Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

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 de­mon­e­tize 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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