As the country roils over issues of what to eat and what not to eat, it’s time to ask a more fundamental question. Why is there such a wide difference in eating habits between Indians of different castes, communities and regions, especially when it comes to consuming animal protein – milk, eggs, fish and meat? Why do north Indians and western Indians, for example, consume far more milk and far less meat than east Indians or south Indians?

Image courtesy: The Indian Express
Image courtesy: The Indian Express

Politicians and most commentators have tended to look at these differences as socio-political in nature. But that might be a mistake as should be evident from the fact that even Bharatiya Janata Party governments and leaders in some of the states are opposing the Centre’s policy on cattle slaughter,

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“I eat beef, I’m from Arunachal Pradesh, can somebody stop me? So let us not be touchy about somebody’s practices,” said Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, in response to his colleague, Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, saying that those who eat beef should go to Pakistan.

There is reason to believe that there are deeper forces at work, and that they are genetic. More specifically, a gene mutation called 13910T which originated in Europe some 7,500 years ago could be in play, if you go by a study published by 18 genetic scientists from around the world, including from universities and institutes such as the Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad; and the Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago.

What does this gene do? It allows humans to digest milk even after infancy. Like other mammals, all humans can digest milk while in infancy, but unlike them, a minority of humans – about a third of the worldwide population – can digest milk as adults too. Homo Sapiens is the only mammal in the world with this ability. This is not surprising when you think about it. Until humans figured out a way to keep cattle and exploit them in ingenious ways, there would have been no advantage in, and no necessity for, digesting milk after infancy. But once they domesticated cattle, it made obvious sense for adult Homo Sapiens to extend their period of infancy, so to say, and digest all the milk they could get from the animals they kept. And as is usually the case, evolution delivered the goods!

Image courtesy: GeoCurrents
Image courtesy: GeoCurrents

The ability to digest milk even into adulthood evolved more than once, say scientists, and in four different areas of the world. But the European mutation mentioned above, 13910T, is of particular interest to us because among Indians who have the ability to consume milk as adults, most carry this European version of the gene according to the study published five years ago. Based on the first countrywide screening of DNA samples from all major language groups and regions of India to answer questions about lactase persistence (the technical term for the ability to digest milk after infancy), they came to two clear conclusions about 13910T. First: “Its distribution in India follows a general northwest to southeast declining pattern.” Second: “The mutation is identical by descent to the European allele.”

[Figure 1 in this scientific study provides distribution of 13910T in India. The global distribution of the gene that allows adults to drink milk is given here.]

Image courtesy: GeoCurrents
Image courtesy: GeoCurrents

So what’s this got to do with beef?

How did this particular gene, of comparatively recent origin, end up in India? Let’s not go there and open a can of controversy. Let’s just say that it has to do with migrations, as the study suggests.

Do the majority of Indians then carry 13910T? Definitely not. The researchers say only about a fifth of Indians carry the gene, with people in western and northern India being the most likely to do so. The frequency of the gene ranges from over 40% in certain in parts of western and northern India to less than 1% in parts of north-east India.

This finally brings clarity to the question why east Indians or south Indians drink less milk than those in the north and west. As adults, many of them wouldn’t know how to digest it.

[It bears repeating here that all children can consume milk, whether they have the 13910T gene or not; the difference between those with the gene and those without the gene is that while those with the gene can go on drinking and digesting milk for the rest of their lives, those without the gene will lose that ability sometime between their first year and their adulthood. In other words, it is not surprising that parents everywhere, whether in Gujarat or in Kerala, make their children, who may be with or without the gene, drink milk].

Image courtesy: GeoCurrents
Image courtesy: GeoCurrents

So what has all this got to do with beef – or in more general terms, meat – consumption? The ability to digest milk as adults gives those Indians with 13910T an option to substitute milk for meat, which many of them seem to have done. This is borne out by the last household consumer expenditure survey carried out by the National Sample Survey Office, or NSSO, in 2012. Their figures show that by and large, states consuming a lot more milk consume a lot less meat, fish and egg, while states consuming a lot more meat, fish and egg consume a lot less milk. There’s clearly a trade-off happening, across different regions, in opposite ways. Notice also that the regions that consume more milk and less meat are precisely those with a greater prevalence of the 13910T gene, and vice versa.

This is, of course, in direct contrast to the Europeans who, despite having the 13910T mutation, continue to consume both meat and milk in abundant quantities. So why did Indians with the 13910T mutation choose to forego one of these human pleasures and depend more on the other? This question can probably be answered through history and culture, especially the rise of Buddhism and Jainism with their emphasis on non-violence and the competitive virtue-signalling that perhaps followed. But whatever the reason, the point is that many with the 13910T mutation chose to replace meat with more milk.

A “beef fest” in Kerala to protest against the Centre’s decision to ban sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. Image: Hindustan Times
A “beef fest” in Kerala to protest against the Centre’s decision to ban sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. Image: Hindustan Times

The most crucial question

But this leads us to the most crucial question: if the possession of a gene mutation allows one section of the Indian adult population to substitute milk for meat, does it also give them the right to ask others without a similar ability to do the same?

If you are an east Indian or a south Indian or an Adivasi or even a lower caste north Indian without the 13910T, you may perhaps want to applaud fellow citizens with 13910T for having given up meat, but you are likely to feel cheated if, while accepting the applause, the meat-avoiders also insist that you follow their example. That would be like Viswanathan Anand asking Virender Sehwag to stop his habit of violently hitting balls all over the place and take, instead, to the game of moving pieces on a board. A suitable response to that would be for Sehwag to say that if Anand gave up his violent habit of sacrificing pawns and imprisoning bishops, perhaps they could both play football! In other words, the only justifiable situation in which those with 13910T can ask those without it to give up meat, is if they themselves are ready to give up milk, so that all of India can take a giant ethical leap forward, and stop consuming animal protein of any kind. If both groups also voluntarily gave up using animal products of any kind, man-made misery for animals will end, and we will be in a far better world in the future.

But to come to a more immediate matter, the real issue here is the inability of some to see that it is both unwise and unjust to expect uniform habits, practices and traditions among 1.3 billion people. We have lived in this land of ours for roughly 65,000 years, and we carry within us deep lineages that connect us to the Africans, West Asians, Central Asians and East Asians both genetically and linguistically. We have our differences, but for a long period of time (until the caste system fell in place in the beginning centuries of the Common Era according to genetic research), our ancestors seem to have thoroughly enjoyed mixing it up, so much so that most of us carry a little bit of those different lineages. And we have, by and large, found ways to co-exist and co-evolve with each other, respecting and even revelling in our diversity. That has been our way and there’s no reason to mess it up now.

Tony Joseph is a former Editor of BusinessWorld and can be reached at tjoseph0010@twitter.com