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One man’s meat is
simply another’s poisson

As meat and fish eating pick up in India, weighty questions arise over trends in obesity and the implications for land use.

Mumbai, January 2011

Indians are eating more fish, and meat, with weight gain as a consequence

Changing diets in India will have an impact on farming and healthcare.

PRESIDENT George W Bush angered Indians in May 2008 when he said that India, where the "middle class is larger than our entire population” the demand for better food had caused “[world] price to go up." To imply that India, which has the largest number of underfed people in the world, was responsible for world grain prices rising is anathema. It is only too well known that the average American consumes 18 times more resources of all kinds than the average Indian. When it comes to meat, each American gobbled 125kg in 2002, as against just 5kg per Indian, according to the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO). What goes into people’s bellies is more pertinent to the health of the planet, as well as personal well being, than the number of heads in a country per se.

Almost the same day in May, EU Commissioner for agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel told the European Policy Centre: “Those who see biofuels as the driving force behind recent food price increases have overlooked not just one elephant standing right in front of them, but two. The first elephant is the huge increase in demand from emerging countries like China and India. These countries are eating more meat... So a dietary shift towards meat in countries with populations of over 1 billion people each has an enormous impact on commodity markets,” noted the Danish commissioner.

Darryl D’Monte

Darryl D’Monte

The consumption of meat has much to do with obesity, including the predilection of urban Indians to eat junk food deep-fried in transfat. Hamburgers and chicken nuggets have become favourite snack food for millions of children

In November 2010, an Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, consisting of rich countries) study showed that between 1998 and 2005, the rate of Indians becoming overweight increased by a fifth. However, compared with five other countries, including China, India fared the best, with only 14 percent of adult women and 18 percent of adult males overweight, as against 23 percent and 32 percent respectively in China. In some urban areas – and among the richest echelons – the rates of increase in India were as high as 40 percent. The consumption of meat has much to do with obesity, including the predilection of urban Indians – who form around 270 million people, not that much less than the entire population of the US – to eat junk food deep-fried in transfat. Hamburgers and chicken nuggets have become favourite snack food for millions of children and they will turn into meat eaters with a vengeance, once they grow up.

According to the Hindu newspaper, the study said: “Up to 280,000 life years could be gained through individual prevention programmes in India every year. When effects on disability are accounted for, interventions could save up to 310,000 years of life in good health. Stating that prevention could improve health at a lower cost than many treatments offered today by health systems, it said in India many of the prevention programmes examined would be cost-effective in the long-run (ie, 100 years) relative to the standard of US$2,500 per year of life gained in good health.

“The study advocates a combination of prevention programmes in India every year by which 442,000 life years could be gained. Combining several interventions to tackle unhealthy diet and physical inactivity is a very efficient way of improving population health, it said, adding that the cost-effectiveness ratio of a prevention strategy – including a mass media campaign, food taxes and subsidies, nutritional labelling and marketing restrictions – would be $268 per life year gained in good health. It said such a prevention strategy could be implemented for an annual cost of $1.5 per head, while intervention to tackle unhealthy diets and physical inactivity would cost $0.35 per head.”

It is true that with rising prosperity for some 300 million Indians – out of a population of 1.1 billion – the consumption of meat is increasing. The FAO survey in 2002 found that the average citizen in only Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Congo and Rwanda ate less meat than an Indian. Although India's total chicken consumption has gone from 0.2 million tonnes in 1990 to 2.3 million tonnes today, beef consumption is more or less the same as it was; because of the Hindu taboo against it, it’s not forecast to change. Wealthy Jain community members, many of whose relatives are diamond traders in Antwerp and New York, have unofficially banned non-vegetarian restaurants from parts of Mumbai.

One indication of the rise in meat consumption is the burgeoning incidence of allergies. According to Outlook weekly newsmagazine, two to fourteen percent of children as well as adults are prone to contracting food allergies. Included in their new shopping lists are chicken, cheese, smoked/salted/pickled foods and sea foods; for children, eggs are a major cause. The annual sales of anti-allergy drugs were around US $150 million a decade ago, but are now twice as much.

Unknown to most Indians, a multi-volume series by the Anthropological Survey of India in 1993 found that 88 percent of Indians are non-vegetarian, once fish is included. Coastal areas all over the world are heavily populated and fish is a cheap source of protein. Even Maithili Brahmins – the term denotes high caste – are “fishitarians” when giving themselves a treat. Food preferences closely follow religious precepts in India. Hindus (who constitute around 80 percent of the population) avoid beef, and not necessarily fish, but low castes and “outcastes” among them eat both beef and pork. Muslims (12 percent) avoid pork. Indians are generally fussy about their food habits and there are “eggetarians” who consume eggs and their products but won’t touch meat, a chicken-and-egg situation if ever there was one.

With increasing incomes, as well as travel both within and outside the country, the consumption of meat is increasing. The older generation, brought up with strict sanctions within a joint family, would only eat meat in restaurants, often without their wives’ knowledge. The younger set nowadays don’t have any such compunctions; indeed, it is considered being “with it” to order a beef steak. With the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, youngsters are growing increasingly westernised. They adopt anything and everything that has a western label; even TV anchors sport faux American accents!

The Anthropological Survey of India in 1993 found that 88 percent of Indians are non-vegetarian, once fish is included. Coastal areas all over the world are heavily populated and fish is a cheap source of protein. Even Maithili Brahmins – the term denotes high caste – are “fishitarians” when giving themselves a treat

There is a set of Indians who have acquired newfound wealth. These are typically those in information technology, some of whom – like their Indian counterparts in the US, where Indians have the highest per capita incomes among immigrants within the last 15 years — have become dollar millionaires and even billionaires. They travel abroad on business and pleasure and have taken to eat meat so as not to appear socially “backward” among their foreign peers. The “demonstration effect” of well to do Indians eating meat is indeed very powerful. Just as young Indian women professionals have increasingly started to smoke and drink, given the prevailing after-office western cultural practice to fraternise with peers, bar hopping inevitably ends up in restaurants and the corollary of such mores is to order a meat dish at dinner.

According to the FAO, nearly a fifth of all greenhouse-gas emissions come from livestock – more than from all forms of transport. In the US, it takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein. And lots of that plant protein is required to make animal protein. For chicken, the ratio of cereal energy to meat protein out is 4:1. For pork it's 17:1. For lamb, 50:1. For beef, 54:1. So each and every switch from grain to meat not only deprives the poor who depend on cereals of their primary source of sustenance, but it contributes to global warming.

India suffers from low farm productivity when it comes to cereals (the main item of consumption) due to, among other reasons, small plots (about a hectare per family, on average). Any diversion of farmland to rearing livestock will have terrible consequences for a country with the largest number of famished people in the world. According to an official government study, 78 percent of Indians spend US 50 cents a day on all their necessities; obviously, food figures largest in their budgets. Environmentalists have for this reason criticised the move to grow biofuels even like jatropha, which grows on arid land, because it will divert resources to commercial plantation.

Indian society will have to adjust to the new eating habits, which the elite are adopting. On privatised national airlines, surveys would surely find an increasing proportion of non-vegetarians. On international flights previously, Indians would – and still do – order special meals in advance: not just vegetarian, but also Jain meals, which eschew any tubers like potatoes. They would be discomfited sitting alongside passengers who eat beef or pork, against which there are strong taboos, but such resistance is crumbling. Japanese restaurants, which are probably the most expensive as a category in the country, are growing, and the menus are quite unorthodox for Indians, since sushi is largely uncooked, but Indians have taken to the vegetarian variety in a big way.

They would tend to think that the West’s ways of eating are slightly barbaric, especially the tendency to eat rare — if not outright raw – beef or fish like oysters. But old attitudes are fast changing and it may paradoxically herald a new tolerance of other communities within the country, which were previously ostracised for eating habits that were opposed to the majority’s. An excellent light-hearted documentary, “Cosmopolis”, by Mumbai-based film-maker Paromita Vora, looks at the tendency of low middle class Mumbaikars to bar fisherwomen from vending their smelly wares in row tenements which are the hallmark of the city. However, since the majority of the country’s commercial capital consume fish, such bans are diminishing. US fast food is spreading like wildfire, even if the beef in McDonald’s has been replaced by buffalo meat (given the ban on cow – though not bull – slaughter). India is the only country in the world to be permitted such a departure. Meanwhile cheese fondues are forked up by the elite as fancy vegetarian fare. If all Indians adopt a more tolerant attitude towards food, everybody will be the wiser and happier for it.

Author and columnist Darryl D’Monte was Resident Editor of The Times of India and the Indian Express in Mumbai. He has devoted himself to environmental journalism in India and abroad. His book, Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills was published by Oxford University Press in Delhi in 2002. He published Temples Or Tombs? Industry Versus Environment, Centre for Science & Environment, in 1985. Darryl is the Chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI) and was the founder President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) in Dresden, Germany, in 1993. He is a Trustee of the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre. In 2009 he was awarded the first Green Globe Media Award at the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development.

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