During the last rainy season, I ate eseellu, or winged termites, for the first time. For years, I had considered these insects a nuisance as they swarmed around light sources during the rains, before shedding their wings and dying. But my attitude changed after I learnt that these creatures are dried and roasted for consumption, mainly by Dalit communities in the southern Deccan. Roasted with red rice and horse gram, the eseellu tasted delicious.

It was certainly the most unique dish I have sampled since I expanded my diet to include animal foods 10 years ago. In addition to chicken, mutton, beef, pork and fish, I have consumed wild hog and rabbit. Some people find my shift puzzling. Most activists I meet, especially in farming circles, grew up vegetarian or converted to vegetarianism or veganism. But my personal journey has taught me that meat is an essential component of food systems and that it is no less ecological and humane than plant foods. Besides, religious vegetarianism in India is rooted in casteist and discriminatory practices, which treat animal foods (except milk) as impure – even disgusting.

I grew up in a vegetarian, Telugu-speaking family from the Komati, or merchant caste. However, my parents did not exhibit an aversion to meat. Visiting Europe and the United States in the 1970s, they had learnt to discard what they could not avoid, often just consuming the sides and desserts. As many families did in those times, they introduced eggs into our diet.


In school, I observed many kinds of food practices. My Parsi friend brought corned beef sandwiches, while my Jain friend gave up root vegetables (onions, potatoes) during fasting periods. I was told that we were vegetarian because we believed in ahimsa or non-violence. But as I grew up, I recognised the contradictions. For instance, the vegetarian aunties and uncles in my circles often wore garments made of silk – a fabric whose production required cocoons and the larvae inside to be boiled.

When I moved to the US for postgraduate studies in the late 1990s, I began reading about the belief systems of the indigenous Americans. I was struck by the description of hunting as a spiritual activity. The hunter and prey are both part of the divine spirit, they believed. The hunter prays and asks the prey to gift itself to him. The hunter’s community respects the prey’s sacrifice by hunting only as much as necessary, and making full use of the prey.

Similar narratives deifying nature can be found in most indigenous communities and explain why they are better stewards of the environment than most mainstream populations.

Still, I remained a vegetarian, because of the argument by environmentalists such as Rachel Carson that rearing animals for meat requires more resources than producing plant-based foods. At the time, I was in Iowa, in the middle of the never-ending cornfields for which the state is famous. Most of this corn was used to feed pigs, which I found wasteful.

Today, 50%-70% of Iowa’s corn is used to make ethanol – a “green fuel” in the graveyard of a beautiful prairie ecosystem and Native American culture.

After graduating, I moved to Minnesota for work. As I became active in social and political causes, I quit my corporate job. When I spent some time on an organic farm, one of the owners, a retired psychiatrist, explained why meat eating was not as environmentally harmful as I had thought.

She kept her chickens in a large cage that could be moved from place to place, parking it in one spot for a few days at a time to fertilise the soil. She pointed out that farm animals mostly consumed farm waste, unlike animals in factory farms that are fed specially prepared fodder. Seeing how animals were an essential component of the farming system and improved farm efficiency eroded my resistance to animal-based food.

Back in India a few years later, I began working with grassroots organisations in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka on farming, health and livelihood. I realised that my food practices distanced me from many of my colleagues. At the Bengaluru non-profit where I worked for a few years, I was the “madam” who needed a separate vegetarian meal when chicken was ordered for the team. I was the odd one out. After all, the fifth National Family Health Survey, 2019-’21, showed that more than 90% of Indians eat fish, chicken or meat.

A shepherd leading his flock in the Desert National Park in Rajasthan. Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These were the early 2010s, when self-proclaimed gau rakshaks or cow protectors began lynching people, mainly working-class Muslims and Dalits, on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting cattle for slaughter.

In rural India, these communities lived in the worst part of the village and owned marginal plots of the least fertile land – if they were lucky enough to own land. In cities, they lived in slums with the meanest of amenities. Untouchability prevailed. My Dalit colleagues are often served tea in disposable cups and dominant caste Hindus refuse to eat food cooked by them.

The practices of small and marginal farmers and pastoralists in India are ecologically sound, even more so than those of my farmer-friend Minnesota. I have watched farmers gather fodder from the riverbank, or in and around fields, and even feed their cows and goats leftover rotis. Backyard poultry rearing is even more resource-friendly – desi or naati chickens roam freely and are fed grains or leftover food.

These communities are affectionate towards their animals, but also recognise them as their “fixed deposits” – resources that can be encashed whenever required. Recognising the need to acknowledge these ecologically superior practices and to protest the violence against these communities, I began eating animal foods.

In the past decades, calls by the elite for vegetarianism have been bolstered by global advocacy to reduce the consumption of animal foods – mostly red meat – to “save the planet”. These calls are unfairly applied to India. They do not acknowledge that Indians, especially the less privileged, have historically contributed little to climate change, and that they consume a fraction of animal foods compared to the West.

At the same time, spiritual movements across India have advocated vegetarianism. In central Uttar Pradesh, many Dalit families that I work with proudly proclaim that they have given up meat and eggs. But these families cannot afford the diverse foods necessary to maintain good nutrition on a vegetarian diet – instead, they eat rotis, rice, potatoes and a smattering of vegetables. National goals to eradicate malnutrition cannot be achieved with such protein-deficient diets.

Agrarian communities across the country are now experiencing droughts, heavy rainfall during harvest season, hailstorms and unseasonal heat that are devastating their crops. Animal rearing is one of the few livelihood options that have kept them afloat economically.

However, small and marginal farmers and pastoralists are struggling due to the loss of grazing lands, rising fodder costs and the vulnerability of “improved” animal breeds to disease. Threats to their livelihoods have made things worse: where animal sacrifices were once an integral part of Hindu festivals, today festivals are marked by bans on the sale of meat. Now, hygiene is being invoked to ban the sale of meat and even eggs by small vendors.

It is essential for traditionally vegetarian Indians to recognise that our diets are privileged and resource-intensive. The diets of most Indians are diverse, local and seasonal and include animal foods. These diets should be celebrated. Demeaning and demonising animal foods, or invisibilising them – as more well-meaning vegetarians and vegans do – contributes to deepening poverty and malnutrition among less privileged communities.

It is time to question our collective discomfort towards animal foods, and to work together to build inclusive, just and sustainable food systems.

Sudha Nagavarapu works with grassroots organisations on food systems, sustainable agriculture, health and livelihoods, and with various networks campaigning for justice and equity.