Go organic for your health, and that of the planet, say experts

Meat industry is one of the largest contributing factors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The global meat market has grown more than four times in the last 50 years (Photo by Onkar Singh Janoti)

In the third week of January this year, some villages in Punjab, northern India, faced sudden rainfall and an unusually heavy hailstorm. A layer of hailstones covered a large part of Sangroor district, and many fields were submerged. This spoiled crops sown in more than 3,000 acres in just one district and caused heavy financial losses to the already debt-ridden farmers.

“Our whole village has been ruined. Where will we go? What to do now?” 45-year-old Kulwinder Singh of Manki Village in Sangroor told India Climate Dialogue. Almost all the farmers in the village lost their crop of wheat, gram and mustard.

Extreme weather events are now more common. Heavy rain and hailstorm ruined crops in several thousand acres in Punjab in January 2019 (Photo by Joginder Jit Singh)

Such extreme weather events have become more frequent and more severe. Experts fear that the impacts of such disasters will increase in the coming years due to climate change. The special report (SR1.5) released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October last year has threat to food security as one of its core issues.

One of the many factors that cause climate change is the pattern of food production and consumption. Several recent studies have shown that eating habits and food production methods have to be drastically changed, particularly in the rich nations, to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere. The commercial meat industry bears much of the responsibility as it uses large amount of energy to process, conserve and transport its products.

Meat industry causing global warming

Though consumption of meat is a worldwide phenomenon, per capita consumption of meat is much higher in rich countries. US, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Italy and Austria are the nations with highest per capita meat consumption.  David Cutler, a 65-year-old who lives in New Jersey, says he just can’t think of life without beef. “Beef is my favourite. I love aged beef. Prime cut aged beef.”

Many of his fellow countrymen also relish beef and it shows. Whereas the average annual per capita meat consumption in the world is around 42 kg, in the US it is over 120 kg. For Australia, New Zealand and Canada the corresponding figures are 111.5, 106.4 and 94.3, respectively. Moreover, most of the meat the rich world consumes comes from industrial production.

Production of meat has increased four times worldwide in the last five decades. In 1963 the total annual meat production of the world was 78 million ton which is now more than 330 million ton. Between 2016 and 2018 there was an increase of more than 13 million ton in meat production. In 2016 the total meat production was 317.17 million ton which reached to 330.51 million ton last year.

Experts across the world have red-flagged this “unsustainable” lifestyle and eating habits. Recently a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health has warned the world about the “catastrophic” damage which the current food production pattern and dietary habits can inflict on humanity. Another report by an alliance of around 40 civil society groups – working in the field of climate change and sustainability – last year stressed on transforming agriculture to changing food habits.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by agricultural sector is around 15% of the total, almost the same as the total GHGs emission by all vehicles worldwide. Half of the agricultural emissions come from meat production, because

  • Industrial meat production consumes a lot of resources (grain, water etc.) for rearing of animals, especially cows and buffalos
  • Almost one fourth of available land is required for grazing
  • It destroys biodiversity and freshwater
  • Livestock (mainly cows) emit a lot of methane gas

Meat consumption is very high in countries like the US and Australia (Photo by Onkar Singh Janoti)

A University of Oxford study shows that meat rich diets emit 2.5 times more carbon dioxide – the main GHG – than vegan meals. The world population is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050 and the current eating and production pattern will be quite untenable for the planet.

“Extremely industrialised and chemicalised method of growing food has had major environmental impacts,” says environmentalist Sunita Narain, who is a commissioner of the EAT-Lancet report. “Unless we reduce the footprint of the food we eat, we will have a major challenge in the world.”

Industrial beef production causes most emissions as it requires a lot of grain and fodder. Roughly 6 to 7 kg of feed is required to get 1 kg of beef. In India, however, around 80% of meat consumption is of poultry.

“Industrial (production of) beef, be it cow or buffalo, is highly unsustainable for the environment. It is very inefficient use of very precious agricultural resources, but westerners are eating too much beef. And this is just one example. In all other cases too, their per capita consumption of energy is much too high,” says Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary to the government of India and visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Indian Centre for Research in International Economic Relations (ICRIER). “Unfortunately, rich Indians are also following their highly unsustainable way of life.”

Changing eating pattern, growing aspiration

India has a large section of its population which is poor and malnourished. More than 60 million children below the age of five years have stunted growth and around 53 million are underweight. Therefore, protein rich food in such a country becomes essential. However, there is a contrast as well. In the last three decades, a large affluent and middle class has emerged which makes up more than 250 million of India’s 1.3 billion people.

India’s rich are also eating more meat, but the per capita consumption is still very low compared to the world average (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

“We have to understand that the western world also sets the aspirations for food across the world. Today China is eating a lot more meat. Today the Indian middle class is eating a lot more meat than it ate before, because the aspiration of what is good food becomes food for the affluent,” says Narain.

The consumption is still low, but India has increased its meat export sharply in the last few decades. With more than 1.9 million ton, India is the second largest exporter of buffalo meat in the world.

Vulnerability factor

In India the obvious impact of climate change is on agriculture. The glaring example is Sundarbans in the eastern part of country where the increasing salinity of water has made paddy farming impossible. Increasing frequency and severity of droughts, floods and storms has also hit agriculture adversely.

Harjeet Singh, Global expert on Adaptation and Sustainability for the NGO ActionAid, says, “We are highly vulnerable to global warming and erratic weather. World Bank has also said that we can lose trillions to the impacts of climate change. Majority of our economic sectors are highly sensitive to climate change impacts.  52% of our agriculture remains unirrigated which means that people have little capacity to adapt to the erratic weather patterns we are facing.”

Organic food a safe alternative

As more Indians become aware of the need to eat healthy, they find markets flooded with products full of chemicals. According to a report submitted by India’s parliamentary committee on pesticides, there are more than 250 registered pesticide products in the country and the total market of chemical pesticides was projected around $6.8 billion in 2017.

These chemicals are sprayed in the fields to kill pests and eventually enter our body through the food we eat. Chlorpyrifos, a chemical which affects the central nervous system, was found to be 117 times the permissible limit in cauliflowers grown in Punjab. Similarly, DDT, a carcinogen that is officially banned, was present 108 times above the permissible limit in tomatoes grown in Uttar Pradesh. It is estimated that more than three dozen deadly chemicals enter the body of an average Indian through the food he or she eats every day. In such a scenario, organic farming can provide an alternative solution which is not only environment friendly but also helps fight the climate change problem.

Organic farming is a safe alternative for humans and the planet; Ramesh Bhadu, a kinnow grower in Haryana, says he has reduced the cost of farming by more than 10 times by going organic (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

A study on “reducing the environmental impacts on EU agriculture” concluded that organic farming can help fight climate change by reducing GHG emissions. According to this study organic farming brings “improved system resilience to the effects of climate change, maintaining and improving biodiversity on farmland, conserving soil fertility, reducing eutrophication and water pollution and improving food security and farmers’ sovereignty.”

Price sensitive Indian consumers sometimes shy away from organic food without factoring in the cost of eating food laced with chemicals. Besides providing safe food to consumers, organic farming also reduces a lot of financial burden on farmers. Ramesh Bhadu, a 42-year-old Kinnow (a citrus fruit) grower of Dhani-Sherawali village in Sirsa district of Haryana used to spend around USD 10500 every year on pesticides and fertilisers on his 56-acre orchard. He turned to organic farming and within five years reduced the cost of farming by more than 10 times.

“I stopped using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Now I use waste decomposer to produce organic manure and it has allowed me to say goodbye to all expensive chemical pesticides and fertiliser. Last year my total spending on my crop was not more than 50,000 rupees (USD700),” says Bhadu.

Seventy-year-old Virendra Dubey, a farmer in Rajpur village of Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh, grows wheat, paddy, mustard, pulses and vegetables on his five-acre farm. Dubey has halved the cost of inputs since he turned to organic farming.

“My cost of production is down by 50% in the last four years and I believe I can reduce it to 25% of what I was spending earlier,” says Dubey.

“I am not saying that you have no right to eat meat. However, if you care about your health and the health of the planet you will eat meat in moderation and you will make sure that the meat you eat is not grown in a chemicalised, industrialised way. That is your responsibility, both to your body and to the planet.” Says Sunita Narain.

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