A Raw Deal for Vegetarians
It is the same story at every conference I attend. At lunchtime, I move towards the food-laden tables hoping to find something that I can eat, but end up being thoroughly disappointed. The only items on offer for vegetarians are salads; all very good to look at, but not at all filling. On the other hand, meat-eaters have a variety of dishes to choose from. Why are vegetarians given a raw deal?
Back in India, where I hail from, it’s a vegetarian’s paradise. Go to parties and buffets, and you are treated to some real veggie delicacies; cooked dishes, mind you, not raw salads. OK, so there are more vegetarians in India and almost none in the rest of the world, but should I just accept this explanation without a whimper?
What baffles me is that people prefer to eat meat, when it is a proven fact that it causes an increase in cholesterol, is difficult to digest, and more than anything else, leads to the painful slaughter of animals. One needs only to witness the sight of a chicken being slaughtered or a lamb being butchered to experience the terror felt by hapless animals before they die. What about the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease and salmonella? How can one eat meat knowing that it is susceptible to this plethora of diseases?
And there is not just a moral or health dimension to vegetarianism. Many years ago, my diet turned primarily vegetarian for an even more compelling reason – to save the world’s water. Doesn’t make sense? It is a well known fact that the world is heading for a major water shortage as populations multiply and sources of water get depleted. There is just not enough water for everybody.
Most of the world’s water is used up in agriculture. The irrigation of fields makes up 70% of global water-use. Somehow, if the water used for irrigating fields could be reduced, there would be more water available for other needs. In America, 70% of grain supply is consumed by livestock, because a single pound of beef requires seven pounds of grain. Try translating this into the demand for water. Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all water used in the US. And we haven’t begun calculating for China, Europe and other countries where meat is a staple diet.
On average, it takes about 1600 litres of water to produce a kg of cereals. However, it takes about 15,000 litres to produce a kg of beef, 6,000 litres to produce a kg of pork and about 4,300 litres per kg of chicken meat. These figures might vary according to the methods of calculation but it cannot be disputed that the water needed to grow the grain for feeding livestock is enormous. Thus, an excellent way to save water is to eat lower in the food chain.
It can be argued that much of the wheat grown in the world uses rain-fed irrigation, therefore it is sustainable. However, what if the same rainwater had been used to sustain a natural forest with rich biodiversity? Natural forests are assuming even more importance today with global warning climbing to unprecedented levels.
Livestock also generates large amounts of waste. A typical pig factory is said to generate raw waste equal to that of a city of 12,000 people. Pigs defecate all the time. Meat industries cause massive pollution, with most of the waste going into soil and rivers, carrying dangerous microbes.
The desire for fat and sugar is a natural one, embedded in most human beings. This is fuelled by commercial forces including advertising. In fact, food industries have become very powerful in influencing consumer demands. A large share of humanity has shifted from the traditional diet of grain and vegetables to animal proteins. From 1976 to 1996, China’s total red meat consumption quintupled from less than eight million tonnes to 42 million tonnes per year. This coincides with the period when per capita income increased fourfold. The wealthier people become, the more they seem to prefer beef burgers and pork chops.
The facts are simple. A reduction in demand for meat would force meat producers to downsize, which would then free up thousands of acres of land now engaged in growing grain for livestock, poultry and fish. And this would dramatically lower demand for both irrigation water and rainwater. In a world that is heading for massive water scarcity, this could be a major water-saving measure.
But when will the public at large understand the urgent need for eating vegetarian more often? When I travel by air, unless I indicate my preference at the time of booking tickets, there is no way I can get vegetarian food! Should it not be the other way around?
Chefs around the world need to exchange vegetarian recipes and make them available in hotels, airlines and conferences. There are thousands of palatable, lip-smacking vegetarian dishes that people living outside South Asia have not heard about. The idea is not to make everyone to give up meat, but at least more vegetarian choices can be presented on food menus and tables.
From the point of view of nutrition, a number of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are available from both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. It is not necessary to eat meat everyday but it is essential to include several servings of vegetables and fruits in one’s daily diet. A vegetarian diet is rich in antioxidants that are so necessary to fight free radicals in our body.
For now, I can only act in the manner of the Indian who hollered for vegetarian food. When raw vegetables were placed on his plate, he turned to the waiter and snarled,” I said I am vegetarian, not a herbivore!”