What we eat has an impact on the planet. We know that, of course. And we have been debating the virtues of being vegan – not eating or using animal products – and vegetarian. A study by J Poore and T Nemecek, published in Science in June, shows that reducing meat and dairy can cut down an individual’s carbon footprint by 73%. Although Indians eat differently from other countries, this still makes sense in India, where the middle class is growing.
According to India Spend, 80% of men and 70% of women in India are meat eaters, though they eat meat, eggs and chicken occasionally. The National Family Health Survey, 2015-2016, says 42.8% women and 48.9% men consume these foods weekly. Regional variations – dictated by ecological and cultural factors – exist. This still makes for several million people eating non-vegetarian foods every day. If you look at it from the planetary point of view, many Indians eat foods that are becoming increasingly unsustainable in a climate-fragile world.
Yet, people cannot be dictated to on their personal choices, including what they eat. India has malnutrition and obesity challenges that require public reorientation to food. For several communities, meat is the key protein they can afford. If the middle-class population is to voluntarily give up planet-harsh choices, the vegan option has to be made more attractive and easier on the pocket.
Helping the middle class understand the impact of meat eating might encourage them to reconsider how often they grab that kabab. Some might feel bad for the animals that are slaughtered, some might want to act on environmental concerns. And some might think of their health. But can the average middle-class Indian afford to eat what is now popularly marketed as vegan?
When I turned vegan, I hoped to reduce my carbon footprint and better nourish myself. I was being intuitive about health, because doctors still argue about the benefits of veganism. Besides, many of us unwittingly still eat highly contaminated food, grown using sewage, dressed up in artificial colour and plumped via genetic modification. It is highly difficult for most of us to eat safe food everyday and eliminate toxins from our diet. I will say this though: I was just as repelled by the antibiotics in chicken and the hormones in cows as I was upset at the cruelty of slaughter. I am still struggling to minimise pesticides in vegetables and grain, but I am no purist. I do not want to end up eating only at home as a result of my narrow food preferences.
The medical community might still debate the benefits of veganism, but a year after I made the shift, I got off my steroid inhaler for asthma, which was till then a constant companion. I rejoiced, but I also noticed my growing food bill. As a new vegan, I discovered various new delicacies – almond milk ice-cream, soy cheese, olive oil “butter”, to name a few. I loved them, but I could not help but think they were not budget-neutral foods. Half of the recipes I found contained almonds, something I still consider high-priced.
In the four years I have been a vegan, I have enjoyed delicious meals world-wide. I have become a fan of things I did not imagine existed. I sometimes post on Instagram photos of the spectacular vegan sushi, vegan cheeses, rice wraps and almond milk-masala tea I have discovered. Yet, I say with discomfort that all these are truly elitist foods. You cannot easily find them and in any case, they cost a lot of money. It is cheaper to eat chicken than almond cheese.
For me, too, these are occasional delicacies. The actual vegan food I eat is regular homemade food, minus the ghee tadka and yoghurt. This is what most of us can afford as our foundational food. But in the real world, vegan is rarely pitched as home food with minor modifications.
Veganism in dal-roti
The India Spend data shows us the scale of meat consumption. It has to be reduced willingly, by whose who can afford other forms of protein. But I imagine there are very few people who would happily let their monthly food budgets climb in these times of unbearably high living costs.
Unless we change the way we frame veganism, and food itself, Indians cannot leap into eating a greener, more sensible diet. To begin with, we need big shifts from the top. The Central and state governments ought to re-vamp their menus for official events and meetings to, at least, make them vegetarian. It may prefer to send out religious messages rather than environmental one, but with intelligent public engagement, the state can share its green intent with citizens. There is already a relevant precedent: Germany stopped serving meat at government functions in February 2017.
Changing public attitude is key. Food writers and taste influencers must be well informed about veganism, and a healthy discussion, even if loaded with dissent, has to start. This could make people look at dal-roti anew. Awareness leading to action can make a sizeable impact. Why can’t we be told about the impact of our food along with being asked not to waste it? If I had sought advice on being vegan, I might never actually have become one, given the fear several thinking people voice that it leads to calcium and protein deficiency. I wish I could tell them all about my perfect test results year-on-year, with only the occasional Vitamin D supplement. Can we not be better educated about healthy vegan foods, just as we once learnt to wash our hands, eat leafy, green vegetables, or an egg every Sunday?
Individual action does not matter unless it is scaled up. But scaling up will not happen unless people want it to. And they will not do it unless a vegan diet is within their baseline budgets, unless they have been shown the veganism in our everyday food. Until this happens, being vegan will remain the whim of a wealthy person.