A friend of mine recently got into an online argument with an advocate for veganism. When I got dragged into it, I found that while a wholly vegan diet could certainly cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 70 percent, that’s not the whole story. Further research unearthed a more recent study at Johns Hopkins University, which says eating meat once a day, in conjunction with a plant-based diet, could actually be more beneficial to the environment all around.
Most of the meat-rich diets are influenced by the western ideal of a ‘balanced diet’- and here is where another problem lies.
While India is known for its vegetarian cuisine, there is also a major chunk of the country for whom plant-based diets are impractical and just as foreign as an American cheeseburger.
Traditional diets evolve to reflect the terrain and environment of a particular region – Ladakh, for example, had a great deal of sunlight but not much arable land, which makes it difficult for the average local resident to switch to a completely plant-based diet. So, while a vegan or vegetarian diet will give the same level of nutrition as a diet with animal products, it’s not economically viable.
Furthermore, plant-heavy diets put an enormous strain on soil health, given that in India alone you’d be growing food for over a billion people, you would need to cultivate the usual staples on a much larger scale, as well as up the production of plant protein sources to substitute for animal protein sources.
Cow and buffalo milk (which are drunk by the majority of India’s population) would presumably be replaced by almond, soy and/or oat milk (coconut milk doesn’t work as a replacement for animal milk since it doesn’t match up to the micronutritive quality of dairy), all three of which fall short in various ways to match up to the micronutrient and calorie content of animal milk, and which need to be produced in enough volume, year-round, to take the place of animal milk and milk products. A
dd to that the usual crops- pulses, vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices etc.- and there emerges a basic requirement for farmland that can’t be mitigated or reduced.
And that’s just for food crops.
The pressure on the soil would be immense and continuous; this would adversely affect its quality, since it would be impossible to let fields lie fallow for a season, which allows the soil to regain fertility after a cropping season.
Finally, forcing veganism on a nation-wide scale would adversely affect low-income sections of the population- beef is the cheapest source of protein, which is why the beef ban in Maharashtra hit the Dalit community the hardest.
It’s easy to be vegetarian in India for upper middle-class, city-dwelling caste Hindus. But being vegan requires more. There’s no doubt that veganism, as a lifestyle, is a moral choice; but it’s not a very practical one all the same.