Food and dissent

Sunita Narain's response to the comments on her previous editorial "Why I would not advocate vegetarianism"

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Tuesday 16 May 2017

When i wrote about vegetarianism, or more precisely, why I as an Indian environmentalist would not advocate it, I had expected an emotional response. My article was meant to provoke a discussion. I believe it is time we understood the issues more clearly, with some space to agree to disagree. So, I will put aside the personal, abusive and intolerant comments I received. I will instead focus on what I learnt from the responses and see if we can find a middle way—not to agree, but to discuss, debate and dissent.

I would like to thank the readers for their detailed and often persuasive comments—in particular one from the “global environmentalist”. I only wish these were not anonymous, as it curtails an open dialogue. What is my response?

The first issue that has been raised by many who have disagreed vehemently with my position on vegetarianism is about ethics. This is a moral argument about compassion and about the absolute value of another life—you cannot kill; you cannot justify eating meat. I have no argument against this position. It is not my belief, but if it is yours, it is respected and understood.

The second issue is about the importance of a vegan diet. Some have argued this from an ethical position, others from the point of health and sustainability. I have many vegan friends—those who eat no animals or animal products—and they will tell you that their choice makes them healthy and well. But it is equally true that there are many other diets, which are balanced, nutritive, proportionate and equally good. For instance, animal milk products, particularly yogurt and ghee (clarified butter from cow milk) are considered to be very nutritive in traditional Indian food science. The Japanese swear by their fish diets. The only diet that is definitely unhealthy is the one that has excess quantity of highly processed food, including meat and junk. So, veganism is a matter of personal choice.

The third issue is how food is related to both sustainability and climate change. I have already said that the evidence on this is unequivocal. Agriculture, including meat production, is bad for climate change and uses huge amounts of natural resources. But I qualified it by saying that it was about the method of meat production—cutting down forests for grazing lands; intensive and highly “chemicalised” livestock keeping and the sheer amount of meat that is consumed and wasted. I argued instead for the symbiotic livestock economy of the Indian farmer, which is based on the use of the animal for manure, milk and then meat. It cannot be argued that this farmer, who is eking out a subsistence, is responsible for the stock of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

But, that said, there is an issue that I needed to emphasise: the need to change food habits for sustainability. And that this does include the need to reduce—drastically in some cases—the eating of meat. It is also true that India is a large exporter of beef—buffalo meat—and so it makes money out of the bad habit of excess meat consumption. We need to push the middle classes since they consume the most to change habits of food: eat meat in moderation and waste less.

But an equally important question is: how we grow our livestock and how we process its meat? There cannot be any excuses here. We certainly need to ensure that Indian meat (and that in the rest of the world) is produced without chemicals; without the destruction of natural habitats, without cruelty to livestock; and without contributing to filth and water pollution. We, therefore, do need a discussion on “sustainable” livestock production and processing. We need to define healthy and sustainable diets. But we cannot have this debate unless we recognise that animals are an important economic asset of farmers and poor households. We cannot demonetise this asset by taking away a key value—of meat—without providing any alternatives.

Similarly, we need to clarify the rules for legal slaughterhouses and make sure that these can be enforced. Study the cost of running such meat-processing units and the best technology to reduce pollution in the neighbourhood. The laws exist for humane transportation, humane slaughter and for processing without pollution. But nothing is operational on the ground. The answer, I repeat, is not vigilantism and violence. It is about accepting that meat production exists and correcting what is wrong to ensure that it is sustainable and healthy.

The last issue is more complex. I have been asked by the readers whether my contention that “secularism” is non-negotiable also translates into saying that abhorrent cultural practices like Khap panchayats, sati or triple talaq are acceptable. Clearly not.

There is no doubt that one person’s culture could well be another person’s definition of a crime. This is why “culture” is often such an abused and contested word. But my belief is that there are certain values of equality and justice that have to be non-negotiable. For me the idea of secularism is this very idea of India which respects the equality of all. Of course, within this idea there are the rights and wrongs that an inclusive and democratic society decides. This is the discussion that we must have, open and tolerant. Not abusive. Not violent.

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  • Madam, Actually the title of your article was wrong as there is nothing wrong in being vegetarian. It should have been - 'why and when I don't object to meat eating' !

    Posted by: Sunil Sood | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms Narain
    You know me as the 'Global Environmentalist'. Thank you for your response and let me clarify at the outset that the reason for keeping myself anonymous was just as a precautionary measure because after all, I was writing to one of the most famous environmentalists in contemporary India. However, any debate/dialogue/discussion that helps our country and planet to be more sustainable for all its beings, is always welcome.

    Having said that, I am not going into detail (on this platform) on your comment about veganism being a personal choice because personal choice ends when a victim is involved. Here, the victims are the environment, health, the future generations and of course the animals. I have already explained to you (in my previous response) with all facts and numbers how our ‘choice’ to eat animals and their 'products' is affecting our planet. Similarly, I don’t want to go into detail on the oxymoron that is ‘humane slaughter’. I have also talked about the livelihoods dilemma and alternatives for farmers and I don't want to repeat myself.

    On health, I would urge you to watch Dr Michael Greger’s video detailing the leading causes of death (link: Junk food (whether vegan or non vegan) is unhealthy but the epidemic of diabetes and such amongst children and adults alike along with a parallel increase in meat consumption (be it the homemade dish of saturated fat-laden bacon or cholesterol-filled eggs) is too coincidental to ignore (did you know that according to the USDA, it is actually illegal to advertise eggs as healthy?). I'm also sure the Japanese swear by their fish but the Americans who are sharing waters with the Japanese are, in fact, waking up to the horrors of (albeit minimal in nature as of now) nuclear contaminated fish! (

    Perhaps, my only real suggestion to you is that in order to understand the current and potential long term impacts of animal agriculture in our country, we need a database/research on how much the current meat production affects our waters, our soil, biodiversity, pollution, emissions etc. Perhaps, have a report on the state of animal agriculture on the environment of India? Consider also how much our population is and at what rate it is growing along with rising disposable incomes, and maybe come up with a futuristic scenario where if we continue on current rates, how much natural resources will we still have at our disposal. What gets measured, gets managed. I am probably stretching it too far but with the aforementioned data, we should be making a documentary like Cowspiracy (produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, FYI) to inform and educate people about the consequences of their choices on the future of the country that they will leave for their children.

    We can have all the electric cars in the world, but unless we tackle this huge elephant in the room (as is the case in usual environmental discourse), we are looking at a country that is wasting finite natural resources on feeding animals for nutrition, rather than get the nutrition/protein straight from the plants. It would be myopic for the government not to think so.

    You must have heard about the German and Danish governments taking a stance against climate change by refusing to serve meat at official functions and pledging to go vegan (as in the Danish case) because they want to walk the talk on climate change.
    Let's take a stance and be leaders as environmentalists and as citizens. Let's be leaders as a country. Let's walk the talk.

    Posted by: Joslyn | 3 years ago | Reply