Indians are eating more meat and enjoying it. Higher incomes, global food chains and a vast population of young people indifferent to religious taboos are shattering myths about "vegetarian India", finds Latha Jishnu. But this appetite for meat has environmental and political fallouts
Meaty tales of vegetarian India
WE are non-veg. That’s how Vishal Jain describes himself and his younger brother Ankit. Non-veg, shorthand for non-vegetarian, is India’s quaint contribution to the sociology and culture of food, a hold-all term that signifies we are consumers of meat of some kind—chicken, beef, mutton or pork. Or fish. Or eggs. Perhaps, all of these. To declare that one is non-veg, or eats non-veg—the term is interchangeable—is a necessary distinction in a land fabled for its vegetarianism and made legendary by its most famous practitioner, Mahatma Gandhi.
Vishal Jain’s declaration underlines the shrinking nature and number of those who abide by a meat-free diet. For the brothers belong to one of the few religious communities who are rigidly vegetarian. The Jains eschew even vegetables that grow underground for fear of killing any creatures when these are pulled out. Vishal, 28, a software techie in Hyderabad, says he took to eating meat with the advent of the chicken burger, courtesy an American fast food chain. “I worked late hours and this was a convenience food. But also tasty—like nothing I had eaten before. Besides, the meat itself was not so much in your face.”
From chicken in a bun, he went on to other non-veg fare that Hyderabad is traditionally famous for, such as haleem, the city’s signature dish which is a thick broth of wheat, lentils and mutton/beef cooked specially for festivals. And he introduced Ankit to its epicurean delights. The brothers, however, are careful to keep this hidden from their parents who are strict in their religious observances. One reason the two broke religious taboos is the environment.
At the workplace, colleagues, although not exactly cosmopolitan were open to change and experimenting, while the urban ambience and culture made this easier, explains Vishal. Hyderabad is a meat-loving city, with both the Muslim and Andhra cuisine celebrating it in diverse dishes. Recently, its municipal commissioner Somesh Kumar was reeling off statistics to impress a conference of mayors about its meaty profile. According to him, 70 per cent of Hyderabad’s 7.8 million population is non-vegetarian, consuming as much as 300,000 chicken, 8,000 goat/sheep, 2,500 buffalo and 50 swine daily. On peak days, the usage simply doubles.
In a country where food and dietary habits are governed by complex rules based on religion, caste and region, the old ways are yielding place to the new. Tastes have changed and what was considered infra dig by some meat eaters in earlier times is today’s flavour of the day. Traditional meat-eaters look down upon those stuffing themselves on mass produced broiler chicken as upstarts and lament the inability of the neo non-vegetarians to appreciate the joy of all kinds of meat. K Dasgupta, a communications professional working in Delhi, reminisces about the changing profile and sociology of meat-eating. “At our home, for instance, till well into the mid 1990s, a typical week used to be three-four days of fish, and mutton on Sundays. We rarely ate chicken; it was considered food for inferior people.”
There was also the question of availability. “As a kid, I would sometimes take sandwiches with cold cuts to school and on those days I was quite a star,” says Dasgupta about the 1980s. “Close to where we lived in West Delhi there was a place that sold salami and ham—a rarity in those days. In fact, some of my young relatives would visit our house just to have those cold cuts. I remember I would look forward to eat rolls on my visit to Calcutta (Kolkata). Today, there is a roll seller almost every kilometre in middle class localities in Delhi.”
Increasing affluence in cities has changed all that. The frozen kebabs have become ubiquitous and in every little market in residential areas a momo vendor or two and shops selling cold cuts abound. For those who can afford it, meat is readily available now and in a smorgasbord of options—uncooked, ready to cook, frozen, from street food vendors and takeaways to a host of restaurant options. These range from Michelin-starred facilities offering steak tartare to the run-of-the-mill korma joints.
“Only one class in India is eating meat,” declares nutritionist Veena Shatrugna, “and that’s the well-to-do. I would say our per capita meat consumption is pathetic.” Her contention is that the vast majority of Indians, around 80 per cent, is non-vegetarian and should be eating much more meat to meet their required dietary intake of calories and proteins to fight malnutrition. Instead the government has been pushing a brahmanical concept of dietary requirements over the past 70 years (see ‘Forced vegetarianism’).
“Without our knowledge we have been practising an upper caste nutritional science,” says Shatrugna who was deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, the Hyderabad-based research organisation of the Indian Council of Medical Research. “Without batting an eyelid the government accepted the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) which assumes the whole country is vegetarian. Indians should be eating much more meat for nutritional reasons.”
Consumption figures bear her out. According to a global meat consumption chart compiled by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in 2007, India logged in last in a total of 177 countries. Its annual consumption of meat per person was just 3.2 kg at a time when Americans were eating as much as 125 kg per head and the world average was 38. 7 kg. Now, India’s per capita consumption is 5.5 kg—although some estimates place it lower—against the world average of 43.1 kg. American per capita consumption of chicken alone is 50.1kg.
The question of vegetarian numbers opens up a huge and vexed debate—a debate fraught with caste and religious prejudices. The question is whether more Indians are eating meat now because they can afford it or if the number of vegetarians is declining at a rapid rate. What is the actual number of vegetarians in the country? The most authoritative study is the People of India survey, a mammoth enterprise of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) completed in 1993. The eight-year study was steered by its director-general Kumar Suresh Singh and covered every rite, custom and habit of every single community in the country.
At the end of it, the army of ASI researchers found that of the 4,635 communities, nearly 88 per cent were meat-eaters. And they devoured all kinds of flesh. Several communities in the Vindhyas ate field rats. Those living along the banks of the Cauvery feasted on baby crocodiles, civets and jackals. In many parts of the country, people who insisted they were brahmins—the survey, however, was based on communities and not caste—and vegetarians said they ate fish and meat.
Definition of vegetarianism in India thus tends to be fluid. One explanation is that Indians are snobbish about their food habits and culture and what they consume becomes a status symbol. Meat-eating is looked down upon by the upper castes and, not surprisingly, ASI found that nearly five per cent of all scheduled castes had turned vegetarian to avoid the discrimination and contempt. For example, the Musahars—this is a community of over two million in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh— are at the bottom of the caste heap for eating rats and reviled for their “dirty food habits” although in many other cultures rodent meat is acceptable.
“India is full of closet meat-eaters because we are a nation of hypocrites,” says food writer and researcher Pushpesh Pant. “All taboos and religious strictures on food don’t apply once people are out of their homes. This is particularly the case with men and young people.”
A 2006 State of the Nation survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for Hindu-CNN-IBN reinforces the ASI report that the overwhelming majority is non-vegetarian. It revealed that only 31 per cent of Indians are vegetarians. The figure was even lower at 21 per cent for families in which all members are vegetarian. Another nine per cent of the population are vegetarian who eat eggs. Says CSDS director Sanjay Kumar: “The figures did not come as a big surprise. It is a perception, and widespread, that India is vegetarian.”
Vegetarianism, the study revealed, is more a function of inherited cultural practices than individual choices although this seems to have changed in the eight years since the CSDS study. What came through clearly is that “the majority of all Hindus are non-vegetarian”. On the other hand, eight per cent of Christians surveyed turned out to be vegetarian.
Data compiled by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) of the government has been showing a clear increase in meat consumption in recent years. Although NSSO covers just 100,000 people in its surveys, these provide the largest official data on consumption and expenditure. The latest Household Consumption survey (Round 558) conducted during 2011-12 and released in July this year shows both rural and urban India are spending more on milk, meat and eggs as consumption of these items is rising much faster than that of cereals. Animal products have also contributed to 33 per cent of the incremental food inflation over the past five years, a figure that is expected to be higher in the future.
Not surprisingly, 37 per cent of agricultural output growth between 2005 and 2011 came from animal products, says a Credit Suisse analysis, with poultry rising the fastest in this category. Chicken consumption has grown at a phenomenal rate in India which is rated the fourth-fastest growing market in the world. NSSO pegs it at 2.5 kg per person. An explanation for India’s chicken mania can be found in the recently-released OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014. It says, “Lower income consumers tend to enter the meat market through poultry and, to a lesser extent, pork, leading to higher consumption as incomes increase. Nevertheless, for all meats, as income per capita increases and food becomes a smaller share of total expenditure, the income elasticity decreases significantly.” (OECD is the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of rich nations).
Pushpesh Pant has another explanation why chicken is flying off plates. “It is religion-neutral unlike beef and pork, and the young these days are fond of having meat whenever they eat out.” As working life changes and better incomes allow people to experiment with different foods, the myth of vegetarian India is finally crumbling. The young in particular, and India has the most youthful population according to the 2011 Census, are a vital force in shaping the changes. Global fast food chains which have been proliferating since the 1990s, the emergence of stores selling meat, especially those devoted to chicken in all forms, have helped convert millions of youth like Vishal.
Demography is central to this narrative of the changing taste for flesh. Those in the age group of 18-35 years account for more than a third of India’s 1.2 billion population, and it is they who dominate spending in the consumer economy. A key to the generational shift in the changing food culture is the explosion of fast food joints across the country, a majority of them hawking items that are meat-based. These quick services restaurants, or QSRs in trade terminology, have seen their highest growth in the past five-six years. According to market analyst CRISIL Research, the market is booming. Sales worth Rs 3,400 crore in 2013-13 are expected to more than double to Rs 7,000 crore over the next three years, growing at an average annual rate of about 27 per cent.
“In the last three decades, India has seen radical changes in the modes of producing and consuming food and yet very little analysis has been carried out,” points out Amita Baviskar, associate professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.
Baviskar has been studying the spread of industrial foods, or processed items, in Indian diets and finds that “a celebration of consumerist gratification” has replaced the earlier discourse of austerity.
The trend towards meat eating is one of the big changes, she admits, although this is not exactly her sphere of research. Across the world people eat meat or more of it as prosperity increases. Colin Sage, food geographer with the University of Cork, Ireland, writes that the past five decades have witnessed “a marked ‘meatification’ of the human diet, spreading from long-established high-consumption societies to the emerging market economies of Asia and Latin America which have been undergoing a ‘nutrition transition’. Eating large quantities of meat has become a sign of affluence, modernity and a ‘right’ of consumer choice.”
Globally, meat consumption has increased, with FAO reporting that production had risen to a new peak of 308.5 million tonnes in 2013 because of purchasing power, urbanisation, and changing diets. But curiously, it is India with its levels of intake that is grabbing attention. India came into the spotlight last year when it became the largest exporter of beef, buffalo meat or carabeef actually, overtaking Brazil and other traditional supplies. But a clutch of recent reports have expressed concern on the changing pattern of meat consumption within vegetarian India and China.
One such study was by a team of scientists, led by Sylvain Bonhommeau of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, who found that the world has turned more carnivorous and put it down to higher meat consumption by China and India. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2013, the comprehensive study of global food consumption looked at how eating patterns had changed over half a century from 1961-2009 in 176 countries. It used data on 102 types of food, ranging from apples and molluscs to meat and fats, compiled by FAO and used this to calculate the human trophic level (HTL). The trophic level is a metric used to show the position of different species in the food chain, with plants and algae at Level 1 and predators at the higher spots.
According to the Bonhommeau study, the increase in fat and meat consumption has moved humans up the global food chain largely on account of higher intake by China and India which had offset declines in other countries. “We find the global median HTL in 2009 to be 2.21. The median HTL is weighted by the population size of each country, and thus this trend is mainly driven by China and India, whose median HTL has increased from 2.05 to 2.20 during this period,” it said. The reason: economic growth, which allowed “these countries to support the human preference for high meat diets”.
Writing on the study, Nature noted that in China and India, “hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty—and often out of diets that involved little more than rice”. This is not strictly true since meat of some kind has invariably been part of the diets of even the poor.
Within a month of the PNAS report, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, the German environmental foundation, brought its Meat Atlas which echoed the same conclusions. Its report, put together with Friends of the Earth Europe, the largest grassroots environmental group in Europe, found that while consumption in the biggest markets of the US and Europe was growing slowly, or even stagnating, it was picking up hugely elsewhere. “The booming economies in Asia and elsewhere will see around 80 per cent of the growth in the meat sector by 2022. The biggest growth will be in China and India because of huge demand from their new middle classes.”
Similarly, OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014 predicts that developing countries will account for 83 per cent of extra meat consumed in 2023, with Asian markets consuming more than half of it. “In Asia, total meat consumption is expected to increase by 26 per cent, driven by both strong income growth and a growing and increasingly urban population.”
However, India has still not taken to the industrial farming of meat except in the case of chicken (see Red and white—and far from green). Officials of the animal husbandry department of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority of the Commerce Ministry emphasise that the quality of meat produced in India is much in demand because livestock is reared in natural conditions. For the time being, at least, the country may not have to worry about the potentially harmful consequences of industrial meat production.
And for the time being, India is still the centre of the vegetarian world with the largest number of vegetarians across the globe. But if the current trends on meat eating accelerate, the image of a vegetarian India of the kind associated with Gandhi will fade soon. The myth has already been shattered.
Log on to www.downtoearth.org.in for India’s chicken mania
The beef against meat and eggs
Religious sensitivities in India get easily hurt over food such as meat and eggs
We used to go to their area sometimes and sit in front of one house. People used to gather there, wondering how this high-caste person has come to their place. Sometimes we asked from them for water to drink and had food together. Based on this relationship, we started telling them the reasons why people kept them at a distance. We said that the society condemns you because your living is dirty, your food habits are dirty, and your thinking is dirty. Therefore, you have to change. With such constant hammering, the dalits were also made vegetarian.”
This is celebrated anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare (quoted by author Mukul Sharma) explaining how he made his village Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra meat-free. Food in India is hugely contested terrain, owing to caste prejudices, and religious and regional differences. Meat quite often becomes a flashpoint with latter day constructs of cultural nationalism making a prohibition on beef-eating a mark of Hindu identity. What happens is that people who follow “unacceptable” dietary traditions are invariably usually hammered. And so are those who write about ancient India’s food preferences. To state the historical truth that meat, beef to be more precise, was consumed in Vedic times and eaten by sages, brahmins and ordinary mortals is to invite rage and retribution.
When R S Sharma, professor of history at Delhi University, wrote in his Ancient India that the ancient Aryans were beef-eaters, he was charged with hurting the sentiments of the Hindus. That was in the 1970s. In 2002, D N Jha, another historian from Delhi University, published The Myth of the Holy Cow, there was violence and he had to be given police protection. Ironically, none of what these academics had to say was new; these were well chronicled facts. Religious sensitivities tend to get easily hurt in India over food such as meat and eggs. As the politics of food spreads, vegetarian fundamentalists have been hitting at more vulnerable targets: the midday meal provided to underprivileged children in government schools. In state after state, governments have given into small but powerful religious groups who have objected to eggs being given to India’s hugely undernourished children in the primary and upper primary sections. The campaign against eggs is spearheaded by the leaders of the ultra orthodox Jain religious community.
In February this year, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje announced firmly that there was no question of supplying eggs in the midday meal scheme and in food distributed at anganwadi centres. “We respect religious sentiments of the people. We will not distribute eggs or any other [edible] item that hurts anyone’s religious feelings,” Raje told a press conference in Jaipur. Rajasthan follows Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka in denying children a rich source of protein. Barring a handful, most other states, too, provide no eggs or milk either but on grounds of budgetary constraints.
The serving of beef—it is a cheaper and much better source of protein than chicken—and pork in university hostels is another volatile issue that has led to violent protests over the years. Attempts by dalit and other students to challenge the mainstream Hindu food culture by organising beef food festivals have always ended in violent confrontation with upper caste students led by the AkhilBharatiyaVidyarthiParishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BharatiyaJanata Party, who maintain that the serving of beef—pork is not mentioned—would hurt the “religious sentiments” of Hindus. Staff organisations and the university administration have invariably supported ABVP. Even less successful has been the campaign to make the non-vegetarian menu more inclusive with the addition of beef and pork. As a counter to such trends is the emergence of red-blooded groups of meat lovers across the country. Filmmaker DeeshMariwala who set up Mumbai Meat Marathon (MMM), a network of people who enjoy their meat, says it is a reaction to the vegetarian campaigns that have made traditional meat dishes difficult to access. “MMM is essentially about finding the best quality meat dishes at lower end restaurants,” says Mariwala who has been setting up such networks in the cities where he is stationed.
The majority in India eats meat yet why are the diets recommended in India entirely vegetarian?
Red and white-and far from green
Environmental cost of producing meat is unsustainable because of industrial farming
The 21st century has been marked by concern about the impact of livestock on the environment, a concern that grew sharper in the wake of the 2006 report by FAO, Livestock’s long shadow, which said the livestock industry is directly or indirectly responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) — a figure higher than that for the entire transport sector.
It brought into focus, the role of livestock in environmental degradation by driving deforestation and degradation, agricultural intensification and industrialisation, and as a sector that competes for natural resources. But grabbing attention was its impact on climate change, water and biodiversity. Last year, however, it revised downwards the figure of emissions to 14.5 per cent of GHGs but emphasised that livestock plays an important role in climate change.
The 2013 report, titled Tackling Climate Change through Livestock, says cattle used in both milk production and beef account for the majority of emissions, respectively contributing 41 and 20 per cent of the sector’s emissions. Pig and poultry meat along with eggs add nine and eight per cent respectively. “The strong projected growth of this production will result in higher emission shares and volumes over time,” it warns. Already, global meat production is at a new peak of 308.5 million tonnes in 2013 and is set to rise further with developing countries producing and consuming more meat.
The quest for cheap and plentiful meat has resulted in factory farms where more and more animals are squeezed into smaller lots in cruel and shocking conditions. Such practices have resulted in many of the world’s health pandemics such as the avian flu.
“Worldwide, livestock are increasingly raised in cruel, cramped conditions, where animals spend their short lives under artificial light, pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, until the day they are slaughtered,” notes Meat Atlas, a far from edifying report on the state of meat production. The report brought out by Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe is subtitled Facts and figures about the animals we eatand highlights the problems that arise from a complex set of issues related to prosperity, health and sustainability.
Water usage is one of the gnawing worries. World watch Institute points out that a major strain on the environment is the water-intensive nature of meat production, especially beef. It calculates that an estimated 15,000 litres is needed for every kilogram of beef compared with 3,400 litres for rice, 3,300 litres for eggs and 255 litres for a kg of potatoes.
At the root of the problem is the transformation of production systems. The small farmer and the local butcher shop are now a distant memory in the developed world where ruthless efficiency is the order of the day as consolidation of the meat industry reaches epic proportions. For instance, in the US, feedlots for 100,000 head of cattle are now in operation. Such staggering economies of scale are necessary to bring down costs in an industry where profit margins are thin.
To highlight the scale of operations, Meat Atlas gives the example of JBS SA, a beef company based in Brazil, which is the world’s top food and beverage company with sales of $38.7 billion dollars in 2012. A relatively unknown name, JBS’s has global capacities to slaughter 85,000 head of cattle, 70,000 pigs, and 12 million birds daily. This meat is distributed in 150 countries as soon as the carcasses are “disassembled”.
But in Asia and Africa, it is completely the reverse. Small farmers are the backbone of the meat industry and their methods of production do not damage the environment because ruminants are grazed on pasture which binds their emissions into the soil. But change is taking place—in chicken production in India and pork in China where factory methods are becoming the norm. For those who dream of a meat-free world, it is important to remember that livestock production accounts for 1.4 percent of the world’s GDP and provides livelihood to 1.3 billion people, most of whom (987 million) are the poor.
Chicken mania –and why it will grow
HOW much chicken does India eat? According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data it’s just 2.5 kg per person per year –a mere trifle when you compare it with intake in the US and China, with which India is usually clubbed to show huge Asian consumption. Americans eat 50.1 kg and the Chinese 14 kg.
Chicken is supreme except in Kerala and the north-eastern states which prefer beef, and in Jammu & Kashmir which remains faithful to its mutton (lamb or goat). Estimates of livestock production, demand and consumption vary hugely. While NSSO surveys indicate that demand for chicken grew 20 percent on compounded annual growth rates (CAGR) during 2005-2010, the Department of Animal Husbandry pegs it at eight percent. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has a median figure of 12 percent.
Price is key to the popularity of chicken. In Delhi, the standard rate is around Rs 150 per kg while mutton is Rs 380. So vastly cheaper than mutton but more expensive than beef (Rs 200/kg), the chicken growth story has been phenomenal. The actual figures of consumption are staggering. According to Neelkanth Mishra, India Equity Strategist for Credit Suisse, Indians ate chicken worth Rs 30,400 crore in 2010. If CAGR was 12 percent (and price rose by about 14 percent annually), consumption in 2013-14 would be Rs 80,000 crore.
All this has ramifications elsewhere as in agricultural production. A significant fallout has been the increasing production of maize, used as feedstock for poultry, which is eating into the acreage of other crops such as millets and rice.
But for that Ravi Chopra, managing director of Green Chick Chop, one of Delhi’s pioneering purveyors of chicken, all the matters is that business is booming: “Indians love chicken,” says Chopra who set up his first two shops in 1989. At that time people ate some mutton and very little chicken. That was the accepted pattern before the industrial farming of poultry became widespread in the 1990s. “Now the young generation wants to eat chicken daily and I can hardly keep up with the demand,” says Chopra whose shops have become ubiquitous in the national capital. Now, he has 70 outlets and each of them sells 300 chicken daily, a figure that goes up to 500 on festivals and certain holidays. Sale of mutton though is less than 10 kg daily.
Companies like Green Chick Chop pump up the mania for chicken with a range of pre-cooked curries, snacks and ready-to-cook variations. And nothing seems to deter consumers from eating chicken although there are frequent reports that the poultry industry makes unapproved use of antibiotics to ensure that the birds fatten as quickly as possible without succumbing to disease. The latest findings by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment do not appear to have dampened sales.
Slick marketing strategies by the bigger players is helping to push demand in other ways. One is the sachet/small packet model that producers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) have used effectively to inflate sales. Nestlé has been hugely successful with its instant Maggi noodles by selling 50 gm packets at just Rs 5. Godrej Tyson Foods is using the same method to market chicken mince at Rs. 68 for a 300 gm pack which it says will be rich in proteins but cheaper than vegetables. At a June launch of the product in Bengaluru, a company official was quoted as saying that in a country where “30 percent of children are underweight and one-third of the adults are malnourished,” protein has to be a critical part of the diet. The company claims that per gram chicken works out cheaper than other protein sources: milk costs Rs 1.50 paise/gm, eggs 95 while chicken is just 65 paise.
Prices could fall further with the looming threat of cheap imports. On 15 October, the WTO finally ruled against India’s ban on chicken legs from the US which it had imposed in 2007. Now, subsidised chicken from the US could flood the market if India does not appeal the ruling. Even otherwise, India remains the most promising market for chicken in Asia.
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