Our Planet and the health of all living organisms in it are deeply inter-connected. The American Society for Microbiology uses the term “One Health” to explain the microbial connection between the health of animals, humans, and the planet. This is the current scientific view. The wisdom behind it is ancient. Albert Einstein said that a human being is a part of the whole Universe, but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. He called it the “optical delusion of consciousness.” This delusion is “a kind of prison” for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task, he said, must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
If we disturb one part of this interconnected system, we can cause chaos in another. The coronavirus pandemic is one such chaos in point. It has forced us to pay attention to some startling facts.
How is human health connected to animal consumption?
Let us first examine the connection between human health and animal consumption. Animals are injected with toxic chemicals for faster growth. Majority of slaughterhouses in India are illegal and unhygienic. Animal farms are breeding grounds for dangerous pathogens. 70% of new infectious diseases are said to be zoonotic in origin (diseases transmitted from animals to humans). WHO representative Dr. Gauden Galea, while explaining the risk of zoonotic viruses and their potential for ‘spillover’ into human populations, said that as long as people eat meat, there is going to be some risk of infection. It is a well-established fact that long-term consumption of red meat is associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of mortality.
What about the environment and animal consumption?
There are equally startling facts that connect environmental degradation with meat production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported that the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading factors in the loss of biodiversity. And perhaps the leading source of water pollution. The IPCC, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations recently reported that a shift towards plant-based diets would help mitigate and adapt to climate change. In 2017, 15,364 world scientists signed a “Warning to Humanity” which, amongst other things, called for a drastic reduction of per capita consumption of meat.
Are the three elements really interconnected?
An example that completes this circle and demonstrates the connect between the three elements (animal consumption, human health and the environment) is the effect of air pollution caused by meat production on human respiratory health. Meat production is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, which produce several highly toxic by-products. Elevated greenhouse gas emissions from livestock have been associated with respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and COPD, as well as increased chances of acquiring pneumonia from bacterial infections.
So, what do we do?
Surprisingly, a simple change can make a big difference if done by sufficiently large number of us, i.e., move to a plant-based diet (vegetarian/vegan). Einstein is credited to have said years ago that nothing will benefit health or increase chances of survival on earth as the evolution of a vegetarian diet. This is hardly new to India! India has taught the world Ahimsa, Ayurveda and Yoga. Indian spiritual thinkers have long recognized the interconnection of all living things and the sacredness of all creation. We are what we eat. Ancient Indian wisdom links the food we eat to our physical well-being and spiritual progress. So why is India moving away from its legacy? Over the past decades more and more Indians have begun to eat meat. The Indian meat industry is growing at a CAGR of 22% every year. We are the largest exporter of beef in the world. That said, all is not lost. India still boasts of homing the largest vegetarian population in the world. Our Constitution lists compassion for all living beings as our fundamental duty. Therefore, if there is any country that can lead the world in creating a movement for an ethical diet, it is India.
A call to action
The question is – are we going to act on the lessons the current Covid-19 crisis has taught us or go back to “normal” after the crisis? Are we going to continue to condemn helpless living beings to a life of unimaginable terror for the sake of our palette when we know it endangers our own health and the planet we live in? This is a call to action for a move towards a healthier and inter- connected India that is at peace with all living beings. It will require a multi-pronged effort by a cross-section of stakeholders – the civil society, the Government and the Corporate sector. The role of the latter is crucial in bringing about a change. Corporates need to get more involved in making this a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. Currently Corporate involvement is insignificant if not entirely absent. As a start, a group of Corporate executives and business leaders have recently come forward to launch an India-focused Philanthropic fund, with an ambition to create a corpus of USD 15m to create a sustainable income stream to fund the movement – there is initial momentum with 20% already secured. The fund will seek to create partnerships with multiple stakeholders across India to elevate the plant-based diet movement in India – a movement that encourages people to embrace a plant-based lifestyle and create a healthier, more humane and sustainable India.