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It's more than we can chew

india Updated: Aug 30, 2012 21:54 IST
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I became a confirmed vegetarian in my 20s, not because I am Indian, as is often assumed - most Indians are not vegetarians - but because I once dated an American who was one. More ingloriously, perhaps, I'm squeamish about hurting fluffy little chicks and cute calves with large pleading eyes. I'm not, however, an evangelical vegetarian, not least because my inability to embrace full veganism, compounded by a passion for cafe au lait, somewhat disqualifies me from preaching to others about eating animal products.

Moreover, vegetarianism can be as loaded with prejudice and nastily coercive as any other ideology. Growing up in India, I developed a keen awareness of how dietary taboos around meat could be speciously used to assert caste or religious superiority, often violently.

Last April Hindu extremists attempted to prohibit the serving of beef in university dining halls as a way of further stigmatising marginalised Dalit students whose food culture includes beef. Even though the historical record suggests that beef was once eaten by upper-caste Hindus, food fascism of this sort, including the shibboleth of "cow protection", has also been used as a deadly political weapon against minority Muslim communities. In fact Indians, including some Hindus, consume 1.14m tones of buffalo meat a year, with India set to lead beef exports in 2012.

But the claims of vegetarians and vegans to the most environmentally responsible diets now appear to be validated by a report from leading scientists warning that catastrophic food shortages can only be avoided if the world switches to a mainly vegetarian diet in the next 40 years. With many regions like the Sahel in Africa already facing near-famine conditions, two billion people already malnourished, and an estimated two billion increase in the world population by 2050, a global plant-based diet seems not just desirable but inevitable.

While there are strong environmental and health reasons to reduce our dependence on animal farming and for the better-off to drastically cut meat and dairy consumption, we must resist the temptation to abstractly denote a universal vegetarian lifestyle as the sole or simple answer. At stake are also tenacious problems of overconsumption and the inequitable commandeering of global resources, neither of which will be solved merely by passing the braised tofu.

In the name of "growth", that capitalist holy cow, a smaller number of people consume far more than their share of essential resources. Wealth concentration generates disparate purchasing power that allows richer nations as well as the better-off in every nation to consume - and waste - a disproportionate share of food, fuel, water and other resources. Arable land itself is put towards profit through speculation, mining and logging, rather than feeding people. The predictable argument that overpopulation is the main problem remains a red herring.

The irony of vegetarianism or veganism as a lifestyle choice in wealthier countries is that it correlates with the relative affluence of being able to choose to spend your food budget on good-quality fruits, vegetables and grains. The less affluent remain condemned to buying whatever is cheapest, whether stale vegetables, processed foods or factory-farmed chicken.

The excessive consumption of animal products clearly poses an imminent danger to both planet and human existence. But addressing this cannot take the form of a coercive herbivorous moralism. We need a comprehensive reordering of the global economy and our priorities as human beings to end the limitless scandal that is widespread hunger.