With the recent pandemic putting the focus on the pitfalls of wet markets and factory farming, in this article we focus on veganism. We explore if veganism could be the answer to problems related to health, animal rights and the environment and if it is a feasible option in India.

Can India embrace veganism? A political look at the food we eat.

Ananya Sinha is a 21 year old undergrad who is constantly looking out for ways to lead a more sustainable life as a student. Her love for writing helps her gain perspective and understand the world around her in a nuanced way.

Veganism has been gaining steam around the world and there is no denying it. According to Google Trends, searches for terms like “vegan” and “veganism” have been increasing steadily both in India and around the world since 2015. The US has seen a drastic increase in the number of vegans in a short period of time. It is estimated that compared to 2014 where just 0.5% of the total population was vegan, in 2020 vegans make up 6% of the US population. Not only vegans, but people across the country are reducing their consumption of animal products and trying out more plant-based products.

 

Veganism has started making waves in India too. In the past few years, several celebrities like Virat Kohli and Alia Bhatt have turned vegan and increased the talk around this topic. The first vegan conference of India was held in July, 2019 in New Delhi with almost 450 participants. For the uninitiated, veganism is currently defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, be it from food, clothing, or any other purpose. So just like vegetarians, vegans do not consume meat products but along with that they don’t consume dairy products, honey or wear clothing made from silk, leather etc. Around the world, people usually subscribe to veganism because of one or more of the following reasons:  health benefits, animal rights and environmentalism. Although a general interest in the topic of veganism has increased, our country still doesn’t have a significant number of vegans, which should make us question whether veganism is just trending today or is India open to accepting it in practice one day.

Roadblocks to veganism in India: With 29-30% of the population being vegetarian, India is  the country with the highest number of vegetarians. The percentage might seem small but it is important to consider that a majority of these people are affluent, upper caste, and have access to political clout which is why despite being a small percentage, they have greater social capital. While India may be a haven for delicious vegetarian dishes, it is still one of the largest dairy-consuming countries in the world, due to ingredients such as curd, ghee and butter being essential parts of a vegetarian diet. While in other countries vegetarianism is often seen as a step away from consuming meat and going vegan one day, in India vegetarianism is often followed out of tradition and community rather than ethics. Most of the people following a vegetarian diet are followers of Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism. These religions stress on practice of ahimsa or non violence. Straying away from the diet that is generally followed by your family is often seen as deviating from the values taught by your family and can be seen as a sign of disrespect toward your family and religion. Not just in family but certain political organisations also take offense when they think eating certain foods are against their sensibilities. For example, in October of 2019 an uproar was made by politicians where they opposed the state government for serving eggs to children even though  the state government had announced that they would never force someone to eat eggs. In a country like India where the food is as diverse as one can imagine, your dietary choices can often reflect who you are and where you come from. Because of this it can be difficult for people to let go of their traditional diet in favour of veganism which is predominantly a western concept. 

According to a 2016 report in the academic journal, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), if we all went vegan the world’s food-related emissions would drop 70% by 2050. But can the same solutions be applied for both the US and India? While the people in the US are slowly turning away from meat for health and environmental reasons, their meat consumption has been the highest in the world for a few years now. As reported by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), it was estimated that an average US citizen consumed 120.2 kg of meat compared to a low 4.4 kg in India per person, in a year.  And it does not help that often plant based products are not affordable for the general populace. While a litre of cow’s milk might cost you around 60 rupees, a litre of almond or any other plant-based milk will cost you 4 times more. In a country where 276 million people are still below the poverty line, veganism is being seen as a diet for the elite.

 

Availability is another factor. You will be hard pressed to find plant-based products in places other than metropolitan cities. Even then they are usually found only in a few gourmet food stores. As the income of an average Indian is increasing, there is growth in the consumption of meat products. Environmentalism is a huge factor for people going vegan. Although researchers are still at odds whether the whole world going vegan can save the world by reducing food related emissions or destroy it by arguing that animals bred for food help biodiversity. Some are also suggesting that a diet consisting of primarily plant based food along with the occasional local grown meat grown product may be the answer by labeling it “the flexitarian diet”. 

 

Could veganism save the world?: While veganism may come with a long list of pros, can we really hold all humans equally responsible for the damage that has been done to the earth by humankind? Certain marginalised communities of  India like Dalits, tribals from central India and people from the North east have always consumed beef (buffalo meat) since it is a cheap source of protein. How practical is it to hold a tribal from central India just as equally responsible as a citizen from the US. The dairy industry is important to the Indian rural people not only because they consume it but also since it is a reliable source of income for them Cutting down on non vegan food can destroy industries like the dairy cooperatives, like Amul, that have made thousands of women self-sufficient, or egg and meat small businesses in rural areas. Especially when it comes to the environment. Can a few people willing to make a change undo the damage done to our environment by the huge industries and governments of the world?

We often see the world in black and white when the truth is we require a lot more nuance especially for a country like India where dietary choices and farming practices vary widely from place to place. In a country where food is highly politicised and food choices are often deep rooted along with your religious ideology the day seems far away that the citizens of India will look towards veganism because of the ethics and not just see it as a fad diet. One key takeaway from veganism for a country like India is to start thinking about where we source our food from and how it affects the planet. Going forward even though India becoming a vegan friendly country seems far away, we can definitely start thinking more about how our day to day choices affect our planet.

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