‘Hold no brief for beef’: Shifting diets for a sustainable food future

Many people eat far too much protein than they require for their daily needs, especially in developed countries

Updated - November 04, 2018 11:30 am IST

Published - November 03, 2018 06:10 pm IST

Indians eat just about 52-55 grams of protein per day (largely from legumes, fish and poultry)

Indians eat just about 52-55 grams of protein per day (largely from legumes, fish and poultry)

The World Resources Institute (WRI), based in Washington, DC, USA, has recently suggested that people should reduce (if not abandon) eating beef: This would warm the hearts of many vegetarians in our country, and the cockles of the hearts of the “gau raksha” lobbyists. But the reasons for this suggestion are not belief-based but deeper and come from the angle of worrying about the methods to achieve a sustained future for feeding the growing population in the coming years. WRI has come out with an eminently readable and well-researched report: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future (downloadable free on the net).

There are three interconnected arguments that they make here. The first is that many people eat far too much protein than they require for their daily needs. This is roughly true across all the world’s regions and highest in developed countries. This is a waste. An average American, Canadian, European or Russian gobbles up 75-90 grams per day of proteins — about 30 g or so from plants and more than 50 from animals. What an average adult weighing 62 kg needs is no more than 50 g/day.

In comparison, Indians and other South Asians eat just about 52- 55 g/day (largely from legumes, fish and poultry). So do the Sub-Saharan Africans (though they eat meat a bit more than we do). But the problem however is that more people now from emerging economies such as Brazil or China are now aping the West and adding more beef in their diet. And WRI estimates that the global demands for beef may increase by a whopping 95% by the year 2050. This is despite the fact that beef-eating in the US has dropped, thanks to health concerns about eating “red meat.”

By the way, the word cattle here includes cows and bulls, buffaloes, horses, sheep and goats - in effect farm animals. There are 1.3 billion cattle across the world today (and India rears 300 million of them). This means, we would need over 2.6 billion cattle 30 years from now!

The second point that WRI makes is that breeding cattle impacts the climate conditions on earth, contributing to global warming. It also takes up lot of land for pasturing (it is estimated that 25% of the earth’s land mass (minus the Antarctica) would be needed for pasture). It is also estimated that a third of the global water is needed for farm animal production .On top of this, cows, buffaloes, sheep, goats and other “ungulates” belch a lot; this alone emits enormous amount of greenhouse gases that contribute over 60% to global warming. In contrast, plants such as wheat, rice, maize, pulses, roots and tubers need no pasture land, demand far less water and, more importantly, generate little or no “greenhouse gases”. We have promised to cut down global warming to no more than 1.5°C within the next 20 years, but with the projected demand for increase the number of cattle, the situation can only worsen.

Do not overeat

Given this scenario, WRI suggests that we, the well-to-do people in the developed and emerging economy countries, shift our diets in the coming years, and do so in three ways. The first is “do not overeat”; in other words reduce the overconsumption of calories. We do not need 2,500 calories per day, 2,000 is ample. Today about 20% of the world overeats, leading to obesity and being overweight, and there are consequent health problems. Cutting the calories down to the optimal level will lead to both health benefits and saving in land and water use.

The second diet shift suggested is to cut down the consumption of proteins to the base recommended level, specifically by reducing the consumption of animal-based foods. When we do not need more than 55 grams of proteins per day, why gobble up 75-90g? Include more plant-based proteins and cut down animal-based ones. Traditional Mediterranean diet (fish and poultry meat, at low levels) and vegetarian meals (with legumes-based proteins) are suggested.

And the third diet shift is more specific. It says “reduce beef consumption specifically”. Cutting down beef (cattle in general) in daily diet will offer both dietary and environmental benefit. The environmental benefits are clear; it saves agriculture for land use and reduces greenhouse gases. Rather than beef, one can turn to pork, poultry, fish and, of course, legumes.

Go vegetarian? vegan?

While WRI does not specifically advise this, it would help. This is of course a tall order, and demands a social and cultural shift. Mankind has been eating meat since millennia; persuading people to quit meat-eating would be Herculean. The main “beef” about meat-eating is beef! Moving on to pork, fish, chicken and eggs would be a culturally more acceptable start. Many health-conscious and climate-friendly people have already turned “flexi-tarians” (to use a word coined by a writer in The Economist, October 23, 2018) or “Mauka-tarians”(term used in the Indian Army where a normally vegetarian colleague occasionally enjoys meat as the opportunity (“mauka” in Hindi) comes by; your writer is one such).

The move to vegetarianism, which started around 1500-500 BCE by the Indians and the Greek, was connected with the idea of nonviolence towards animals, and promoted by religion and philosophy. The Tamil scholar-poet Thiruvalluvar, the Mauryan kings Chandragupta and Ashoka, and the Greek sage Pythagoras (of the theorem fame) were vegetarians.

The current trend towards an even more stringent form of vegetarianism, called the vegan diet, forbids any form of dairy products such as milk, cheese, curds, and indeed any animal-derived material. Today, there are about 300 million Indians who are vegetarians, and of these, perhaps about 2 millions might be vegans, but this might well need correction.


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