Understanding the Context

The production of meat for human consumption is a touchy topic for many Indians. Torn between tongues and tradition, vegetarians and their non-vegetarian counterparts keep an arsenal of arguments handy for justifying their respective stances. Of these, the most popular arguments against the slaughter of animals for meat production are to do with religious sentiment, animal rights and the health-related problems that arise from meat consumption.

There is an argument that discusses the consequences of meat production on the environment — an argument whose relevance is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, given the scale of climate change witnessed over the past two decades. Yet, before jumping the gun on the meat industry, the viability of a meat ban in India must be understood in terms of its oft-overlooked impact on livelihoods and the economy it sustains.

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Click on a quote to read an opinion

“The meat industry in India rears chickens, goats, sheep, buffalo and (the controversial) cows. To sustain these animals, substantial quantities of land, water and food are required — resources that also happen to be essential to feed, clothe and nourish 1.3 billion bodies in India”

– Tanay Gokhale

“Restrictions on the meat industry would impact the livelihoods of the poor and those in rural India disproportionately, and fall into a larger pattern of ‘development’ work that tends to negatively affect weaker sections of society the most”

– Shantanu Kishwar

Written by Tanay Gokhale

The meat industry in India rears chickens, goats, sheep, buffalo and (the controversial) cows. To sustain these animals, substantial quantities of land, water and food are required resources that also happen to be essential to feed, clothe and nourish 1.3 billion human bodies in India.

The Water Footprint

Most multicellular life needs water to sustain itself. Meat is no exception to this. For factory-produced chicken, roughly 4325 litres of water go into producing a kilo of chicken meat. This figure accounts for the rearing of the birds, cleaning the poultry farms, the electric water baths used to stun the chickens before killing them and the water required to clean the meat before packaging. Contrast this figure with 322 litres of water per kg of vegetables, 962 litres per kilo of fruit and 1,644 litres for a kg of cereals and grains. When it comes to protein as well, plant-based protein alternatives like soyabean are not only widely available in India but use slightly more than half the water required for the production of chicken meat, per gram of protein. That being said, a significant proportion of chicken in India is sold by wayside butchers who don’t require huge quantities of water for stunning the birds or cleaning the meat. This would reduce the water footprint to an extent.

For beef, the numbers are even more staggering. Although accurate estimations are not available for India, a Dutch study put the figure at 16000 litres of water per kg of beef produced. Even if the Indian beef industry optimizes its water usage, the number is still very high compared to plant-based protein sources like soyabean or pulses. Moreover, current trends indicate that beef production in India is becoming more and more water-intensive, which hints at a higher water footprint for the industry in the years to come.

In a nutshell (or should I say carcass?), estimates suggest that a pure vegetarian diet requires only 1,137 litres of water per day, while a meat-based diet requires more than 15,160 litres of water per day. That’s roughly 14000 litres of water that can be saved per person from 70% of India’s population, every single day.

Gasping for Meat

Another major environmental concern with the meat industry is the emission of methane and other Greenhouse Gases (GHGs); the UN FAO estimates that 65% of the methane in our atmosphere comes from cattle raised for meat and dairy production. Additionally, as a commodity, beef products are the highest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as can be seen from the graph below.

The remaining emissions are attributed to non-food products, a statistic that not only underlines the scale of the meat industry’s GHG emissions, but also the relatively minuscule share of non-meat food sources that contribute to global warming.

Amongst other accolades, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has classified beef as a ‘climate-harmful meat’. While estimates for beef kheema may not be available at this point, one hamburger results in an average of 3 kgs of carbon being released into the atmosphere. In comparison to red meat, white meat eaters can find little consolation; chicken production is said to release 25 times the amount of CO2 when compared to the foodgrains, per calorie.

Apart from gaseous emissions, meat production also leads to immense quantities of residual waste. About 25% of an Indian buffalo ends up as non-consumable waste. Every buffalo produces about 10 litres of waste blood. Lacking efficient public sanitation facilities and the availability of clean drinking water, these large quantities of waste present a knock-on health hazard for Indians’ food, water or the air.

Priorities Amiss: Land Usage

Apart from food and water, animals require large amounts of space. The staggering statistics on the amount of land occupied by animal agriculture is illustrated in the infographic shown below.

amount of land occupied by animal agriculture The Bastion
Credit: Ourworldindata

Of the 50% of the Earth’s land that is used for agriculture, a lion’s share is taken up by animal agriculture (animal intensive farming). But in terms of output, only 17% of the world’s calorific needs are fulfilled by meat and dairy (of the 77% of land under animal agriculture). Even in terms of protein content, the number is skewed greatly: 33% comes from animals against the 67% from plant-based protein. Based on this statistic, one can argue that the majority of the world does not, in fact, rely on animal products for protein, an argument commonly put forth by the conscientious meat-lover to defend their stance.

Instead, this statistic underlines a gross imbalance between the resources used for meat production and the value of its output. Being a more resource-efficient source of nutrition, plant-based protein would be in the right direction for a country as overpopulated and resource-deficient as India.

Needless to say, the land used for rearing these animals comes with the opportunity cost of actually using their fodder for human consumption. It should not be surprising that this added intermediary greatly undermines the potential of fertile land; 10 kgs of grains is required as feed to produce 1 kg of meat. Aggregated for the entire cattle population of the Earth, it is estimated that they consume enough foodgrains to satisfy the calorific needs of 8.7 billion humans, which is more (for now) than our entire population.

Debates surrounding the production of meat often feature philosophical stalemates like speciesism or the evolutionary history of the human digestive system and animal rights. Irrespective of your priorities with respect to these arguments, an ‘environment-friendly’ meat industry does not seem to be on the cards for India at the moment. Instead, the industry sucks resources which could be put to better use if plant-based sources of protein were to be developed.

Written by Shantanu Kishwar

There is no doubt that the meat industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. However, before discussing any sort of curtailment, we have to consider the viability of such a proposal that will impact the livelihoods of many and India’s economy as a whole.

Understanding the Potential Damage

A research paper published in 2012 found that the carbon footprint of the top fifth of income earners in the country was more than four times higher than the bottom fifth and that rural household produced 1.2 tonnes of CO2 lower than urban households. If environmental protection is indeed a priority, then urban areas must be acted upon first, because they have the resources to cope with such change. Restrictions on the meat industry would impact the livelihoods of the poor and those in rural India disproportionately, and fall into a larger pattern of ‘development’ work that tends to negatively affect weaker sections of society the most. Innumerable case studies to testify to this can be found in P. Sainath’s exceptional book Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

Furthermore, one must be cognizant of the fact that for many amongst the poorer sections of society, animal protein especially from beef is a vital and cheap source of nutrition. A report based on figures from Kolkata in 2015 estimated that beef cost 77 paise per gram of protein, and was cheaper than eggs (which were 1per gram). Chicken was 1.1, chickpeas were 1.25, masoor dal 1.75 and so on. Although there have been a number of alternatives in terms of protein sources listed above, what needs to be remembered is that most of these are unaffordable for large parts of society.

Cost per gram of protein Scroll.in
Cost in INR. Source: Scroll.in

As of 2015-16, the livestock sector contributed 4.5% of gross value added in the Indian economy for the year. The livestock sector, which comprises more than just the meat industry, will bear the brunt of restrictions. The income generating components of this sector would include the cattle trade, transporters, slaughterhouses, meat vendors, the dairy and egg industry, restaurants, textile and garments (due to leather and wool used), just to name a few (though not all would come under the 4.5% of GVA mentioned above). Clearly, the supply chain that would be affected is quite significant.

One must also consider that the population that depends on the livestock sector for income. 89% of the lowest fifth of India’s income earners live in rural areas. 64% of those employed in rural India belong to the agricultural sector, and for those within the agricultural sector, livestock is an important source of income that supplements their agricultural income. The average rural household earns about 12% of its income from animal farming. However, when you look at those disadvantaged even amongst these groups, 22.9% of landless and 9.6% of marginal and small-scale farmers depend on livestock for a majority of their income. As per the livestock census of 2013, there were approximately 2.7 million rural households that depended on livestock farming for a majority of their income.

The demand for meat has grown in recent years and is correlated to a rise in income levels across the country. When looked at from a macroeconomic perspective, the industry is an important contributor to the country’s exports. The severity of economic damage that a ban on the livestock sector could cause can be illustrated through the example of the beef exports. In recent years, India has become one of the largest exporters of beef (sourced usually from buffaloes, water buffaloes, etc. and not cows). The meat overtook basmati rice to become the most exported food product in terms of value, with the exports earning the country almost 27,000 crores between April 2014-February 2015. This is not income that can be easily sacrificed.

World Beef Exports The Bastion
For the year 2016. FAS/USDA Data. Source

Working Towards a Sustainable Future

None of the above means that things continue business-as-usual. The status quo needs to be changed for a sustainable future, but it must be done so thoughtfully and holistically. First, eco-friendly methods of meat production need to be explored (though not in India presently), such as the usage of a grass-free feed mix for cows that could result in up to 40% less methane emission. Efforts in India are already being made in the field of industrial poultry processing. According to Dr Arun Kumar Rai, a managing partner at Bharat Agrovet Industries, it is possible to produce poultry at an industrial level in an environmentally conscientious manner.

In keeping with its impact on marginal communities, effective economic rehabilitation schemes will need to be devised to ensure they are not left without a livelihood. The millions that depend on the livestock sector cannot be left to fend for themselves without the provision of viable alternative employment and skilling.

For the sake of environmental goals (as worthy as they are), we cannot forsake those less privileged. Tackling the environmental crisis we face requires a holistic solution; while addressing the problems of the meat and livestock industry is definitely going to be a part of it, picking on it alone is not a solution in itself.


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