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Shravya Reddy’s Blog

The Indian Diet: Unintended Beneficial GHG Impacts?

Shravya Reddy

Posted June 17, 2009 in Living Sustainably

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That the livestock industry - sustained by meat and poultry consumption by people - contributes significantly to climate change is not really up for debate. Any questions that remained were quelled by the FAO report in 2006, Livestock's Long Shadow', which clarified that the livestock sector contributes 18% of all Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), even more than the transportation sector. This includes 9% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (mainly due to land use such as forest clearing), 34% of anthropogenic methane (mostly enteric fermentation), and 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide (largely from manure and fertilizer).

But here are some other figures that may drive home what this means: Did you know that eating 1 pound of red meat emits the same amount of GHGs as you would when driving an SUV for 40 miles? A pound of meat requires eight times as much energy to produce as one pound of veggie protein. And there is tremendous energy imbalance, given how it takes approximately 32,900 calories of fossil fuel energy to raise one 12-ounce steak, but when consumed, the person eating it only receives 940 calories! The inefficient livestock to human grain consumption ratio is 7:1, and keeps growing. This is even more egregious, when one thinks of the 963 million people who suffer from hunger annually (more than the combined populations of the US, Canada and the European Union), or the 25,000 people who die ever day from hunger-related causes.

Americans consume roughly twice the global average of meat, making this yet another area where even small reductions could make a difference in this country's carbon footprint. For instance, if every American substituted one meal of meat or poultry a week with veggies, this would be the equivalent of taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads. Changing the dietary patterns of any community, culture or nation is an extremely difficult proposition, and treading this territory almost always means wandering into discourse about morality, ethics, equity and history, all of which I will not shy away from in future posts. As promised, however, this post will talk briefly about how dietary habits of Indians have been a valuable safeguard against potentially even higher GHG emissions from the country's 1.2 billion people, but how these habits are rapidly changing and moving closer to the Western diet (while Indians continue to consume very negligible amounts of red meat, recent figures do suggest that there is an increase in poultry and egg consumption, leading to an 8-10% growth in the sector).

According to the CNN-IBN Hindu survey, 31% of Indians are lacto-vegetarians (consume dairy), and another 9% are ovo-lacto vegetarians (also consume eggs), amounting to almost 40% of the population or 480 million people who do not consume meat (US figures are 3.2% of the population, or 7.3 million people). Even thought this is really an accident of history, culture and religion (Hinduism prohibits the eating of beef and Islam prohibits the eating of pork), this is still something that India should regard as a positive characteristic, and should ensure that in the attempt to 'modernize' and rise to Western standards of living, it should not blindly ape the unsustainable Western diet, thereby increasing its carbon footprint. Since a meat-based diet produces an annual 5000 pounds more of CO2e per capita than a vegetarian diet, these 480 million people collectively account for 1.2 billion tons of CO2e that is currently not being released into the atmosphere.

I am not unaware of the fact that many Indians have predominantly vegetarian diets due to economic factors, such as the inability to purchase meat. I do not advocate the persistence of such poor purchasing power, and am not suggesting that it is laudable that certain sections of the Indian population do not contribute to diet-related GHG emissions as a result of poverty. I am merely suggesting that as disposable income rises and people have higher purchasing power to buy better quality food, better information on the health and environmental impacts of a vegetarian-oriented diet be made freely available, so that people can make choices that do not necessarily amount to blindly aping an unsustainable Western diet (and thereby prevent the rise of diet-related chronic diseases too). I am glad to note, for instance, the FAO's findings that an increase in personal income in recent years in India did lead to an increase in consumption of wheat, roots and tubers, vegetables and fruits (as well as energy-rich, starchy, sugary foods). Also, I am glad to see from the same study that malnutrition in children decreased substantially in recent years, even without a significant increase in red-meat consumption.

In a lighter vein, I am suggesting that Indian diets can reach global levels of adequate nutritional value, balance and variety, but without needing 'capacity-building' or 'tech-transfer' to leap-frog. After all, Indian cuisine is second to none in its delicious, nutritious and utterly fascinating array of vegetarian food! If you don't agree, maybe we should continue this discussion over Saag Paneer, Navratan Korma, or Idly-Sambar?


South Indian Thali

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ShayanJun 18 2009 08:43 AM

I like both the piece and the picture, but I still miss my steak :( I suppose, it's a good thing I'm 'forced' to be more environmentally friendly due to culturally imposed logistical contraints.

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