The Taste With Vir: The moral case for veganism is much stronger than the case for non-vegetarianism
Some of you know may know that Penguin has recently published a collection of old Rude Food columns in book form. The thing about a column is that no matter how much effort you put into writing it that week, there comes a time, say 100 columns on (which is nearly two years in the case of Rude Food), when you no longer remember what you said in each column.
I have been reminded of this with startling regularity as I have given interviews about the book or spoken at events where the book is the primary focus. A week ago, at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival, I was interviewed on stage by the actress and food writer Tara Deshpande.
Tara is not only very bright but had done her homework so, as she asked me questions about some of the columns that had been compiled into the book, I found myself struggling. Did I really write that, I often thought to myself while simultaneously struggling to seem cool on stage and pretend that I recalled the details of the pieces she was referring to.
One of these was an old column on vegetarianism. I am a non-vegetarian though the Gujarati genes inside me ensure that I do not miss meat even if I don’t eat it for a while.
I did not choose to be a non-vegetarian. My parents were non-vegetarians so I grew up as one. It was never a conscious choice or one that I thought deeply about.
Some of my relatives are vegetarians and again, it wasn’t a conscious choice for them either. They were brought up as vegetarians and are put off by the smell and taste of meat. In a few cases, there may have been religious reasons --- my family are Jains though you would not think it, judging by our eating habits. But I often wonder if all of us had to put off the decision till adulthood and make it at an intellectual level alone, would we choose to be vegetarians or non-vegetarians?
If it was a purely intellectual exercise (unrelated to religion, gastronomic preferences, background etc.), then I think that anyone who was intellectually honest would have to concede that the moral case for vegetarianism is far stronger than the case for non-vegetarianism.
Let’s start with the whole business of killing. Our society is built on the assumption that it is wrong to kill another human being. (Except in special circumstances: war, self-defence, the death penalty etc.)
We regard this as a moral imperative with hardly any qualifications. We do not believe that we can kill less intelligent people, the badly handicapped, etc. In fact, anybody who uses such criteria to justify killing is, we believe, a monster.
So where does that leave animals?
Well, we are ambivalent. If somebody killed your pet dog, you would treat it as an act tantamount to murder. If we caused pain to animals, we would risk prosecution in many parts of the civilised world where there are laws against cruelty to animals.
Even dedicated non-vegetarians (in most of the world) would refuse to eat cats, dogs or other animals that we treat as our friends. At the other end of the spectrum, we won’t eat animals we consider dirty or icky. Jews and Muslims won’t eat pork, for instance. Whenever we see pictures of East Asians eating cockroaches or locusts, we are appalled. And we don’t eat animals we consider holy: many non-vegetarian Hindus won’t eat cows.
So how do we distinguish between animals we can kill for food without a second thought and those we can’t? Why is it okay to slaughter some animals and not others? Why are we allowed to kill animals but not to cause pain to them?
There is no logical answer or distinction. It depends on prejudice and on geographical context: for instance, Koreans will eat dog even if the rest of us won’t. The Chinese routinely kill animals in the cruellest manner possible.
What all of this suggests is that at some level, we are confused ambivalent about killing animals. We will kill some; we won’t kill others. And we are as ambivalent about the ones that we are willing to eat. Most of us deliberately duck the moral questions and ignore the contractions in our stand.
None of us (even the most dedicated non-vegetarian) ever says that all animals were created to be eaten by human beings. And frankly, we can’t say that because human beings don’t need to eat animals to survive. Only other animals do.
A tiger will suffer damaging consequences to its health if it eats only grass. Nor, given the size of its appetite, will grass be enough to fill its stomach. So yes, there is a justification for non-vegetarianism among animals.
But even there, human attitudes are contradictory. We mourn when a tiger is found dead. But we shed no tears for the deer and goats that the same tiger killed every day. If pushed to defend this apparent contradiction, I imagine we would fall back on the defence that there is no reason for humans to kill tigers. But tigers need to eat goats or deer to survive.
So yes, unlike predatory big cats, we don’t need to kill animals. Millions of people live quite happily on a largely plant-based diet. Others may consume some animal products (eggs or milk, for instance) but their vegetarian diet allows them to live to a ripe old age.
So, if we don’t need to kill animals to survive, how do we justify the slaughter of sentient beings for meat?
There is no easy answer to that question and now, in the years since I first wrote about vegetarianism, there is a new reason to give up on meat. Scientists have broadly agreed that the breeding and killing of animals for food is damaging the planet. If we were all to turn vegan (no milk or eggs), it would help the environment. Even being vegan for half the day would make a huge difference.
Morally, I don’t think there is any way around this: veganism is the best and most ethical solution.
But, of course, the decision about whether to eat meat or not is rarely an ethical one for us in India. The overwhelming majority of Indian vegetarians have been brought up to be vegetarians. Usually, this is for religious reasons; no moral choices are involved. And our vegetarians still depend on milk products (yoghurt, ghee, etc.) which require the breeding of cows and damage the environment. A man who eats lots of dahi (curd) and paneer (cottage cheese) may well do as much damage to the environment as the guy who eats seekh kababs.
Non-vegetarians don’t give up meat because, basically, we like the taste. We are used to it. We would miss it if we gave it up. That’s how we have been brought up. We don’t worry too much about the moral and ethical issues.
But given how unnecessary non-vegetarianism is and given how much damage it does to the planet, perhaps we should consider a simpler solution.
Many writers and ethicists have found this solution: don’t give up meat. Just reduce your consumption. It’s the same with milk products. If you are a hardcore vegetarian who likes curd-rice, paneer or ghee, then reduce your intake.
It is not always convenient to be a vegetarian in many parts of the world. But in India, it is easy. We have such wonderful vegan options that we can easily cut meat out of our diets if we want to.
Except that non-vegetarians and milk-lovers don’t want to. And if they give it up, their will usually collapses in a month or so and they are back to their normal diets.
So here’s a suggestion. Don’t give up anything. Just reduce the quantity. Try being vegan till the sun goes down (breakfast, lunch and tea). You can eat what you like at dinner.
It won’t fulfil any moral criteria because you can still eat mutton curry for dinner. But it will help the planet.
It’s not difficult to do. So, think about it.
I certainly am.
To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here