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Veg or non-veg: India at the crossroads

One of the most detailed research reports examining the significant challenges to the Indian environment due to increased production and consumption of livestock products.

A few related points

Rapidly increasing production & consumption

India is now among the world's largest producers of milk, poultry meat, and eggs. It has the world's biggest dairy herd, 300 million strong, comprised of cows and buffalo, and is the second largest global producer of cows' milk (after the U.S.) and first in buffalo milk. India is also the world's top national milk consumer, and demand for milk and other dairy products is growing by 7 to 8 percent a year. Between 1997 and 2007, the average Indian's milk consumption rose by 15 percent.

Beef from buffalo is now the second most widely consumed meat in India after poultry. India is also the world's fourth largest producer of eggs and fifth largest producer of poultry meat, principally from chickens. In 2010, India was the world's fastest-growing poultry market, outpacing Brazil, China, the U.S., the European Union (E.U.), and Thailand. On a given day, at least 650 million farmed birds—primarily chickens raised for meat and laying hens—are alive in India.

Carbon emissions

India's livestock, particularly the enormous population of cows and buffalo, are a significant source of GHGs. India's emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from livestock are larger than any other country's.

Although India's GHG emissions from agriculture fell between 1994 and 2007 to about 18 percent of the total, the livestock sector in 2007 produced 334 million tons of CO2 eq. Enteric fermentation, from the digestive processes of ruminants, including cows, buffalo, sheep, and goats, is responsible for a majority of this—63.4 percent—or 212 million tons of CO2 eq. (Cultivation of rice, a key Indian crop, contributes just 21 percent of India's agricultural emissions, or 70 million metric tons of CO2 eq.)

A lifecycle study of GHG emissions of various foods by researchers at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute found that a non-vegetarian meal including mutton meat from lamb or sheep) emitted 1.8 times the GHGs of a vegetarian meal without dairy or eggs.

Sustainability

Can India provide enough food for its people as well as support hundreds of millions of cows and buffalo and billions of chickens in increasingly industrialized conditions? And can it do so while protecting its natural resources and the global climate, and ensuring progress in human development?

India & Factory Farming

Just 10 percent of India's poultry production remains small-scale or "backyard." About 90 percent of the more than two billion "broiler" (meat) chickens produced in India each year are raised in industrial-style facilities, according to the Poultry Federation of India. In addition, approximately 80 percent of India's eggs come from the 140 million to 200 million egg-laying hens confined to small, wire "battery" cages stacked in rows in indoor sheds.

Since the 1970s, India's poultry sector has seen vast changes. Once reliant on small, backyard flocks raised by individual farmers (many of them women), today the sector is almost wholly industrialized, vertically integrated, and controlled by a handful of large companies. Industrial-scale poultry farms containing 50,000 or 100,000 or more birds now surround large cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, a center of the information technology industry. Varied breeds of indigenous chickens have been replaced by international hybrids, bred to gain weight quickly on a diet of grain-based feed, often supplemented by antibiotics and hormones to promote growth. Soy and maize make up as much as 95 percent of the bulk of chicken feed.

Pollution

One growing environmental problem with concentrated cow or buffalo populations is the large amount of waste that is created. Sirohi explains that while efforts have been made to ban large dairies in peri-urban areas because disposal of the wastes is such a problem, most have not succeeded

Sacred Cow no More

Male calves become, in effect, by-products of the dairy industry. They are regularly abandoned or sent to illegal slaughterhouses—processed for meat, the rennet in their stomachs, which is used in making cheese, and for leather. Dairies also regularly release cows no longer producing enough milk to justify the costs of their feed or fodder into city streets.

In 2001, amid fears that the role of cows inIndian society was changing irrevocably, and with it the very nature of the Indian state, the government established the National Commission on Cattle. In its final report, the commission called for a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter and the prohibition of crossbreeding Indian cattle with foreign breeds. 

Ultimately, however, India's Department of Agriculture pushed to reject the commission's proposals and recommended policy changes that were almost diametrically opposed to those of the commission. These included lifting all bans on Indian meat exports and regulations on processed meat imports; reducing the minimum age for slaughter of bullocks (young or castrated male cows); and removing all restrictions on buffalo slaughter

Land

Deforestation to clear land for pasture, fodder extraction, expanding agricultural cultivation of crops in forests and on grazing lands, and the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers to grow crops like maize and soybeans are all contributing to rising rates of soil erosion, salinization, alkalization, pollution, and desertification in India. Hunger for land for both crops and livestock is also a primary cause of biodiversity loss.

Water

India is the world's largest consumer of fresh water and user of groundwater. India and China, with less than 10 percent of the world's available water between them, support one-third of the world's population.

But water shortages as a result of climate change, urbanization, population growth, and the water needs of agriculture and food production represent significant challenges to continued rapid economic growth across Asia in coming decades, according to a 2009 UN report on water and development. The report notes with concern the rising consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products in fast-growing developing countries, which are, "much more water-intensive than the simpler diets they are replacing. Dairy, egg, poultry, and beef production require substantial amounts of water for pasture, to grow feed and fodder, to clean and cool facilities, and for the animals to drink.

The by-products of animal agriculture—animal wastes and run-off from pesticides and fertilizers used on feed crops— enter India's rivers, streams, and groundwater. These organic and inorganic pollutants contribute to the contamination of an estimated 70 percent of India's surface water and an increasing percentage of its groundwater, according to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Production of meat resulted in 3.5 million tons of wastewater in 2007. That is nearly 100 times as much wastewater as India's sugar industry generates and 150 times more wastewater than the manufacture of fertilizer creates.