VIEW: Vegetal impulse —Saleem H Ali
Our culture needs to change about how we regard meat consumption as a status symbol and pity the poor who can only have meat a few times a week. Instead of showing them pity, the relatively elite readership of this paper should instead congratulate them on their more healthy diet of daal
Two decades ago, the famed Pakistani-American writer Sara Suleri Goodyear titled her memoirs with a phrase that many young Pakistanis might not even recognise today — Meatless Days. The title refers to a time when the government enforced a ban on meat sales on certain days, and is used by the author as a metaphor for the complex mélange of identities that an elite Pakistani woman might feel growing up with conflicting values of vice and virtue. With high-class verbosity and grand sardonic style, the book presents a loss of innocence that needs to be recognised by many Muslims at a deeper level as well.
What does it mean to be a carnal being in terms of our desires, particularly with regard to food?
One of my young relatives encountered the shock of learning that we humans consume other sentient beings for sustenance when she saw a goat being slaughtered outside a butcher shop at the tender age of five. Ten years have passed since then and she is still a vegetarian.
While such a drastic reaction may not occur with most children exposed to such scenes, we need to consider the impact of meat consumption most critically. Ramazan is a good time for such reflection. Clearly, human societies have consumed meat since time immemorial but the amount and level of meat consumption in current times is unprecedented. The only societies that had such high levels of meat consumption in antiquity were hunter-gatherers in extremely cold climates such as the Inuit or the Saami in the Northern Arctic. These societies were able to sustain such consumption because their population densities were very low and they had highly kinetic lifestyles. In most other areas, grains and vegetables have always dominated human consumption with meat being an occasional delicacy.
Sadly, that is no longer the case in much of the world — except perhaps with one notable exception: our neighbour India. The vegetarian diet of most Indians is something Pakistanis should not deride but rather respect. When environmental analysts compare the development challenges of India versus China, they often note India has an advantage over China in terms of consumption behaviour since more than 30 percent of the country’s population is vegetarian and more than 70 percent consists of very infrequent meat-eaters.
Meat production, particularly beef, is several-fold more water-intensive. China’s population is far more carnivorous and with affluence increasing, demand on meat consumption is also likely to increase. Water will be the most significant limiting resource for much of Asia in coming decades. It is no wonder then that the Chinese government is also considering a campaign to go back to more traditional Chinese diets that were dominated by green vegetables but were subsumed by the carnal impulse of development.
There are also broader environmental reasons for reducing meat consumption. Cattle require several-fold more arable land per unit of calories provided and also contribute 18 percent of annual carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change. Goats and camels are much better in this regard because they can survive on dry grasslands, but only in small herds and not at the huge demographic scale that we seem to be demanding in Pakistan.
The impact of poultry farms in environmental terms can be less if chicken waste is appropriately harvested for fertiliser and chicken feed is derived from non-food productive lands or from by-products of food crops. Industrial chicken farming has other concerns if it is not properly managed since disease vectors can flourish among poultry that are trapped in confined areas — this was apparent with the avian flu crisis two years ago (which was far worse than the current “swine flu” crisis).
It is important to note that often many lay observers think that the manure and other faecal production by farm animals are inherently positive since the provide fertilisers for agriculture. However, usually waste is not managed for such purposes and often ends up in waterways, causing algal pollution that threatens fisheries and also causes other public health concerns.
While there is no chance of vegetarianism ever prevailing in Pakistan, we can perhaps go back to the time of meatless days when meat consumption was an occasional luxury rather than a culinary obligation. Our culture needs to change about how we regard meat consumption as a status symbol and pity the poor who can only have meat a few times a week. Instead of showing them pity, the relatively elite readership of this paper should instead congratulate them on their more healthy diet of daal and saag.
I would go a step further and say that we should try to emulate the “poor person’s diet”. There will be far fewer clogged arteries and less healthcare expenditure if meat consumption was reduced in Muslim lands. Even from an Islamic perspective, most ethnographic accounts of Arabia in the sixth century would show that meat consumption was quite occasional among the diet of the tribes of the desert. Goats were a prized commodity for their milk and camels for transport and only at certain times in their life cycle were they slaughtered for meat consumption.
The point, gentle readers, is not to give you guilt trips in Ramazan about your tikkas, kebabs and aaloo gosht, but rather to make you consider the golden principles of temperance and responsible consumption.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont. His forthcoming book “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future” will be published by Yale University Press in October 2009. www.saleemali.net