Thursday, October 29, 2015

Beef with Beef

It is fairly plausible that before us humans learned how to manufacture hunting tools and make fire, animal protein was not part of our diet. We mainly foraged for fruits, nuts and berries and our diet was rich in fiber and other vital nutrients. Then came the agricultural revolution, when homo sapiens developed the art of crop cultivation. Agriculture began to domesticate humans and the less diverse diet of rice, corn and wheat became a staple source of nutrition. We then started to live next to our fields to protect them from pests and animals. Living along water bodies to grow our crops year round became important. Animals began to get used to help till the soil. Foragers became farmers. Then their milk and meat began to get consumed for further sustenance. Our bodies adapted to digest lactose, and we became the only species deriving nutrition from the milk of a completely different species.

Our extraordinary cognitive abilities began to tame nature and civilization in all its complexity began to take shape. And thus the human population began to grow rapidly. Everywhere the homo sapiens went, other species of plants and animals began to disappear in astronomical numbers. In his stellar book Sapiens- A Brief History of Humankind,  Yval Noah Harari charts the destructive nature of humanity, by categorizing its evolution into the First, Second and Third waves of extinctions. The first was accompanied by the spread of the foragers across continents, the second by the advent of agriculture and the third by industrial revolution, which is still on going. The first two waves of extinctions were largely restricted to land. The third moved into the oceans as well and continues unabated to this day. Hariri says "we (sapiens) have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology". We have singularly wiped out biodiversity to such an extent, that our very own existence hangs in the balance today.

It is forecasted that by 2050 the human population will rise to 9.6 billion and the greatest challenge mankind will face, will be its ability to feed itself.

Today at 7.2 billion, some challenges are becoming apparent. There are places on earth where food is abundant. Then there are those where children die routinely of malnutrition. In the developed and developing world, obesity is on the rise, and discussion around healthy diets and lifestyle choices have given rise to fads and new business opportunities on a mammoth scale. While countless television shows and restaurants tempt us with an ever increasing array of delectable delights, living healthy has become the need of the hour. The need for exercise in a sedentary urban environment is constantly marketed as a key to long life. The rapid spread of cancer and other diseases constantly push people to take pause and examine the impact of their vices. Abject consumerism across the planet has brought us to a point of reckoning and even though the direction to take is clear, politics and greed fails us from seeing the light.

The last century on the human calendar, was marked with great shortages in food across the globe. During the Great Depression in America, the wars in Europe and the great famines of India and Africa and communism in China, Soviet Russia and elsewhere, food was always scarce. Even though for many today, food is still in short supply, for those who have moved up the socioeconomic ladder the desire to celebrate their rise by indulging in a variety of food has become a trend in this century. Eating at restaurants has become a symbol of affluence and in some cultures so has fattening up.

Recently, there has been a frantic debate on what excessive food consumption is doing to our bodies and the planet, especially meat. The World Health Organization  released a report this week, warning that excessive consumption of processed and red meat can cause cancer. Bill Gates and other luminaries have been sounding the alarm for a while now, that the industrial scale production of meat and dairy is causing serious environmental damage that needs urgent global attention. It is not just fossil fuel and smoke stacks that are contributing to global warming but cows are making things worse.

According to a recent United Nations survey, cattle farming occupies 30 percent of the world's surface and its environmental impact will double by 2050. When cows digest their food they produce methane gas as a by-product; around 250 to 500 liters a day according to a Washington State University study. Methane warms the earth around 20 times faster than carbon dioxide and therefore is a major contributing factor to climate change. Cattle also stress our water resources and forests.

As societies become more affluent they tend to consume more meat. In India and China, the two most populous nations on the planet, meat consumption is rapidly rising. Eating meat is seen as a symbol of upward mobility and prosperity. Australia and New Zealand, one of the world's largest beef producers are clearing more and more land to meet that demand.

Some people from the newly elected government in India, recently launched a conversation to ban beef consumption nation wide. The slaughter of cows is already banned in many states across the country, and has been so for a while, but the government thought it was a worthwhile issue to reignite. As a result a Muslim man was lynched by a mob for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator and other places witnessed attacks on people transporting cows for slaughter.

Hindus consider the cow to be sacred. There are many stories in Hindu mythology that sanctify the cow for being Lord Shiva's ride and as a beast of burden that tills the land and gives milk for sustenance. But there is also vigorous debate among historians over ancient Hindus having sacrificed cows and eaten beef. In the Hindu nation of Nepal, cows are sacrificed every year in abhorrent numbers in the name of a religious festival. Muslims in India and elsewhere sacrifice goats in the thousands to mark the festival of Bakreid.

In India, lately beef has become a meat of choice for both Hindus and Muslims as it is cheaper than goat meat, a staple. Most Hindus in India are vegetarian, therefore Muslims are most often identified as the chief consumers of beef. This latest drive to ban beef consumption by the central and state governments, was largely seen as an attack on the Muslim community. As always the ensuing debate polarized the nation. Arguments ranging from the government infringing on people's dietary freedoms, animal rights to religious fanaticism, all clogged the media sphere. As the debate took on sectarian overtones writers and filmmakers began to protest the intolerance and apathy by returning their government issued awards. The Prime Minister's long silence on this issue was seen as giving credence to right wing Hindu groups to carry out a sinister agenda. Mass hysteria began to spread on all sides.

The reality is, despite the slaughter of cows widely banned in India, the nation ranks as the worlds top beef exporters. According to the US Department of Agriculture, India is expected to export 2.4 million tonnes of beef in 2015, against Brazil's 2 million tonnes. India also has one of the largest leather processing industries in the world.

What was lost in the cacophony was any sensible debate on the real problem and glaring statistics that show that beef consumption is not a sectarian issue but a global environmental issue that effects us all. No government can address this by instituting bans. It can make a difference though by educating the public. But the results there are suspect, as the human species does not respond well to discomfort, especially when it comes to its food.

Apart from being the architect of India's freedom from colonialism, Mahatma Gandhi is known for his self imposed experiments with abstinence, which tested the limits of human endurance. He exerted all his inner strength to see how he could stay free of all temptations and desires. He believed that the first place a person is tempted is on his or her tongue. If one could conquer one's temptation of taste, one could conquer all and change the world. We now know that human addiction to oil has wreaked havoc on the planet. It seems that our addiction to meat is also doing us in. It is what it is.