September 16, 2016

Veganism is a Privilege, not a Cure.

65 million Indian people live in slums. 200 million are undernourished. Being a vegan will not change that.


*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.


Many mindfulness practitioners include veganism as part of their daily lifestyle. Becoming an ethical vegan is one way to be mindful about harming animals or the environment.

In the Western world, I hear vegans say that veganism can offer a nutritious and complete diet for everyone and anyone. I beg to differ. In my opinion, choosing to be vegan is a privilege.

I have been told that, even though I run an animal rescue in India, what I am doing is pointless, because I am not a vegan activist. I have even been told (by several vegans) that the only way to save a stray bull on the street with a bleeding leg is to become vegan. I still do not understand that advice (our medical team cared for the bull’s wounds and he is fine), but I try to remember that each of us think differently.

However, when PETA says that being vegan can solve world hunger, we need to take a step back for a closer look:

“Not only does raising animals for food gobble up precious resources and produce tons of waste, it also steals food from hungry people. Raising animals for food is extremely inefficient. For every pound of food that they eat, only a fraction of the calories are returned in the form of edible flesh. If we stopped intensively breeding farmed animals and grew crops to feed humans instead, we could easily feed every human on the planet with healthy and affordable vegetarian foods.”

It sounds great, right? In theory anyway—but in reality?

Let’s take a look.

India is, above and beyond, the country with the highest rate of vegetarianism in the world, at 48 percent. In India, being “veg” also excludes eggs. On paper, this sounds fantastic. Westerners might picture a country of meditators and yogis, eating their cruelty-free diet. We see it as something to aspire to in order to live a mindful life.

However, many people tend to forget that the place where these practices originated is not a developed country. India is home to over 400 million people who are living in poverty. These folks are not doing yoga nor are they meditating and 50 percent of them are starving.

This is also a country where there are thousands of cows and bulls roaming the streets because the Hindu religion declares that the cow is sacred and cannot be killed for food. Get this though—India is also the world leader in exporting beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It exported an estimated 2 million metrics tons of beef in 2015.

Here are some other alarming facts:

If these children could get the appropriate micronutrients in their diets, like Vitamin A, it could reduce child mortality by an average 23 percent. Adequate iron could improve school performance. Vitamin A, iron, and other micronutrients, iodine foliate and zinc are needed for a child’s brain development as well as their physical development.

Now, you’d think you could find lots of vegan/veg options to fill these categories, especially because India has such a high percentage of veg eaters. Well, unfortunately, that is not the reality. I took a look at what foods would fill these needs and then I took a look to see if I, a privileged white person, could get any of them in the Indian local market nearest to where I live.

Vitamin A:
Sweet Potatoes – no
Carrots – seasonal
Dark leafy greens, like kale or spinach: no kale, and spinach is seasonal
Dried apricots – yes but expensive
Cantaloupe – no
Red Peppers – no
Mangos – yes but seasonal and expensive

Lentils – yes
Black beans – no
Brown rice – yes, but expensive and must travel to the more touristy market to buy
Pumpkin – yes but seasonal
Broccoli – yes but seasonal and expensive and mostly for expats
Potatoes – yes
Tofu – no, must travel to the more touristy market
Lima beans – no
Spinach – yes but seasonal
Kale, whole wheat pasta, sun dried tomatoes, strawberries, sunflower seeds – no, no, no, no and no.

If you lived in an urban area, many of these things could be found although culturally they would still not be part of an average Indian’s diet nor could someone living in poverty afford it.

Also, it is estimated that nearly 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables, and 20 percent of the food grains that are produced are lost due to inefficient supply chain management and do not reach the consumer markets.

This means that even if you stopped feeding food to livestock, the corrupt supply chain would inhibit the crops from getting to where they are needed. And, even if the produce got to where it supposed to go, would those living in poverty be able to afford them? These are questions that PETA has not looked into.

The statistics make everything look simple, but their assessment is not taking into account the culture of a developing country like India.

I am lucky, as an animal lover, that I have never really liked meat. My mom used to have to force me to drink milk as a child. I thought it was gross…icky.

I did eat meat here and there over the years, but after an experience with a cow in India six years ago, I decided to stop eating meat altogether. While I was standing in the main square of Dharamsala and conversing with a volunteer veterinarian from Belgium, a stray bull walked up behind her and used his nose to place her hand on top of his head for a scratch. We were both in such shock that a bull would do the same thing almost every dog we know does when wanting affection. It was at that moment I decided to go vegetarian.

A few years later, I decided I would try to become vegan. After learning the horrors of the dairy industry it was not a hard decision to make. Plus, in India, it directly affected our work. The more dairy products I consumed, the more bulls and cows would be dumped on the streets, which in turn means, the more stray bull and cow injury and disease cases our team would have to attend to.

This is because many families in rural areas like Dharamsala own cows. A cow provides milk for a family like this and usually some neighbors too, so it also provides an income. However, as the cow needs to give birth in order to produce milk, if the cow gives birth to a bull, it is either dumped on the street or passively killed (not fed). In addition, as soon as the cow can no longer produce a calf, that cow will be dumped on the street. So you can see my dilemma.

Unfortunately, I ended up becoming iron deficient. I wanted to be able to have a diet where no animal was harmed. I knew it would not have this grand impact on alleviating world hunger, but I wanted to live a life where I was not harming any animals.

I felt completely lethargic for months. I finally had a blood test and realized what was wrong. I had to change my diet. I even started to eat some chicken again when I felt depleted and could not find any local vegetables that would satisfy my nutritional needs. In fact for the past two months, the only local vegetables available were gourds and okra.

On a sadder note, one of the children in my village is three years old and has the brain of an eight-month-old. This is due to the fact that his mother is vegan. Her breast milk stopped coming and she refused to give her child formula because it had dairy in it. He never got the necessary nutrients so his brain could form properly so he is stunted. This family could have afforded a better diet.

So, how can we spout that veganism as a mindful diet will solve the world’s problems or hunger, when choosing a local vegan kale and chickpea organic quinoa salad for lunch is not even close to an option for most people? 400 million people in India live in poverty. So the majority of a mother and child’s diet is chapatti, rice and maybe a small helping of dal (lentils) when they have money.

I think organizations like PETA and us privileged Westerners sometimes forget that not all vegetables are grow in all places. We forget that different cultures eat differently. We are uninformed about how corruption can ruin a supply chain. We think not eating meat is cruelty free, but is sending the cows to the meat-eating country bordering our own being kind? Maybe it would be kinder to feed it to a starving child lacking in iron in our own country?

All this grey area and I have not even approached other cultural issues that include the fact that 59 percent of Indian women are anemic due to a diet low in iron and folic acid.

One cause for malnutrition that being a vegan will not impact, however, is the fact that half of India does not have or use toilets, and there has been a link established between high rates of malnutrition and lack of proper sanitation.

A recent story in the New York Times explored the link between high rates of child malnutrition in India and the country’s poor sanitation, shedding light on another potential contributor to a protracted problem. For India, the issue is not a lack of food only, but also a lack of toilets for its population—one-half of India’s population, at least 620 million people, defecates outside.

The interaction between diarrheal disease and malnutrition is well established.

The World Health Organization estimates that 50 percent of malnutrition is associated with repeated diarrhea or intestinal worm infections from unsafe water or poor sanitation or hygiene.

Diarrhea is often caused by a lack of clean water for proper hand-washing. A lack of toilets further exacerbates the problem as feces on the ground contribute to contaminated drinking water and water resources in general.

Things are always more complex than they look, especially global issues like poverty and malnutrition. Not one thing alone—not veganism, not building toilets, not fixing corrupt supply chains, not education, not women’s rights—will fix all the problems in India, or the world. I do not know the answer myself. I am not sure anyone does. What I do know is that veganism alone will not cure world hunger.

I am not trying to discourage anyone from living a vegan lifestyle or to exclude it from a broader mindful lifestyle. Let’s just be realistic about it. Let’s be aware that not everyone has our privileges and let’s not judge those whose lives we cannot even imagine having. Let’s just try to appreciate the fact that nothing is quite as it seems.

Let’s try to understand that we are so privileged that we can choose our diet instead of wondering where our next meal will come from.


Relephant reads:

Dear Vegan, there’s Something I have to Say.

A Meat-Eating Yogi: Is a Veggie Diet the Only Option for a Spiritual Person?


Author: Deb Jarrett

Image: courtesy of the author

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

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