Trouble with vegetarian fascists

Their arguments have no meat

By Archana Yadav
Last Updated: Thursday 30 March 2017
Illustration: Sorit
Illustration: Sorit Illustration: Sorit

When the Bombay High Court asked the Maharashtra government’s lawyer why fish, seafood and eggs were not banned during the Jain festival, Paryushan, the reply was: “Fish die the moment they are out of water, so there is no slaughter involved.” Such moral fog is typical of vegetarian zealots and of the excuses made to cover up political acts. Vegetarianism is not possible without killing because farming involves clearing jungles that destroys the homes of thousands of species and kills millions of living beings in soil, shrubs and trees. It is indirect slaughter.

Ecologically speaking, farming requires negating the very progress of life on land, from annual grasses (wheat, for example) that are the first ones to appear on bared land or freshly created soil to perennial plants that establish a complex ecosystem, enriching soil. Annual grasses flourish during narrow windows of catastrophe like floods or fire that remove their competitors and are, over time, replaced by perennials. Farming creates and maintains that catastrophic state by not allowing perennials a foothold. The supremacist attitude of certain vegetarians comes from lack of this knowledge. Actually, any kind of food is not possible without violence because anything that eats is eaten. This is how life has organised itself. As English scholar and priest William Ralph Inge described beautifully, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat’.” We can turn away from this fact and forever be in conflict with the world. We will alienate ourselves. Or we can accept it and participate in this great feast as a member of the living community. We will be at home.

Of late, the vegetarian lobby has become more aggressive in India. It is trying to dissuade meat eating. It wants everyone to eat their way; no fowl, no fish, no cow. From demanding separate dining halls for vegetarian students in IITs—to protect them from kusanskar (bad values)—to banning eggs in aganwadis and prohibiting beef, they have been at it. In the bitter debate that has ensued, it seems health—of humans, societies and the entire living world—matters little.

Animal food is vital for human health

Meat (from nose to tail) is an optimal food for humans. Meat is what we have evolved craving for, even if not getting enough of it. It has shaped our physiology. All evidence—archaeological, ethnographic, isotope studies—shows that for more than 2.5 million years, until the agricultural revolution, humans have sustained primarily on animal fat and protein, with plants filling up the supply gap and as the fallback option during lean periods. While the amount our ancestors ate varied from very high in the Arctic to much less in certain tropical regions, meat was the food of choice.

That’s why maintaining good health on just plant foods is not easy. It requires careful planning and still one may struggle to get adequate amounts of fat soluble vitamins. Zinc and certain amino acids—including tryptophan that contributes to a sense of well-being by building the neurotransmitter serotonin—are also more conveniently available in animal foods.

Those who have studied the health of indigenous hunter-gatherers know they have rarely suffered from degenerative and chronic diseases. No cancer, no diabetes, no arthritis.

Illustration: Sorit

In the 1930s, Weston Price, a dentist from Ohio, and his wife travelled across the globe in search of cultures with perfect health. They sought out traditional hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and agriculturalists who were still eating the same way they had been eating for thousands of years. He found that the healthiest of these cultures highly prized nutrient-dense foods such as fish eggs, liver, bone marrow, raw milk and cod liver oil. Price also looked for indigenous tribes that achieved perfect health on an exclusively plant-based diet. He could not find one.

Health writer Denise Minger writes in her book Death by food pyramid: “The foods that may be the biggest treasure trove for human health, if Price’s findings are any indication, are ones that have been virtually eradicated due to cultural stigmas and fear mongering: organ meats and offal, high-cholesterol fish eggs and shellfish, insects, bones and bone marrow, and high-fat dairy from cows eating lush grass.”

Eliminating meat from diet inevitably increases our dependence on grains that come with their load of carbs and anti-nutrients. Nutritionist and founder of the Paleo Diet movement, Loren Cordain, writes, “There is a significant body of evidence which suggests that cereal grains are less than optimal foods for humans and that the human genetic makeup and physiology may not be fully adapted to high levels of cereal grain consumption.”

The idea is not to perpetuate the evolution-based dietary template forever, but to be instructed by it in understanding health. Being omnivores, our bodies are designed to process a variety of foods. Our ancestors have not just sought meat, they have made the best of what was available to them in their local environments, be it insects, sea animals and weeds, mammals, birds, fruits, leaves or roots. Human beings forever experiment and evolve newer options to suit newer circumstances. But no one orders a quick march of evolution through the force of pseudo-moral political arguments. With over a billion people to feed and millions malnourished, isn’t it in India’s interest to have a diverse food basket? It will allow optimal use of resources and flexibility in adaptation.

Diversity is the key to a vigorous living world

India’s rich food culture is a reflection of its diversity. And cultural diversity is no more seen as separate from biological diversity. Across the world, cultural hot spots overlap with biodiversity hot spots. It is widely accepted that cultural and biological diversity imparts a system the ability to withstand disturbances. The more diverse a system, the more its resilience. Already the global food supply has narrowed down to a few dozen crops and animal species, compromising our food security. Food fascism will take a further toll on our diversity, our flexibility to adapt, our resilience.

What is required is not a ban on slaughter, but taking good care of animals. Animals raised in the open and fed their natural diet—grass, not grain, for cattle—are a better source of nutrition. They can also be a source of joy, not anxiety, if one is willing to step into the web of relationships.

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  • Actually, isn't more farming required to grow feed for animals? Meat requires more resources to produce per unit of weight than plant foods. You might suggest raising animals who are fed grass growing wild, but then what about all the forests being cut down for cattle ranching in the Americas? It is also not a viable method for large scale production.
    "Actually, any kind of food is not possible without violence because anything that eats is eaten." I do not understand what this means. Anyhow, addressing the context of that statement- that such is the way of nature- I'd like to remind you that it is in no way an imperative that this is how we should keep the state of affairs. See Hume's Guillotine.
    Several studies have shown that vegetarians live longer and have reduced risks of heart disease and other lifestyle diseases. While it may be attributed to better exercise and greater care in planning one's diet, it still shows that a vegetarian diet is not inadequate. Vegan diets, too, have been deemed to be adequate by the American Dietetic Association.
    Your claim that cutting down on meat inevitably leads to an increased consumption of grains is completely baseless and based on a false dichotomy. It should be obvious that there are other food groups. Also, legumes and beans are what one replaces meat protein with.
    It is true that evolving to eat a wide variety of foods, including meat, aided our survival and growth. We are omnivores and meat is a nutrient rich food. However, as explained above, it is unnecessary.
    " With over a billion people to feed and millions malnourished, isn’t it in India’s interest to have a diverse food basket? It will allow optimal use of resources and flexibility in adaptation. "
    It might help if we do not dedicate extra resources to produce feed for animals and instead direct them to feed the malnourished, which would be more efficient. Meat animals consume much more plant calories than they produce.
    What we could agree on is that politically motivated food fascism is undesirable. I am of the opinion that people should be convinced to take up vegetarianism/veganism based on sound reasoning and genuine ethical motivations, rather than because of dogma, religious superstition or pseudoscience.

    Posted by: Rahul Nettath | 4 years ago | Reply
    • Thanks for your comments.
      Let me clarify that this blog is about the belligerent attitude of certain vegetarians towards meat-eaters. They do not give environmental considerations as their argument. But even from the perspective of environment, I think, meat has a place. I am not in favour of factory meat but why let go of whatever meat that is available through sustainable means? Indian situation is not comparable to American. In India, meat, except chicken, comes from small farmers; it is free range and non-industrial. Yes, it will not be enough but let people enjoy the little bit that’s there.
      As for your comment on "anything that eats is eaten", it is not to merely say that such is the way of nature and ought to be like this, but to remind aggressive vegetarians who want to force their choices down everybody’s throat that they are not providing an alternative to violence inherent in food. If their argument is non-violence then they are failing utterly.
      On adequacy of vegetarian diet, I was careful enough to use the words “plant food” not “vegetarian food” and “animal food” not “non-vegetarian food”. Animal food is meat plus dairy and plant food is vegan. I am saying what you are saying that it requires “greater care in planning” when nutrition is more conveniently available in meat (from nose to tail). Again, I mentioned this to buttress the statement that we have evolved eating meat. That is why vegetarians lay emphasis on dairy, which is animal source. About vegan diet, I would still say that maintaining good health on it is very difficult, American Dietetic Association’s opinion notwithstanding. But in my opinion even vegans are free to choose their food as should be meat-eaters.
      About your comment that legumes and beans are what one replaces meat protein with, and not grain, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the disadvantages with legumes and beans are the same as with grains. They too come with their load of carbs and anti-nutrients. Carb-to-protein ration in pulses is roughly 70-30. All plant foods have anti-nutrients.
      I, like you, do not favour dedicating extra resources to produce feed for animals. That’s why I said “animals raised in the open and fed their natural diet—grass, not grain, for cattle—are a better source of nutrition”.
      I hope I have been able to make my thoughts clear to you.

      Posted by: Archana Yadav | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Ms Archana: Do you have any idea of the carbon footprints of meat vs veg food? Human for human? Do you realize that veg diets are often supplemented by dairy which completes nearly all nutritional requirements? Do you realize that humans who have meat-only diets die quicker? Do you realize that there's a movement in the Western world (meat eaters largely) to reduce meat consumption.

    Why write biased articles?


    Posted by: A Das | 4 years ago | Reply
    • Please refer to my reply to the comment above, you will find all the answers. As for “meat-only” that is clearly not what the blog talks about; the blog talks about everything, including meat. And the Western world definitely needs a movement to reduce meat consumption. It also needs a movement to change the way it produces meat. In India, meat, except chicken, comes from non-industrial free range animals.
      The WHO study in the link provided by you has two components: processed meat and red meat. Processed anything is a bad idea not just meat. For the red meat it says “probably carcinogenic”. It is based on epidemiological studies. I take such studies with a mound of salt. One, because these studies only show association, not causal relationship, so they do not show meat causes cancer. You don’t know what is driving the link. A lot depends on how food is produced, cooked, complete diet not just one component, exercise and other lifestyle choices. Two, many studies and their press releases give per cent rise in risk because that sounds headline-grabbing. But relative risk does not give a good idea; you should look at the absolute risk.

      Posted by: Archana Yadav | 4 years ago | Reply
    • Adarsh, people who eat meat die early is your perception only. 97% of the world population are non-vegetarians. There is no issue with meat being your part of your meal.

      Posted by: Anirban | 4 years ago | Reply
  • While I can see that your article addresses a certain class of vegetarian activists, but it is important to point out that the modern outlook of vegeratianism is a progressive idea and should be encouraged. You have mainly addressed two points in your article.

    1. Farming kills animals. So, the vegetation we eat is produced at the cost of animal lives. Hence we could as well kill and eat animals.
    2. Meat is required for a perfectly healthy human life. We evolved as meat eaters, hence it only makes sense that we continue so.

    While your facts are correct, that farming does kill animals, but the solutions you have given are rather cynical ones. Rather we could look out to technology, which has solved many of our problems, to solve this one too. A simple google search will give you this.

    In the field of biotechnology we have made immense progress. Recently scientists have cured lukemia by modifying the actual genes of a patient. I am sure if we collectively decide to fund in research that can give us a synthetic healthy diet, we would not have to compromize on health.

    The directions we look for solution says a lot about our own character and priorities.

    Also, just because we have evolved in a way doesn't me we should continue behaving as such. Xenophobia is an intrinsic trait in humans and has helped in our evolutionary success. That doesn't justify racism, which is a form of Xenophobia.

    Finally, the tone of your article is that vegetarianism is not the perfect solution for human life. But, the whole point of vegetarianism is to look beyond our human-centric outlook and expand out horizons. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that with the current scientific knowlege, we know that the essense of life is out genetic code and in that regards humans and animals are no different. If you draw an arbitrary boundary and call it human rights despite the knowledge that it is not special, you the lose the right to complain against some else's abritary boundary, say a white supremacist.

    Remember there was a time when people who opposed black liberation said that how can you treat them as equal whom god created unequal. We now think of them as having a regressive mindset. The progress of science has only showed us that we humans are not special. If our previous generation could expand their mindset to include all of humanity, we owe it to them continue the expansion.

    Lastly, people are even talking of plants' rights. We know that we have not clearly figured out this issue as of now. But let us not justify narrowing our mindsets just because we are faced with uncertainties.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 4 years ago | Reply
    • Thanks for your comments.

      The points I am making are slightly different from your interpretation.

      1. Violence in inherent in the food we eat today, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, so today’s vegetarians cannot take moral high ground in the name of non-violence.

      2. I said “animal food”, not “meat”, is crucial for health. Animal food includes dairy products. That’s why vegetarians lay emphasis on milk, curd and butter because they need a recourse to animal source to maintain good health; exclusively “plant foods” is not adequate for all populations. And this is because we have evolved eating meat.

      The point I am making is: since we have evolved eating free range meat (from nose to tail), it is an excellent source of nutrition and maintaining good health with meat in diet is more convenient. This is not an argument against vegetarian diet.

      I did not mean because we have evolved in a way we should continue behaving as such. On the contrary, I said “The idea is not to perpetuate the evolution-based dietary template forever… Human beings forever experiment and evolve newer options to suit newer circumstances.”

      3. The third point I am making, and you have ignored, is that diversity, in food, culture and species, is inter-related and good for resilience. So we should expand choices rather than narrow them down.

      You talk about “solutions” but I did not give any solutions, nor did I intend to give any solutions. I only intended to tell “certain vegetarians” that their arguments have no meat.

      I recognize that non-violence is a noble thought and that most vegetarians are well-meaning people. But this does not give anyone the licence to force their choices down others’ throat, especially when they have not evolved a technology that can eliminate violence inherent in food? Let there be a thousand experiments with food, veg and non-veg; people have evolved different diets suiting different regions and circumstances.

      I did say “What is required is … taking good care of animals”, not as a solution to any challenge mankind faces, but as a rational way of approaching food.

      I found your talk of human rights out of context because in my blog I invited people to expand the web of relationships to include animals.

      I think most of the confusion is coming from misinterpretation of the terms “plant food” and “animal food” in the blog. Many people have equated it with “vegetarian food” and “non-vegetarian food”. I repeat: Plant food is vegetarian-minus-dairy and animal food is meat-plus-dairy.

      Posted by: Archana Yadav | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I hope you did not oppose vegetarian food habit..
    You only offend the vegetarian who did not oppose the openning of other flush seling vendors.. on a particular day..
    By reading the books i come to a conclusion that Human are the derivatives from the Monkey and APE ancestors...
    Both of them eat only the vegetarian food..
    Then human by nature herbivorous... I dont thing so you will deny..
    Nature has given different type of teeth types to carnivorous to kill the prey..

    Posted by: ????????????? ???????? | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Most ridiculous article i have e er read

    Posted by: Padmavati | 3 years ago | Reply
  • The elitist environmentalists articles ..where one compares oneself to a ape while not living like one.

    We cant use all the luxuries of modern life and yet not look at kess cruel methods to feed one self..its always rekativity

    And one always bemifits by eatinf a plant based diey as much as possible

    I am aghast that when theres so much research being done on the benifits of vegetarian based food we still want to gall back upon meat diet. If we are poor people living off the land and pond a d jungle its a different matter. But if we are the o es living in AC homes and driving vehicles...


    Posted by: Padmavati | 3 years ago | Reply