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.)

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:18 PM

    You do not know what you are talking about.