Why I Advocate Veganism

In a recent article entitled, “Why I Would Not Advocate Vegetarianism,” Dr. Sunita Narain summarizes her reasons thus:

“As an Indian (I underline Indian) environmentalist I would not advocate vegetarianism for the following reasons. One, India is a secular nation and the culture of eating food differs between communities, regions and religions. This idea of India is non-negotiable for me as it reflects our richness and our reality. Two, meat is an important source of protein for a large number of people, hence critical for their nutritional security.

Thirdly, and this is what distinguishes my Indian position from the global, meat eating is not the key issue, it is the amount that is consumed and the manner in which it is produced. A recent global assessment, for instance, finds that Americans on an average eat 122 kg per year per person and Indians 3-5 kg per year per person…

But the most important reason I, as an Indian environmentalist, would not support action against meat is that livestock is the most important economic security of farmers in our world.”

As an environmentalist of Indian origin now working out of the United States, I too would not advocate the lacto-vegetarianism prevalent in India today. India has the largest concentration of cattle in the world, with over 300 million heads, more than triple the cattle population of the US, on less than one-third the land area of the US. Considering that only 28% of the cattle in India are male, there are 140 million missing males who would be alive if India had not been culling them aggressively to promote its world-leading beef exports. Certainly, India cannot ban cattle slaughter while the dairy consumption continues unabated. Hence I advocate veganism worldwide, not vegetarianism. However, even considering vegetarianism in India, I would like to raise some issues with each of the reasons that Dr. Narain cites in her article:

Firstly, when it comes to culture, it is time for us, all over the world, to rethink what is appropriate in our changed environmental circumstances. This is why Dronacharya, the teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas in our epic, Mahabharata, fights on behalf of the evil Kauravas in the battle of Kurukshetra. Dronacharya is symbolic of culture and habits, which when followed blindly, lead us to do evil, invariably.

Should we not change the culture and habits that we acquired a millennia ago when there were 100 million human beings, now that there are 7.4 billion of us on our planet today and the planet is clearly being destroyed?

According to Prof. Anthony Barnosky, a paleo-biologist from UC Berkeley, the biomass of ALL the wild megafauna from 10K-100K years ago was 200 Million metric tons (Mt). Today, there are 7.4 billion humans, each weighing an average of 68 kgs, constituting a biomass of 500Mt for our one species alone, while the total biomass of ALL wild megafauna has been decimated to less than 40Mt. Clearly, the human population is too much for the Earth to support on a long-term basis. In addition, we are extracting almost FIVE times as much food for our domestic animals as we eat ourselves. This is like a weight-lifter lifting five times his weight above his head, discovering that he is on quicksand and that he is sinking. Knowing that his weight alone is too much for the quicksand to bear, what is the first thing that he should do?

Every child that I have ever posed this question to, answers, “Drop the weight!” How I wish adults were equally prescient, for even Prof. Paul Ehrlich is still a meat eater!

Fortunately, culture and habits are now being questioned everywhere. In a groundbreaking article in the Israel Times entitled, “Is Any Meat Today Kosher?”, Rabbi David Rosen concludes that the inherent cruelty in the animal agriculture industry and the lack of necessity of consuming animal foods renders only Vegan foods Kosher today. The purpose of “Kosher” (“Halal”) certification is to assure Jewish (Muslim) adherents that the food in question was prepared in accordance with the religious tenets of their faith, which include at its core, compassion for all creation. How can we deliberately kill innocent animals unnecessarily and deem it compassionate in our modern era?

Such questioning is occurring in India as well. I have witnessed the rise of Veganism in India over the past few years with unalloyed joy. After all, the core of Veganism is Ahimsa, the non-harming of all beings, which is surely the greatest conceptual gift that India has bequeathed to the world in all its storied history.

Secondly, it is now well established that an order of magnitude more protein can be produced on a given piece of land with plant-based foods than with animal foods. The American Dietetic Association has stated unequivocally that it is unnecessary to eat animal foods of any kind at any stage of our life cycle. Therefore, nutritional security is best achieved through the advocacy of a plant-based diet, not a meat-based diet.

Thirdly, contrary to what Dr. Narain writes, meat eating IS the key issue in all our global environmental crises. In a recent article, the Worldwatch Institute notes,

"As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease."

There are two kinds of environmentalists: Vegans and those who haven’t understood the data
— Paraphrasing Dr. Kim Williams, who said that for cardiologists

We can’t simply blame the West for all this damage when India is the largest producer of milk and the largest exporter of beef on the planet. At its core, environmentalism is about choosing whether to base our relationship with other species on domination or on compassion. Should we murder hibernating bears or should we nurture wolf pups? With all her environmental alarms blaring, Mother Nature is asking us to recognize that animal rights are human rights!

Finally, I agree with Dr. Narain that our current socioeconomic system condemns a billion poor people to enslave and exploit animals at the behest of the rich, who then get chronically ill while ingesting bio-concentrated doses of toxic pollution in the animal foods they eat. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund reports that 52% (58%) of all wild vertebrates got destroyed between 1970 and 2010 (2012). At that rate, we will wipe all wild vertebrates off the face of the Earth by 2026! But surely, we don't have to continue with this socioeconomic system until all life dies? Surely, we can put our heads together to devise a software/hardware upgrade of the socioeconomic system so that the 2.0 version is sustainable, uses less than half the Earth, has built-in equity among all humans and in which we begin with an attitude of service and humility, not exploitation and domination, towards our fellow Earthlings.

Indeed, we better devise this Global Civilization 2.0 in a hurry! At Climate Healers, this is precisely what most of our resources are focused on today!

Sailesh Rao