offering a succinct yet comprehensive diagnosis of the threats to Indian food security presented by the growth of animal agriculture,  MacDonald and Iyer conclude with a disappointingly weak and politically unrealistic set of recommendations.  Most call upon the Indian government to reverse policies supportive of animal agriculture that originated with Sir Sardar Datar Singh.

These policies are supported by an ever-expanding bureaucratic infrastructure,  including the National Meat & Poultry Processing Board,  established in 2009,   committed to expanding the meat industry and building the meat export trade.  A government with these goals is unlikely to reverse course except under political, economic,  and ecological duress felt more acutely than the perennial pressure to secure re-election by continuing policies that have proven popular among middle class voters and campaign donors.

The mission that MacDonald and Iyer meanwhile envision for “Civil society organizations working on environmental,  food security,  rural development,  gender,  agricultural,  or animal welfare issues” is to “seek opportunities to work more effectively together to counter the growth of intensive animal agriculture in India.”

Kindness Farms
Completely omitted from Veg or Non-Veg?  India at the Crossroads is any imagination of a role for private economic investment in altering the present catastrophic trends.

Yet among the most ambitious projects underway in India to counter the expansion of animal agriculture are the Kindness Farms funded by Australian investment banker and vegan philanthropist Phil Wollen.

The Kindness Farms might be described as a hybrid of Gandhian ideals with the notion that doing good can at least break even,  and perhaps inspire profitable business ventures.

“We have inaugurated our latest Kindness Farm in Visakhapatnam,”  Wollen e-mailed on January 29,  2012.  “It is huge, attractive,  and productive,”  raising “fruit, vegetables, feed-grasses,  and flowers,”  as well as housing rescued cattle, buffalos,  dogs,  and horses.
“Kindness Farms will produce significant quantities of organic food,  which is almost impossible to buy in India,”  Wollen said.

“Organic vegetables and fruit command a high premium in all the Indian cities.  So we will soon acquire a retail outlet and will sell our produce directly to rich Indians at a premium.  The money will be used to support our animals. The food will be branded Kindness Fresh Foods.

“We have also launched our fourth Kindness Mobile Restaurant, feeding hot vegan meals to impoverished street people,”  Wollen continued.  “The recipients are encouraged to see the food not as charity but as a stipend.  They already share the streets and their meager meals with the street dogs.  So we ask them to keep their eyes open. If they see puppies being born,  or a man whipping a horse,  or a lorry hitting a cow,  they should call our shelter and we will send our ambulance.  This idea is gaining traction in the community.

“We have committed to a third Kindness Farm in Bangalore, within the Morning Star orphanage,”  Wollen added.  “It is already productive–sown,  nurtured,  harvested,  cleaned and cooked by the orphans.”

An older Kindness Farm in Puttaparthi “is growing massively,” Wollen said.  “The food is sold in our organic shop on the main street. We have decided that every Kindness Farm will now have a Kindness Kitchen,”  Wollen finished, “which will provide a hot meal to all the shelter staff and animal herders before they start the day.  This means we are assured that they have a full stomach,  a healthy vegetarian meal,  and good health.  They also become very loyal employees. We have also decided to employ as many people as possible from the local village and teach them trades.  We also intend to educate their children and teach the parents to read.”

Countless charitable projects have tried to alleviate animal and human suffering in India.  There is no guarantee that the Kindness Farms will be more successful than many that have long since failed and been forgotten.  But just as Sir Sardar Datar Singh understood that he had to develop and make an economic success of his own dairy farm before he could influence government policy,  Wollen understands the importance of demonstrating his ideas before prescribing them.


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