What we got wrong about India’s beef ban
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
India’s “beef ban” is convulsed by academics and activists a limitation of a fundamental right of the Indian people. Some argue that by banning cattle slaughter, India’s right-wing Hindu Nationalist BJP Party are acting out of the bounds of secularism, capitalizing on a growing resentment towards religious minorities. Others simply claim that consumption patterns have no constitutional backing, and therefore should be left to “freedom of choice.” For these advocates, cattle slaughter and beef consumption are viewed as harmless, with few, if any, negative externalities. Given the current global pandemic and circumstantial evidence from the scientific community, this position is misguided and dangerous. In the present, dietary choices, particularly beef consumption, should be viewed within the context of human health and the environment.
Methane is produced in the digestive system of cattle, and released into the atmosphere through cow flatulence and belching. Animals raised for slaughter contribute almost one-third of global methane emissions, which are ~70 times more impactful towards global warming than carbon dioxide. Livestock contribute to almost 18% of all total greenhouse gas emissions, a larger share than transportation. India is already suffering from the consequences of climate change with seasonal weather changes, drought, irregular monsoons and rising sea levels along its major coastal cities. While emissions should surely be enough to re-think India’s flirtation with legalizing cattle slaughter (a country that is already the third largest contributor to global emissions), there are other, even more irking consequences of making beef mainstream in India.
With over 1.3 billion people, and a projected water demand to be twice the available supply by 2030, India’s groundwater shortage is caused by changing weather patterns and unpredictable monsoon rains – both invigorated by climate change. More than 100 million people in India lack access to clean drinking water, and out of the 80% of groundwater withdrawn last year, 70% was used for agriculture. When political leaders and academics advocate for cattle slaughter on the grounds of “freedom of choice,” that choice would undoubtedly exasperate an already severe water shortage. At the expense of a minority taste for beef, this would further deprive India’s most impoverished citizens of a basic right to water. While emissions and water use are perhaps the most significant environmental implications of legalizing cattle slaughter in India, the impact of beef on human health should also be considered.
Tobacco and alcohol have a clearly-defined negative impact on health, and as consumers of these products, we are rightfully made aware of this. We aren’t always aware of the negative health impact of beef. Animal products, specifically beef, contain inflammatory compounds that contribute to heart disease and cancer. The saturated fat found in red meat may also contribute to diabetes and heart disease by interfering with our blood circulation and cellular glucose uptake. According to a Union Government survey, one in every four deaths in India is because of heart conditions, and India already has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world. Introducing yet another unhealthy “consumer choice” to a population, which overall has an almost non-existent consumer preference for beef, seems unnecessary and perhaps even malicious.
As nations develop, people have the means to consume diets with greater quantities of meat and animal products. India’s recent growth presents a unique opportunity for businesses and politicians to justify making it more mainstream. The reality, however, is that a vast majority of Indians simply do not have a palate for beef. Almost 30% of Indians are vegetarian, and most Indians have never even tasted beef. This is unlike the US, where hamburgers and steaks are deeply engrained parts of the dietary culture and consumer preference. After its 1996 Indian debut, McDonalds, one of the world’s leading purchasers of ground beef, did not even include it on the menu, and this was long before there were significant federal restrictions on beef consumption in the country. If most Indians don’t seem to care for beef, why is there such a backlash against the ban?
The media and much of academia has made Indian cattle slaughter restrictions a flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims due to cow vigilantism and the growing violence that stems from it. Violence is never the answer, and is unacceptable in all forms; but, this is far from a religious issue. While cows are significant for Hindus, they are also significant for Indians of all religions. According to the last census, 850 million Indians live in villages (70% of the population). Entire villages often rely on one cow for milk to feed hundreds. With unpredictable crop yields, a cow’s milk is sometimes the only real source of lasting nourishment, in contrast to a fleeting steak dinner. Cows are also instrumental in farming due to their ability to pull fertilizer carts across long stretches of agricultural land. In most of the country, the cow is often the most efficient way to spread fertilizer and grow crops. Lastly, as a result of the economic importance these animals have, they are treated like pets. Cattle slaughter is almost inconceivable – similar to how it would be horrifying to slaughter our dogs and cats.
If consumers in India don’t feel strongly about beef, and there are clear and irreversible negative environmental and health consequences of beef production and consumption, why do left-wing academics continue to oppose a beef ban? The government is simply limiting what is clearly a dangerous consumer choice, acting in the best interest of not only individuals, but the public health of India and the world.
In this COVID-19 era, one in which we must diligently maintain the integrity of our food systems and advocate for a worldwide shift towards plant-based alternatives, do Indians want their new slaughterhouses to be breeding grounds for the next global pandemic?
India can become the foremost global leader in environmental reform. Coupled with new and improved food systems and organically sourced crops, a maintenance of beef-free human consumption patterns will surely improve the health of the population. Beef should not be seen as a limitation of freedom, but an environmental policy contributing to a more sustainable India. With 50% of Indians below the age of 25, a beef ban will leave their tastes and environment in which they live uncontaminated — paving the way for a healthy and prosperous future for all.
Rohin Patel is an Oxford-trained researcher and health entrepreneur.
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