Food and Sustainability
About five years ago, we had a little “discussion” at work, in which I basically got trolled for being a vegetarian. I was so angry that I wrote down a post on why I am a vegetarian and why everyone else was wrong in thinking what they were thinking. A day later, I changed the post to a much milder one, because:
I felt that the original post may have come across as too strong, seeming a bit too aggressive, bordering on angry. That was not the purpose of the post.
The post talked about the different “food orientations”, answered frequently asked questions and explained why some of us are vegetarians. I continue to be a vegetarian, but as with everything on this blog, I have changed my stance with some of the thoughts and ideas. Also, to me, vegetarianism is now beyond not harming sentient beings.
Something to address first
I should have done this in the other post, but here: Some fellow vegetarians make statements about non-vegetarians having no compassion, or them being “inhuman”. First of all, eating meat is not inhuman. Next, let us address the misunderstanding:
I drink milk. I have been drinking bovine milk for three decades now. I know that the animals undergo a lot of exploitation, but I have never made the connection between the glass of milk in my hand and the suffering of the cow out there.
In the same way, most non-vegetarians I know would not stand the killing of an animal. We all have non-vegetarian friends who are compassionate towards, say, dogs and elephants; they may play with (clean) piglets and what not. But most do not make the connection between the chicken leg piece on their plate and the bird on the slaughter table.
A couple of years ago, I watched a video in which the host mentioned in passing, how he had stopped eating meat because of the amount of water it consumed. I did not think of it much back then. But over the last year or so, I have come across a lot more facts about meat eating. It started with the idea of “vegan” meat that I read about while browsing—I think—Reddit. First, I found it funny: why would anyone want to do that? But there was more to it than I thought.
India probably has the largest vegetarian population in the world, Countries with the highest rates of vegetarianism (WorldAtlas) with up to 38% of the population identifying as vegetarians. If you consider the allegation that some identified themselves as vegetarians because of societal pressures, and even cut this number by half, India would still the largest vegetarian population in the world.
While they say vegetarianism is more sustainable, India’s vegetarian population means nothing to sustainability.
Contributions of the cow
We are a culture that cannot do without dairy.
I grew up in Gujarat. Anand Milk Union Limited (or AMUL) has always been a matter of awe for me. Amul has led the country in dairy production for decades, which means a regular employment and source of income for about 3.6 million dairy farmers who collectively own the co-operative body that manages it. I quote Prof. Gulati mentioning this as an example of sustainable economic growth for farmers in a previous post.
Over years, we have grown more and more dependent on milk and dairy products. You cannot imagine a regular Indian household without ghee in the kitchen. The white revolution in India makes for case studies in economic development for farmers. Amul is perhaps the largest food company in India, and one of the largest in the world. Most other states have co-operative societies replicating the Amul model. India makes 394 grams of milk per person, per day Milk production and per capita availability of milk in India (National Dairy Development Board) as of 2019 (meaning, we manage to produce 187.7 million metric tonnes of milk a day).
This is all great, but let us look at the other side of this story.
Meat and India
India is the largest exporter of bovine meat in the world. India’s beef exports rise under Modi govt despite Hindu vigilante campaign at home (ThePrint) In 2019 we had a total livestock population of 535.8 million, Livestock Population in India by Species (National Dairy Development Board) of which 302.3 million were bovines.
I have lived in urban India since 2007. And most of my non-vegetarian friends eat chicken and fish. I know a mere handful that eat beef.
To cater to the increasing white-meat-eating population in India, the total poultry population in India (including chicken, ducks and other birds) as of 2019 was 851.8 million. Poultry made 50.06% of India’s meat production Basic Animal Husbandry Statistics - 2019 (Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, GoI) (as of 2019). Bovine meat was almost half of this. The production of meat showed a growth rate of ~6% per year.
In other words, we have hundreds of millions of cows and buffaloes for milk, and hundreds of millions of birds for meat, which brings us to:
The cost of livestock and poultry
We begin by talking water. Chicken drink water. They eat grain which needs water to cultivate. Processing chicken needs water—cleaning the place where they grow, for cleaning the bird after slaughtering, and so on. We cannot recycle this antibiotic-laden water with blood and other “wastes” dissolved in it. We slaughtered 2.813 billion (281.3 crore) birds and 15 million (1.5 crore) bovines in 2018-19. This does not include the birds and animals that died before slaughter (due to diseases and other reasons).
Assuming that we used 1 litre of water per bird per day, and that each bird lived about 45 days, each bird consumed 45 litres of water in its lifetime. Multiplying this by the number of birds slaughtered that year gives 126.59 billion litres of water. The reality, though, is different (drinking itself uses up 400 ml). Here are the usages of water by process, India’s meat industry growing rapidly, but … (FirstPost) for birds:
- Drinking (400 ml of water per day per bird)
- Irrigation for bird feed (1000 litres of water per kilogram)
- Cooling the broiler houses
- Clearing the excreta and feathers
- Use in electric baths which needs frequent change to discard bird urine and feces
- Boilers used to scald the bird for feather removal
- Cold water baths used to lock the moisture after scalding
- Removal of internal organs
- Cleaning and sanitation
Processing of the carcass alone takes 35 litres of water. The estimate is a direct or indirect use of 4,325 litres of water per kilogram of chicken.
We produced 4.061 million tonnes of poultry meat in the year 2018-19, which, by the calculation above, consumed 17.564 trillion litres (or 17.564 km³) of water. To give you a perspective, that is twice the amount of water the largest man-made lake in the world—Nagarjuna Sagar dam—can store, and almost 1.4 times the capacity of the largest dam in the country.
When we get to bovine meat, the number is 20,045 litres of water per kilogram of meat. Which means, in total, to produce 1.872 million tonnes of meat, we used 37.530 trillion litres (or km³) of water, which is thrice the capacity of the largest dam in our country.
‘But wait, we do not eat beef!’
Well, the story is worse in our case. How? For starters, we derived that amount of water by calculating the meat from ~15 million bovine animals. But the actual bovine population in India is 302.3 million. These animals do not get killed within a year like birds do. They live much longer. Each animal uses up about 11 times as much water as a human in any given time span. Which means that if we give all the water that the bovine population consumes to humans, we could support 3.325 billion humans.
And I said our story is worse, because we are the world’s largest exporter of beef. By exporting beef, we are exporting all that water.
Of course, to be fair, some of that water does get recycled.
And when coupled with the decline in per-capita water availability from 5,000 m³ per annum in 1950 to 2,000 now and a projected 1,500 by 2025, Agriculture (India Water Portal) we would be better off channelling water to the right places.
The feed cost
The next is the food these animals eat. A non-lactating cow generally eats 2% of its weight—which is about 12 kilograms of forage per day. A lactating cow eats an added 50% of its milk production as grain (for example, if a cow gives 5 litres of milk, it eats an added 2.5 kg of grain). Cows eat hay and vegetable wastes, which is not an infringement on human food. Also, we cannot fully consider the 20,045 litres of water, because we would have used a good chunk of that water any way, to grow our food.
While the exact numbers are unavailable, we know that about 70% of bovine food is from fodder, while the rest 30% is grain and pulses. Assuming that a cow eats an average 12 kilograms of food a day, about 3.5 kilograms of it are grains. Multiply that by the bovine population, we get 52,500 tonnes of grain every day. All our cows and buffaloes combined produce about 187.7 million litres of milk a day, which adds another 93,850 tonnes of grain a day as feed. All these animals in our country, combined, eat 146,350 tonnes of grain (or 1.463 lac tonnes of grain) a day.
But then, a report based on FAS New Delhi estimates, based on information from trade sources, shows that India uses a total of 38 – 42 million tonnes of feed. India: Grain and Feed Annual (USDA FAS) Corn, wheat and other coarse grains constitute 21.3 – 23 million tonnes. Another point the report brings to attention is the potential need to import feed ingredients from the international market. The feed industry is growing at a rate of 5 – 7 percent per year, almost in line with the meat consumption.
Add to this bird feed, which is a 70% concentrate of grains and pulses, across the total poultry population, and again, you have a large amount of food that goes into feeding the birds.
The environmental cost
Let us begin with the amount of manure a cow can produce. A cow can drink up to 130 litres of water in a day. How Much Manure Does a Cow Produce Daily? (Reference) It can produce about 18 litres of urine a day, and about 30 kg of dung. Again, multiply that by the number of cows, oxen, buffaloes, etc. that we have, and we are looking at about 4.5 million tonnes of dung a day. ‘But what is the big deal? Haven’t we traditionally used manure as fertilisers and what not?’
We have, but the scale is the key here. What was the population of our country when we started using these methods? What was the bovine population of our country when we started these systems? What is it today? In simple terms, back in 1820, we had a population of 1 billion people across the globe. In the next 100 years, it went to 1.5 billion. And in the next hundred years, it multiplied almost 5 times and reached 7 billion. This is the human population alone.
To feed this large population with milk, we bred milch animals. Their population also grew at that scale as well, if not faster. And the amount of green house gases (methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, etc.) emitted into the atmosphere grew at the same rate, and today, continues to grow—in India—at the rate of 5 – 7% per annum. These gases are much more potent than carbon monoxide and dioxide (methane retains about a hundred times the heat as carbon dioxide over a five-year period). Farm animals throw out methane when they eat food they cannot digest. This causes the bacteria living in their digestive tract to break it down, producing methane as a by-product. A mere 3 million cows may not have mattered, but what is their population today?
Some environmental organisations estimate that half of all green house gas emissions come from farm animals alone.
Next, researchers from Texas Tech found that all their air samplers placed around feedlots recorded samples of antibiotics. 60% of the upwind samplers and 30% of the downwind samplers tested positive for tetracycline antibiotics, which is contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Because these bacteria are now becoming resistant to these antibiotics, we are finding it hard to treat diseases such as urinary tract infection.
Is vegetarianism all that healthy
Not in today’s world. But this makes me think that perhaps vegetarianism is healthier and certainly more sustainable than using animals for food.
An interesting statement I came across was that eating animals is an inefficient way to nutrition:
Cattle and buffaloes are large animals and they eat a lot of food. They grow, of course, but that growth when seen in terms of nutrient delivery, is inefficient. If you slaughtered a buffalo that weighs 300 kg, the amount of flesh you would get is perhaps about a hundred kilograms. But the amount of food that it ate throughout its life is much more than that.
Instead, if you removed the animal from the equation, and gave the same amount of food to humans, you can feed at least ten humans. While an oversimplification, the statement is not far from the truth.
Am I suggesting that we get rid of animals? No. All I say is that breeding animals for food is inefficient.
But what about protein
What about protein? I have been a vegetarian throughout my life. And I am not protein-deficient.
That plants are by nature deficient in protein, is a myth. We have protein-rich plant-based foods, as there are foods rich in other nutrients. I need about 65 grams of protein per day, to maintain my weight. The last time I lost weight was in 2014, because of dengue. I regained my weight in about six months after that.
But of course, I have been drinking milk. Changing to a non-dairy diet may lead to changes in these parameters, but with the current scale of demand and supply, I do not think that milk and dairy products lead to as much protein absorption as advertised. Because you must always lose something to gain something—in this case, that is losing nutrition density for quantity. And this is nothing that plant-based foot cannot replace.
Am I suggesting that we never use scientific methods to increase productivity? No, but I do say that any scientific method is about the cost-to-benefit ratio. (And unscientific methods are, well, unscientific.)
The flip side
Again, this post is not to say that one way of life is better than the other. The vegetarian (perhaps the purely-plant-based) way is more sustainable in our current world.
Can you quit eating meat? Probably not; I cannot fully quit dairy products yet. And almost every Indian vegetarian is also contributing to the issues mentioned above because of the dairy element. Measuring India with the same scale as other countries is not right, because our strengths and weaknesses are different; the variables we deal with are different from most other countries in the world.
Switching away from meat is too big a change. Animal farming is a source of income for millions of farmers. Switching away from animal products will lead to massive unemployment. What would happen if the world suddenly went vegetarian? (BBC) Rural income will get affected the most. Imagine the scale when about 60% of our workforce depends on agriculture, directly or indirectly. India at a glance (FAO in India)
From the consumer standpoint, the cost per unit of nutrients (whether protein or micronutrients) is lower in dairy and meat. In other words, while price per unit weight of animal products may be higher than their vegan counterparts, the nutrient density in meat offsets the price, making nutritious vegetarian food slightly more expensive than meat. Because a typical healthy vegetarian eats more legumes, vegetables and fruits and coarse grain than, say, rice—and larger servings of the former. Of course, in long term, this would lead to better health and reduced medical expenditure. But in countries like ours, the poor have some healthcare benefits from the government, but food security revolves around merely filling the stomach than filling it with good food.
What may have been a sustainable culture a millennium ago or a couple of centuries ago may not be the right way to go today. A lot has changed during this time. Green house gas emissions from 60,000 cows may not have been much three hundred years ago, because we did not have the number of vehicles and factories that we have today. Our country may not have been so populous back then. As these variables change, we must tweak our lives to match them.
The change cannot be sudden. But at the same time, we must also remember that putting off the change would impact us more. The key is starting small and being consistent. We must pick one piece at a time, and work for alternatives while making a small change. For example, increase the availability of millets by 30,000 tonnes a year, and decrease the availability of meat by 15,000 tonnes a year. The market will catch up with this change. The society and the economic setup can adapt to this as well.
This must not be an either-or. Awareness and moderation is what we need.
As for those who go for meat for the taste and texture, the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are already making vegan alternatives, and apparently, they are also available in some parts of India. I am yet to see them on grocery shelves, but this is interesting. We have Indian companies making such food as well, Everything you need to know about the vegetarian “meat” wave hitting the grocery shelves (Vogue India) but neither could I find enough information about them, nor have I tried them to be able to post.
Sustainability is important. No other species can understand this. And protecting ourselves along with our surroundings is our responsibility.
And no, I still do not subscribe to PETA or any activist organisation.