Dec 15, 2011

Re-thinking dietary choices

It is estimated that nearly 100 million people died due to hunger & malnutrition across the world in the last decade. Approx 24,000 people people still die everyday for the same reasons. These are huge numbers. To put them in perspective, think about this - about 23 people will die by the time you finish reading this post (~90 sec). The vast majority of the victims of this problem are children under age 10. And that's just the death count. It is estimated that more than 800 million people suffer from hunger & malnutrition in the world today.

In this post, I will present a point of view on some of how YOUR food choices may be contributing to this problem. Not common-sense things like wasting food, not finishing your meals etc., but how choices like buying organic foods and turning vegetarian/vegan - which most people believe are 'green' and help 'save the planet', and are thus becoming increasingly popular - might actually be doing more damage than good.

1. Organic Foods

It is becoming quite fashionable these days to buy organic foods at the supermarkets. Just pause and think - If 'organic' food is 'better', why is most food we get not organic? Most of the food grown and consumed across the world today cannot be classified as 'organic' because it uses one or more of the following:
  • Hybrid or genetically modified variety of the crop
  • Chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc
  • Modern agricultural or food-processing methods such as irradiation etc.
The reasons the above materials/methods are used are several but the end objective can be summed up in one phrase - to increase the yield. GM or hybrid plant varieties generally produce more end-product per unit area (kg/sq.m.). Fertilizers help this further. Pesticides etc. ensure the health of the plant and avoid crop losses due to disease - think of it as equivalent to inoculation among humans. The other methods mentioned also ensure that a greater proportion of the food produces is safely consumed by people.

Higher yields have allowed us to properly feed an ever-growing human population, and also freed up a larger percentage of people for other vocations. The human population has more than quadrupled since 1900, and the amount of land available to us for agriculture hasn't increased. In fact, with increasing urbanization, it will actually decrease over the next century, while the world population is not likely to stabilize below the 10 Billion mark. In such a situation, increasing agricultural yield and minimizing wastage is an absolute imperative, not a matter of choice.

Every time you buy organic food, keep in mind that you are indulging yourself in a luxury at somebody else's cost. That 'organic' tomato may taste better and be slightly better for your own health, but it means at least 20% of the available production capacity (perhaps much more) was lost where it was produced. Simply put, 5 organic tomatoes were produced where 6 or more bigger tomatoes could have been produced using non-organic methods. Another child died in the time it took for you to read about these hypothetical tomatoes. What is your priority - saving these children, or buying products for nebulous, unproven reasons like 'conserving the environment'? 

2. Vegetarianism

The likes of PETA often implore you to adopt a vegetarian diet. Hell, their ads are so hot even I am tempted at times. Look at exhibits 1, 2 (both Pamela Anderson) and 3 (our own Lara Dutta). They say we should do this to prevent cruelty to animals. Hmmm. Let's dig a little deeper.

Why do we eat meat anyway? I mean - we evolved from apes who are mostly herbivorous. Foragers. Homo Sapiens as a species has never had the physical strength or speed to physically dominate other animals. We do not even have the typical phyical features (claws, jaws or teeth) that all carnivores share, so it would be fair to say that nature never designed us to be effective hunters. So how did we even start eating animals?

It's easy to guess - the human population is always growing. Initially, we foraged and hunted a bit, but this wasn't enough to feed us consistently, so we started farming. That couldn't completely solve the problem either. 

Since most of my friends and readers of this blog are Indians, I will digress a bit here and explain this point. In our country, we are extremely fortunate have plenty of fertile land and a climate that allows agriculture pretty much round-the-year. There are parts of the country where 3 crops are grown each year. So, historically, we've had enough vegetarian food for everyone and had the luxury of saying no to meat for religious reasons.

The rest of the world has never had this luxury. Deserts, grasslands, freezing winters with snow etc. have severely limited their ability to produce enough to feed themselves through just farming - and they had to consume animal products. In England, for example, they can't really grow anything other than potatoes - which is why their diet has traditionally included  meat, cheese and mashed potatoes! Everything else is 'imported'.  

This also explains why the Buddhist populations of regions in East Asia and Sri Lanka eat things that most of us in India would balk at the very thought of, even though Buddhism (the Indian version, at least) strictly forbids killing animals. Unlike Indian Buddhists (Hindus), people in other regions never had any other choice. 

In any case, we only eat a part of the crop. Of a cereal crop, we only eat the grain. Of most other plants, we only eat the fruit, the seed (rarely, the flower) or the roots. The rest of the plant - stem, branches, leaves etc. - are largely useless because our species can't digest complex carbohydrates like cellulose. Our ancestors were smart enough to realize that some animals - like cattle, goats, sheep etc. - could be fed things we grow but can't consume directly and then we could eat the animal products - milk or eggs, and meat. It was necessary for survival, and actually made our diet more wholesome. 

A good example here is Yaks in the Himalayan region. The yaks eat grass, don't eat grain, and humans depend on yak - as beasts of burden and sources of dairy during their lives, and for fur/wool and meat upon their death. Otherwise, a lot of people in these regions couldn't survive at all.

So - returning to the original premise - since there is already a shortage of food in the world and people are dying of hunger and malnutrition, we have to make the most of all resources available. This includes eating dairy products and non-vegetarian food. It is the only sensible thing to do.

As for the cruelty to animals argument, I feel it is largely exaggerated. Real examples of cruelty include cases like the Bile bears in China, and here I agree we should stop cruel practices and look for alternatives. However, animal farming does not generally involve cruelty. Farm animals are properly fed and taken care of their whole lives. Most of them don't even have to work for their food like animals in the wild - they are provided their feed. In fact, it is well-known that meat with more fat is tastier, and it usually commands a higher price, so it is in the animal farmers' interest to ensure the animals are the equivalents of pot-bellied men living sedentary lives! In the Kobe region of Japan, you'd rather be a cow than a human. You'd be pampered with a massage and 6 bottles of beer per day! 

Keep in mind - most farm animals wouldn't even be alive if they weren't going to be used as food. In many cases, farm animals are inoculated and their health is taken care of by the farmers. They just eat/graze, fool around, live comfortable, happy, disease-free lives, grow fat and eventually die. A lot of them also have names and receive some amount of affection from their owners. The slaughter is usually a quick and clean process, typically after the animal has already lived through it's prime years. Much better than, say, a young deer being hunted by a tiger or swallowed by a python. As a %age, more people probably die painful deaths due to stress, disease or accidents than animals bred for food. Where's the cruelty?

Also, scientifically speaking, plants are also living things. They breathe, they grow, they absorb nutrients from the soil, they reproduce and eventually die. The main difference is that animals can express their emotions and die in a manner that we can relate to, and thus feel bad about. Who is to say with certainty that plants do not feel pain? Maybe it's just in a manner we don't understand and so do not feel guilty about. In any case, plants are as 'living' as are animals - and to choose to eat one and not the other is just a combination of ignorance and hypocrisy.

3. About conservationists

At the end of it all, the world can be divided into two sets of people. One set feel that we take too much from mother earth, spoil the natural balance etc. and we should make a greater effort at conserving the earth, and generally regress. These are the people who want you to turn vegan, buy organic, and not use fuel. While these people are inebriated with their own false sense of righteousness, there are millions of human beings dying of hunger and malnutrition in the world. I feel it is criminal to worry about animal rights ahead of starving Africans, and it goes against a most basic natural principle - survival of the fittest. 

If they really believe the human race has grown too big and is taking too heavy a toll from the planet, I think the best thing they can do is, well, knock themselves off. That way, they will stop breathing up all of our oxygen, consuming valuable energy and all sorts of other products drawn from nature. In the process, they can also rid themselves of their guilt and rid us of the nuisance - so everybody wins, including mother earth!

If they choose not to do so, they should just shut up and stop trying to tell others how to, or how not to, live our lives. Try doing something useful - like finding a cure for cancer.

(I have focused on dietary choices here, but similar arguments can be made against most 'green', or 'pro-earth' phenomena. I believe the human race still has a lot to achieve and too many real problems to solve, to get bogged down by perceived, hypothetical or potential threats to the environment or other species. If or when it is proven that we need to change our ways to avert a disaster, I'm sure we will. I have great faith in human ingenuity and ability to solve problems and survive, when needed.)

(Another aspect to this whole discussion could be spiritual but I have absolutely no interest in going there, as I am a very materialistic and objective person. I would direct spiritual people to the questions posed by Javali in the Ramayana. Till you come up with some satisfactory answers and evidence for your beliefs, don't bother me.)

Dec 9, 2011

The Wonder named Virender - A Tribute


Earlier this year, my friend Gokul and I were watching the Final match of the 2011 Cricket World Cup together at my place. During the innings break, we rushed to the ATM in our apartment complex, as neither of us had enough cash to pay for the dinner that we were going to order in. Unfortunately, a lot of people had the same idea and there was a long queue at the ATM. When we were running back to the house, we heard the collective groan of 1,000+ flats, which was followed by an eerie silence. We knew India had lost an early wicket. "Please god", we said, "if India have lost a wicket, please let it be Sachin and NOT Sehwag!"

Before I get accused of blasphemy by the majority of my fellow countrymen, let me clarify that the above statement is NOT meant to undermine Sachin - any sane cricket fan knows Sachin is one of the greatest to have ever played the game, and I grew up worshiping him myself. The statement is only meant to underscore the value of Virender Sehwag today.

Early Days

I remember the first time I noticed Viru. It was the summer break (from college) in 2001, and I was at my grandparents' house in Delhi watching an India-NZ ODI on the TV, and talking to Gokul (ya, same fella as earlier) on the phone. We were both amused by this 'clone-of-Sachin' - as Sehwag was known in his early days - playing an innings that Sachin would have been proud of. Not only was he of similar stature, he had a stance, style and strokes very similar to Sachin's, and he went on to score a dominant 70-ball 100, opening the batting with Ganguly. The resemblance was uncanny.

With a simplicity and refreshing candor that were to become his hallmarks over the next decade, he admitted that Sachin was his idol and he'd tried to model his game on Sachin's. The fact that he could score a remarkable 70-ball 100 while performing mimicry on the pitch, should have been enough to signal to the world just how special he was, though it actually took a few more years for the potential to be realized.

It wasn't long before we saw the master and the clone bat together in Sehwag's debut Test in South Africa, collaring an attack that included Pollock and Ntini on a lively Bloemfontein pitch. They got together with India tottering at 68/4 in the very first session, and put together an inspiring partnership of 220 runs in just 47 overs! India still lost the match, but we knew that Sachin was no longer going to be a lone warrior for India.

A Test middle-order crowded with big names (something that rings true even today) meant that Sehwag could not quickly cement his place in the Indian Test side, in spite of the heroic debut. Trying to make the best of a difficult situation, the team management pushed him into an opening role in England. While fans like me were happy to see Sehwag in the side, we were worried that putting him into an unfamiliar opening role in testing English conditions - especially considering the perceived weaknesses in his batting technique, limited footwork etc. - was a recipe for disaster. Sehwag, as is his wont, made a mockery of such concerns by scoring 84 off 96 balls in the first innings of the first Test at Lord's, and went one better and scored a century in the next Test at Trent Bridge.

Pwning 'em

Sehwag deserves a large part of the credit for tilting the scales in India's favor in the famed rivalry with Pakistan. Since Miandad's famous last ball six in the '86, Pakistan had pwned India in general, with the curious exception of World Cup matches. At the turn of the millennium - with Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib, and Saqlain forming a formidable bowling attack - Pakistan's dominance seemed set to continue, and maybe become even stronger - despite several absolutely heroic efforts from Sachin. However, the tables turned decisively in 2003-4. First, there was the World Cup win - which Sachin dominated with his 98, with the upper cut for 6 off Shoaib being the lasting memory from that game. But Sehwag also played a small role in that win - scoring 21 off 14, helping India get to 50 in 5-odd overs, and putting Pakistan on the back-foot immediately. Since then, his dominance of this opposition has been thorough. He became the first Indian to score a triple hundred, and he did it against Pak in Pak - something that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. His Test average against Pak is an astonishing 91.1 at a strike rate of 80 with 4 centuries from 9 test matches.

Another opposition Sehwag has pwned is Sri Lanka. In the same decade that Murali went on to create all sorts of records, Sehwag averaged 72.9 at a strike rate of 99.3 against SL in test matches, including 5 centuries (two doubles)! In the 2008 series, where Ajantha Mendis completely bamboozled all of India's famed middle-order batsmen, with able support from Murali, Sehwag managed to win a test match almost single-handedly, scoring a double hundred in the first innings and a quick 50 in the second.

Readers might be surprised to know that Sehwag also has an average of 59.5 in Australia, with 2 centuries. These include a 195, when he got out trying to reach 200 with a six (2003), and a match-saving 151 in the second innings of a test (2008) where the next highest score by an Indian batsman in the second innings was 20.

With nearly 8,000 runs, 22 centuries, an average of 52 overall (and a respectable 46.6 away from home) at an incredible strike rate of 82 in Tests, I don't think anyone can argue against Sehwag being one of the great Test batsmen of all time. Keep in mind - most of this has been achieved as an opener - not his natural role, and one which exposes his technical weaknesses against the fast, swinging ball to a greater extent.

Short-term Impact

When it comes to ODIs, critics often complain about Sehwag's rather-ordinary batting average of 35, and his fans counter with arguments about the 'impact' he creates with his high strike rate at the top of the innings. This was best illustrated in the semi-final against Pak in the recently concluded World Cup. Sehwag only managed 38 runs. But he did so off 25 balls, and in doing so, took India to 48 in 6 overs on a pitch where all other batsmen from both sides - Sachin included - struggled to score at a run rate of even 5 an over. The momentum Sehwag provided allowed the batsmen who followed him to take their time getting in and not feel any 'scoreboard pressure', as the innings run rate did not drop below 6 till the middle of the Indian innings, in spite of all batsmen going rather slow.

Also, Umar Gul - with his reverse swing and yorkers - had being Pakistan's main weapon with the ball, especially in the batting powerplay and towards the end of the innings. Sehwag took him for 21 runs including 5 boundaries in his very first over. Gul never recovered psychologically from that assault, and finished the day with 8-0-69-0 in what was not really a high-scoring game. This is the 'impact' we talk about. It may not seem like a lot statistically, but is often the crucial difference between winning and losing matches. (India won this game by about 30 runs)

Another example of impact was the 1st test against Eng in Chennai, 2008. India were set a target of 387 in the 4th innings, with just under 4 sessions to play. The first three innings had seen Eng score 316/10, India reply with 241/10, and Eng declare at 311/9. When India came out to bat, people thought only two results were possible - an Eng win, or a draw. India won that game by 6 wickets and nearly a whole session to spare. Strauss had scored 100's in both innings, and Sachin had scored 103* in India's second innings, taking them home. Yet, the man-of-the-match award was given to Sehwag for his 83 off 68 balls in the fourth innings - because it was his innings that had made the final result even possible.

If you want to understand impact even better, try playing fantasy cricket when there's a major tournament on, like any ICC event or the IPL. In fantasy cricket, points are awarded not only for runs scored, but also milestones achieved, strike rate, man-of-the-match awards etc. This will help you appreciate Sehwag's impact better!

Sure, we all wish he would be more consistent - but therein lies the paradox. If what he did was easy and happened often, it wouldn't be so special! 

Numbers Game

Most people may not realize that Sehwag has been more consistent since his return to the ODI side in 2008 (he was briefly dropped in 2007, and the break clearly did him a world of good and helped him sort things out in his head).

Let's play with the numbers a bit - they tell an interesting story. Since his return to the ODI side in 2008, Sehwag has averaged 47.35 at a strike rate of 123. He has scored 7 of his 15 ODI 100's in this period, and all 7 have resulted in India winning. In fact, of the 15 occasions Sehwag has ever crossed 100 in ODIs, India has won 14 times (93%). The only game where a Sehwag century didn't win it for India was back in 2002 in New Zealand, where he scored 108 (off 119) chasing NZ's 254, but received no support from the other batsmen (the next highest was a lousy 24 by Kaif).

Since 2008, Sehwag has played 62 ODIs for India. Of these, India have won 38 and lost 19 (win ratio 2:1). However, when Sehwag has scored at least 30 (34 occasions), this ratio goes up to nearly 3:1. When he crosses 50 (19 occasions), this ratio jumps dramatically to 8:1. And a Sehwag century (7 occasions) has always ensured a win. That is impact.

For perspective, in the same period, Sachin has played 46 matches for India, averaging a slightly better 52.4 at a considerably lower strike rate of nearly 93. India have won 29 and lost 12 (~2.5:1 win ratio) of all these matches. With a Sachin 50+ score (14 occasions), this win ratio jumps up to 11:3, or just under 4:1. When Sachin completes a 100 (7 occasions), India's win ratio actually drops to 2:1. I will say no more (though I have in an older post).

Not just a dasher...

Some people also say Sehwag is a one-dimensional player, or a flat track bully. For the latter argument, I will just point out to his record - nearly 8,000 runs each in both Test matches and ODI's, with big hundreds against all major oppositions and in all major countries. The only country where his record leaves something to be desired is England, but while I concede that his technique and approach probably aren't good enough to achieve great success as an opening batsmen in English conditions, I don't think that one chink in the armor is nearly enough to deny his claim to greatness.

I will address the 'one-dimensional' argument in a bit more detail, citing his performance in IPL 2011. He came up with 3 amazing innings, each in a very different context.

Against a Kings XI Punjab side that included Valthaty, Gilchrist and Shaun Marsh, on a friendly wicket, Sehwag knew Delhi needed a big score. He managed 77 off 35 balls, powering DD to a mind-boggling 231 in 20 overs. David Warner, one of the most destructive batsmen in the game, also managed 77, but off 48 balls. Sehwag is the only batsmen capable of making the likes of Warner and Tendulkar appear like they're playing anchor roles. Despite a sublime 95 by Marsh, Punjab learnt that you can't win when Sehwag has a good day.

Anyway, that was a home game, DD were batting first, and Sehwag had good support from Warner. In a later away game vs DC, Delhi found themselves chasing a formidable target of 175. Delhi were 25/3 in the 6th over. The rest of DD scored 60 runs of 60 balls and lost 5 wickets, with the highest individual score being 17. Sehwag scored 119 off 56 and won the game single-handedly. Mind you - the DC attack included an in-form Dale Steyn, Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra. If the earlier example was about carefree destruction, this one was all about mental strength and performance under pressure.

In between these games, Delhi traveled to Kochi and were greeted by a terrible pitch with extremely variable bounce. So much that a few balls almost rolled along the ground after pitching on a good length. The rest of DD scored 77 off 74 balls for the loss of 6 wickets.  Kochi - whose top 6 batsmen had all represented their respective countries in T20Is, some with great success, were bowled out for 119 in 18.5 overs. Sehwag, earlier, had scored 80 off 47 balls. This innings was all about batting skill, dealing with a difficult pitch and a good bowling attack.

Three different situations - different grounds, different opponents, different challenges. One end result.

Final Word

Sachin's discipline and serious demeanor contribute a lot to his god-like status. When Sachin is discussed, you feel like you are in a temple or a university - there's a generally serious air to it all, you're supposed to be respectful - even reverent, listen to those with more knowledge than yourself eulogize him, and not ask too many questions.

Sehwag's simple character, candid speech, and generally casual and carefree attitude make it difficult to take him too seriously, and while people recognize how destructive he can be, I don't think he gets enough credit for all that he has contributed to his team's wins. I hope to see that change over the next few years, and for him to take his rightful place in history as one of the most special talents - a great entertainer and a regular match-winner - to have ever wielded the willow on a cricket field!

In the meantime, I will continue to watch every innings of his. When Sehwag is batting, everything else can wait. It's good - in a twisted way - that he doesn't often bat for very long periods, so you can usually return to wherever and whatever you were planning or supposed to be doing, without too much delay (and just follow the score online). But when he does produce one of his specials, like he did yesterday, it is well worth screwing up your schedule to witness it!

(PS: Thanks to and their Statsguru tool - for all the links!)