Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for July 2021 is Sustainability. We invite submissions on the diverse aspects of sustainability throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
Veganism or vegetarianism undoubtedly aid in the move towards sustainability. With the increase in meat consumption, intensive animal farming and growing cruelty against animals there has been a rise in compassion movements across the world. The Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014 notes that almost 30% of the people in India are vegetarians.
However, when it comes to India, it is not as simple as it may seem. The consumption of meat is often used as a political tool to oppress meat eaters and underline upper caste agendas. With the current political climate in India, the interplay of religion, caste, power and privilege complicates this issue much more than it appears.
Vegetarianism for sustainability is being co-opted by (mostly) upper caste Hindus for their agenda “Hindus have been saying it all along”, which is factually as well as historically incorrect. According to a survey in 2016, about 70 percent of Indians consume meat, while there is roughly 80 percent Hindu population in India.
This is not to point fingers towards any religion, but just to bust this myth that all Hindus practice vegetarianism. This survey shows that there are more non-vegetarian people living in the north-eastern regions and the coastal areas than other parts of India. So, food choices are determined more by regional food traditions and economic factors rather than by religion.
If we look at this issue historically, many marginalised castes depended on meat as their primary food source. They have been historically otherised with problematic labels such as “polluted” and “impure”, while “satvik” diets or vegetarian diets were associated with “purity”.
This was used by the upper caste to assume a higher position in the caste hierarchy and assume higher moral superiority. So, in the context of Hinduism, vegetarianism traditionally being a marker of upper caste identity, the food hierarchy is a function of the caste structure.
It is important to question if this othering of people who eat meat (or rather certain kinds of meat) is genuinely out of concern for animals and the environment, because vegetarianism, unlike veganism still involves consuming milk, which is reared from animals. The milk industry doesn’t treat the animals kindly or with respect.
They are treated like commodities rather than living beings, subjected to poor living conditions. Moreover, many “upper” caste Hindus consume meat and vegetarianism is no longer the marker between the upper or lower castes, or Hinduism and other religions.
So, what this othering comes down to is that eating certain kinds of animal meat is right, while others is criminal and unethical.
This isn’t to deny that meat industry doesn’t cause damage to nature. Raising animals for food uses up massive amounts of resources as well as causes a lot of animal suffering. More amount of resources produce less amount of animal product, as compared to plant based products. Going vegan in such a scenario would be a sustainable choice.
However, it is important to note here that simply switching to vegan options doesn’t mean that they are sustainable. It’s not just important to scrutinise what we consume, but rather, we should also look into the capitalist strategies and power structures of production as well as consumption. In such a scenario, buying from local vendors is much more sustainable than mass suppliers.
In the same way, it is possible to minimally consume animal products sustainably. The problem is the mass animal agricultural practices that leave huge carbon footprints without making up for it in anyway. In comparison, animal meat reared in people’s own backyards or neighbouring ponds and the like, generate much less carbon footprint.
It is also important to understand the economic factors that makes animal products an accessible option for lower income groups. Often, the marginalised groups can’t afford all protein sources. While it is easy for the elite to buy expensive vegan products like almond and cashew milk, the marginalised rely on the fish they catch and other livestock for protein.
In such a situation, their meat eating habits actually leave much less carbon footprints than the rich urban dwellers who buy industry produced meat.
Ultimately, what matters is moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle while being aware of the political, social, and caste-class privilege that come into play. It is also important to educate ourselves about the carbon footprint that our food choices leave, and whether we have the privilege to make more sustainable choices.
Instead of being prejudicial, or othering meat eaters from a moral high ground, it is important for each one of us to look at ourselves and our own consumption habits, and work on them according to the resources available to us.
Featured Image Source: Conde Nast Traveller