(Image source: daniel mcbane)
A favourite topic in India’s primary schools is to write an essay on “Cow, our mother”(that translates much better in Hindi). Almost everyone who is a school passout has written this essay that goes along the lines of extolling the virtues of this animal. Apart from the obvious uses of milk, cow dung is used for lining the inside of mud huts and cow urine is supposed to have medical benefits. Morarji Desai, India’s 4th prime minister, was a longtime practitioner of urine therapy. Desai stated that drinking urine was the perfect medical solution for the millions of Indians who cannot afford medical treatment (source). But not one word is spoken about the cow’s second most popular offering, beef.
Cows are held sacred in Hindu religion. The cow is regarded as an all giving creature that should be treated as a mother. Kamadhenu being the most accurate depiction/representation of this belief. And thus the deep reverence for cows, and a strong religious & social taboo on beef. Western visitors to India will attest to the fact that beef is very hard to find in India, in fact most western satire has an act about a westerner(usually an American) ordering a cheeseburger in India only to find it made with a vegetarian patty!
Ah beef! A very favoured meat of the western world. In my first trip to the US a few years ago, I found it difficult to find chicken(& even pork) at most places. It was all beef, thick loaded steaks or heavy patties stuffed with tons of bacon and cheese inside a bun. But is a growing habit of beef eating doing any good? The short answer is no.
The long answer, well lets examine this from two perspectives that we care about most, health & environment.
First, health. Beef is classified as red meat. Even though beef is high in protein, it is also very high in fat. There are several published studies that point towards increased risk of heart disease linked with high consumption of beef(or red meat). Red meat consumption is also linked to colorectal cancers. There are the obvious quality issues, the most recent one being horse meat sold as beef in the UK. And lets be really honest with ourselves, we don’t believe in controlled consumption anymore. We eat what we like, when we like. Saying that we can control our food intake is just wrong. If you think it is so easy to control your food intake, pick up the one food item/group you consume the most and start consuming it only to its required dietary intake amount. Go ahead, prove me wrong!
Then there is the environmental impact of beef production. There are three aspects to this, resource consumption by the animal(food, water etc), emissions by the animal and resource consumption by the processing industry. Beef has the highest water requirement of any other animal food product, almost 3 times higher than its nearest rival. Cows also require a lot of feed. A pound of beef (live weight) requires about seven pounds of feed, compared to more than three pounds for a pound of pork and less than two pounds for a pound of chicken(source). This feed is not lying around, it has to be grown that requires more energy and resources going into it. Add mass production to these processes and you have certainly added fuel driven implements in the mix. Add the “organic, free range” buzzwords to it and you just expanded the grazing scope of cattle.
Cows are a notorious source of methane emission(also know in common parlance as farting & burping). With the scale of cattle production we have today, you can do that math. And while you are doing the math, also add to it the resource and environmental impact of the beef processing industry & the supply chain that gets the meat to the supermarket counters.
We should be glad that the second most populous country in the world is one of the lowest consumers of beef. And with the holy cow, it is going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
This post is a part of writer’s block series, where I write on topics suggested by friends on Facebook. This topic(cows) was suggested by Vidur.