Food is political, food is identity, food is cultural. In India, what you eat is who you are. India as a whole is not primarily a vegetarian country but has the highest number of vegetarians in the world. However, only 30% of women and 22% of men are vegetarian as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16, conducted by the Government of India.
The term veganism was coined by a British woodworker named Donald Watson in November 1944, when he announced that because vegetarians ate dairy and eggs, he was going to create a new term called “vegan,” to describe people who did not. Veganism, a western concept, has taken urban India by storm. It is also responsible for a lot of othering towards meat-eaters and dairy consumers, many of whom come from minority and marginalised religions and communities in India.
The question of dairy livelihoods
Veganism fails to take into consideration the role tertiary sector workers (the marginalised community such as our milkmen and butchers) play in our economy. If a majority of people were to switch to soy or almond milk, these tertiary sector workers would be left sans livelihood. Similar is the case with butcher shops, poultry, pig farms and the fisherfolk community.
An elitist lifestyle
In order to follow the vegan lifestyle, one requires to have a substantial amount of disposable income available on them, making it only accessible to the financially well off. With almond milk priced at approximately Rs 300 per litre as opposed to cow/buffalo milk priced at around Rs 40 per litre, not a lot of middle-class sections of the society can consider going vegan. With vegan parmesan cheese priced at Rs 500 for 80 g, it is abundantly clear that this lifestyle is not for everyone.
Deficiencies in the plant-based diet
It is much more difficult to build a balanced diet using vegan approved foods than it is with other diets, including vegetarian diets. Not everybody has the expertise to do this, almost all Instagram nutritionists tend to get this wrong. Also, dieticians tend to falter by not taking into account how difficult it will be to transition to vastly different food items — their tastes, textures and modalities of preparation — very different from what one is used to. “Constructing a vegan diet that is both nutritionally adequate as well as then suiting your taste preferences is pretty difficult. You see a lot of fad versions of vegan diets such as fruitarianism which will basically send your hormones for a toss, lead to hair fall, and leave you sick. Even vegetarianism has cheese, milk, paneer, which veganism does not want to allow,” says Jolene Fernandes, a nutritionist based out of Pune. “For someone who follows a vegan-based diet, B12 needs to absolutely be supplemented, in cases where a person does not like protein foods such as soya and there is a lack of availability of other vegan sources of protein such as tempeh etc, protein powder needs to be consumed which is a taste issue, and a cost issue as well. Transitioning to veganism is not a simple and easy transition. What nutritionists tend to advise those who wish to go vegan but aren’t able to, is to cut down the amount of meat they consume, if they are non-vegetarian and replacing that with more fruits and vegetables. This also reduces their carbon impact as they are still eating less meat than they used to. That is good enough. More importantly, they are reducing their carbon footprint while keeping their health on track,” adds Jolene.
It is safe to say that a vegan diet is not for everyone and prophesying for a vegan nation without hurting the sentiments of multiple communities is impossible. However, there are still various steps that can be taken to reduce cruelty towards animals in India.
Ban crackers that frighten and torture animals: India is notorious for bursting crackers worth a huge sum of money every year during the festival season. These crackers frighten and petrify animals on the street while increasing the levels of noise and air pollution in the area.
Better laws for the protection of animals: Ensuring better and stricter laws are passed that protect the rights of animals such as elephants and horses that are used for begging and entertainment. These animals are often starved, tortured and kept in inhuman conditions by their handlers.
Calves pulled away from milking cows, bulls and calves abandoned: In order to extract the maximum amount of milk from cows for sale, calves are not allowed to consume their mother’s milk, which is high in nutrients for them. Often to stimulate the mammary glands of cows, the carcass of calves is stuffed and erected.
Adopt don’t shop: Breed dogs and cats are often constantly impregnated in order to match the growing demand for breed pets. These animals go through an excruciating time with constant undesired, chemically induced changes to their bodies in order to match the required supply. Instead, adopt Indie dogs and cats as pets, they are equally lovable.
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Here are some of the letters to the editor:
WRT to the article on red flags of following a vegan diet, the writer hasn't researched well. I believe if any kind of milk is required...it can be made at home. All nuts from cashew, almond, coconut, peanut, soya yield milk. and it takes just a bunch. She cleverly forgets that the Dairy industry is the cruellest of all. Cows are artificially inseminated and ensured to give milk throughout the year. Imagine the udders subject to such torture, the resulting milk has the highest amount of hormones, antibiotics and not to forget pus.
I understand this is a sensitive issue, but it's the ease with which language is used to bind truth, that astonishes me. Vit B12 is a supplement that is required even for vegetarians and all need to get it checked annually. I felt it was a very one-sided article.
As far as people losing their jobs is concerned, history has stood testimony to the fact that change is the only constant in our lives. And how can one forget the wet markets of Wuhan, from where Covid originated. And how many people have lost their loved ones. So losing jobs vs losing lives....which is a bearable option?
- Deepa Ballal
This article contains unverified quotes that need to be set straight. More importantly, the writer does not even broach the barbaric cruelty that goes on in most farms. WRT the question of dairy livelihoods, it is true for any disruptive technology. Uber and Ola made taxi drivers seek alternate options. Diesel replaced coal, wind, solar will replace petrol, etc. Each time a new industry or technology comes along, society adjusts to adapt to it. Market dynamics will decide how they succeed or fail and the labour force will adapt accordingly. Similarly, the dairy workers will hopefully work in the alternative food segments (soya bean farms, oat milk factories, etc/.). As it is happening in most other countries which are increasingly going vegan.
The costs of vegan products are higher because of scale. The more we manufacture, the cheaper it gets. A dozen years back, vegan products cost at least 100% more. Now at about 3% of the US population listed as vegan, (a larger % are flexitarians) I can see the vegan items are about 30-40% more. The same thing will happen in other countries too, as people start buying more vegan products.
The bit about deficiencies in a plant-based diet is true. Most plant-based products (in the US, UK) are fortified with added vitamins and calcium. The oat/soy/almond milk we often use for cereal has more calcium than dairy milk. Even the milk lobby will admit to the nutrition content of alt milk. So, yes, if you don't consume soy, seitan products or fortified vegan products like those above, vegans will have to take supplements. It is okay, not a deal-breaker by any means. Better than having to take statins, any day.
- Unni Krishnan
It is disappointing to see how a serious matter of animal abuse has been trivialised and dismissed by human-centric points of view. Food is definitely a big part of our culture and yet culture can never justify abuse. If that was the case then Sati Pratha would still be very much a part of our culture. Why does the writer think that it is acceptable for animals to suffer for cultures that have got nothing to do with them? Veganism is a movement for animal rights that seeks to free animals from human exploitation and use as animals are incapable of giving consent and they are not the service providers of human beings. They are individuals who form complex social bonds and deserve their own freedom and rights and yet have been reduced to commodities, packets of milk and buckets of leg pieces and silken saris! People have been going vegan across nations and cultures without even knowing the word vegan. All they know is that treating animals as food, clothing, rides, entertainment, test subjects etc is wrong.
The points on dairy livelihood are again human-centric as they ignore the will of animals who are kept as slaves and sexually abused year after year as their bodies are objectified as milk machines. How can we ever let something so horrible happen to a sentient female who has the right to choose her own partner and mate at her own will without humans shoving their fists inside her?
- Tanya Bhatia