Right to Eat is not a Right to increase Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Will the West reduce consumption of beef? Can eating of beef be reviewed through the environment prism? Paper by World Resources Institute-Shifting Diets for a Sustainable future. Will India take the lead?

One of the good things about Twitter is the articles that others post. A October 2021 article in The Economist titled Treating Beef  like Coal will make a big dent in Greenhouse gas emissions (ghgs) caught my attention.


Here are excerpts from the Economist article, “Two papers published this year in Nature Food find that food, especially beef, creates more ghgs than previously thought. In 2019 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the global food system was responsible for 21-37% of ghg emissions. Another recent paper, by Xiaoming Xu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and eight co-authors, allocates this impact among 171 crops and 16 animal products. It finds that animal-based foods account for 57% of agricultural ghgs, versus 29% for food from plants.” Please see diagram below. 


“Relative to other food sources, beef is uniquely carbon-intensive. Because cattle emit methane and need large pastures that are often created via deforestation, they produce seven times as many ghgs per calorie of meat as pigs do, and around 40% more than farmed prawns do.”


Beef is not only carbon-intensive but needs lots of water to produce.


Strategic expert Brahma Chellaney wrote in a 2015 article , “Meat production is about ten times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins, with one kilogram of beef, for example, requiring 15,415 litres of water.


Americans consume the most meat per capita, after Luxembourgers. Given the size of the US population, this is already a problem.”


Yet we in India rarely talk about it but get on the defensive w.r.t. production of coal based power.  


Brahma also wrote, “If the rest of the world caught up to the United States – where meat consumption averages 125.4 kilograms per person annually, compared with a measly 3.2 kilograms in India–the environmental consequences would be catastrophic.”


And some in India want us to move away from a plant-based to meat-based diet.


Brahma wrote, “Adopting a balanced, largely plant-based diet, with minimal consumption of red and processed meat, would help conserve natural resources, contribute to the fight against human-induced global warming, and reduce people’s risk of diet-related chronic diseases.”


Neither is one suggesting that the world turn vegetarian or vegan nor am I blaming the West or others for eating beef and animal based foods. Brahma also wrote, “But even a partial shift in meat-consumption habits – with consumers choosing options like chicken and seafood, instead of beef – could have a far-reaching impact.”


Rationally, please think of the impact on greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption.  


When we export beef like rice, India is exporting water. It is also not the case that India has surplus water. Yet, when climate change is spoken about, adverse effects of consumption of beef are hardly spoken about. 


We present in brief, words of learned on meat based diet and beef consumption.


1. In a Mckinsey article Decarbonising Grocery, “Unless people reduce CO₂, methane, and other greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, sea levels will rise and catastrophic weather events are likely. Currently, the food system accounts for 34 percent of global GHG emissions.


One of the biggest challenges is the key role dairy and meat play in the Western diet, as these products account for almost half of all product-related scope 3 emissions.


Leading researchers advocate a largely plant-based planetary health diet that ensures healthier lives for consumers, lower resource consumption, and lower GHG emissions. McKinsey analyses confirm that eating less meat leads to a substantial reduction in GHG emissions. For example, substituting beef with plant-based alternatives can lead to a 90 percent reduction of emissions.”

Damage in Himachal due to floods/landslides in August 2023. 

Look at India this year. Floods and landslides in Himachal and Uttarakhand have wrought havoc, more the former not forget their impact in Punjab and Haryana. Many parts of India received so much rain in a short spell that led to flash floods. Read  Climate change a key factor behind devastation in Himachal and Uttarakhand


Many parts of Europe faced unusually high temperatures in 2023. July 2023 brought record high temperatures and devastating floods across the U.S.


 2. According to this article in ScienceDirect   The Journal of Nutrition, “In conclusion, increased red meat consumption is cross-sectionally associated with greater risk of metabolic syndrome and inflammation.” What is Metabolic Syndrome? “It refers to the pathological state of metabolic disorders of proteins, facts, carbohydrates, and other substances in the human body. Source and to read more  In simple terms, it is obesity leading to higher strokes and heart disease.

The world can ignore the elephant in the room i.e. beef consumption at its own peril even though it is not the sole reason for climate change.   


Do Western countries respect animals like Indics respect the cow?

3. Dipankar Gupta, author and ex professor JNU, wrote in The Times of India in 2017, “Beef is banned in 24 out of 29 Indian states; besides our Constitution also directs us to protect the cow. Other countries have outlawed other kinds of meat for reasons not always religious. In Germany, Britain, Ireland, France, South Australia, among several other countries, dog meat is banned. In six states in America you cannot flip dog flesh on your hamburger grill.


At the same time, a fact check is advised for those who think banning beef is anti-secular. True, Hindus are forbidden to eat the cow but neither does Islam ordain that it be slaughtered. Muslims would certainly not lose their faith if they did not get a regular ration of beef. In fact, some of the best cuisines from Awadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, are mutton based.”


What about the sub-continent affection, by some, for cow meat?   

Ambedkar wrote in Thoughts on Pakistan, “Islamic law does not insist upon the slaughter of the cow for sacrificial purposes and no Musalman when goes to Haj sacrifices the cow in Mecca or Medina. We need to realise that every culture has its own sanctity. For example, in England they have similar sentiments with respect to horse and dog meat. Even during the war, when there was a great shortage of food, horse meat was never eaten.” (1941)


Indian Beef 

Vir Sanghivi wrote in Khaleej Times in 2014, “A lot of the Indian beef that goes to Bangladesh ends up being re-exported from there to Malaysia, Indonesia and, increasingly, to China where beef consumption is growing. So that’s one reason why Indian beef can be found throughout Asia. But there is also a scam. While the cow is sacred, the water buffalo is just another animal as far as Hindus are concerned. So there are no injunctions about slaughtering buffaloes.”


To the best of my knowledge beef is hardly legally exported to Bangladesh in large numbers. Interestingly in 2021, Bangladesh exported app $ 31 million worth of Frozen Bovine Meat to India. According to this Indiatomorrow July 2022 report Bangladesh has stopped imports of Indian meat that came in legally. “In 2021, Bangladesh exported $170k in Frozen Bovine Meat, making it the 92nd largest exporter of Frozen Bovine Meat in the world.” Source


However, cows are illegally smuggled into Bangladesh in huge numbers. According to this 2012 report in The Daily Star Dacca, “It is reported that 1.5 million cows worth $500 million are smuggled from India into Bangladesh each year. It is possible that beef of the smuggled cows in exported. To what extent smuggled cow beef is used for exports is anyone’s guess.


When we look at beef consumption we should focus on the adverse impact of beef production on the environment. 


Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Future 2016   (World Resources Institute)

D Balasaburamanian wrote in The Hindu in 2016, “The World Resources Institute (WRI), based in Washington, DC, USA, has recently suggested that people should reduce (if not abandon) eating beef: But the reasons for this suggestion are not belief-based but deeper and come from the angle of worrying about the methods to achieve a sustained future for feeding the growing population in the coming years. WRI has come out with an eminently readable and well-researched report.”


Excerpts from WRI research paper, “Overconsumption of protein occurs in all of the world’s regions, and it is rising in developing and emerging economies. In addition, the share of animal-based protein is growing in people’s diets relative to that of plant-based protein.


Production of animal-based foods accounted for more than three-quarters of global agricultural land use and around two-thirds of agriculture’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, while only contributing 37 percent of total protein consumed by people in that year.


Global demand for beef is projected to increase by 95 percent between 2006 and 2050, with much of this growth in countries where current per person consumption is low, such as China and India.”


We are in 2023 and seeing the impact of climate change. Think what would happen over the next twenty-five years.


“At the global level, beef production is a major driver of agricultural resource use. One-quarter of the Earth’s landmass, excluding Antarctica, is used as pasture, and beef accounts for one-third of the global water footprint of farm animal production. Although some beef production uses native pasture, increases in beef production now rely on clearing forests and woody savannas.


These results suggest that reducing consumption of animal-based foods among the world’s wealthier populations could enable the world to adequately feed 10 billion people by 2050 without further agricultural expansion. Curbing agricultural expansion would also avoid future greenhouse gas emissions from land-use change.”


To read and download full paper  


KP Prabhakaran Nair wrote in esamskriti, “Cattle rearing contributes to global warming from the belch, containing methane, (a strong greenhouse gas), that could contribute as much as 60 per cent to global warming. The World Resources Institute specifically recommends “reduce beef consumption”. Cutting down beef in the daily diet offers both dietary and environmental benefits. The environmental benefits are clear: it saves agriculture for land use and reduces emission of greenhouse gases.” 



1. Changing food habits is not easy. It calls for a continuous communication with the people with the adverse effects of beef consumption and export. People need to be explained a logical way. Bans do not work. In India, Courts and Politicians need to be enlightened too.


2In a recent interview to Business Today, the SAP CEO Christian Clean said, “we will also track and trace the carbon footprint. So, in the future, when you buy new products or new ingredients for your products with SAP systems, our Green Ledger initiative can track and trace the carbon footprint—not only from your direct suppliers, but also from all of their suppliers—to make sure you can measure the carbon footprint, including Scope 3 emissions.

Can the carbon footprint be printed on the packaging material of a product just like packed month, date of manufacture, batch number and price?  

Just because the people of northeast India consume beef in large quantity does not mean the rest have to emulate. In Arunachal Pradesh, what looks like a Buffalow is actually called a Mithun. This author cannot comment with surely whether consumption of a Mithun has as adverse impact as consumption of buffalo meat. Sources state that Mithun is only used during large festivals. Other time beef is meant to mean cow meat that comes from Assam.


Can we stop looking at Beef consumption through the prism of religion and instead realize its adverse impact on the world’s environment?  


Can India take a lead in pointing out the adverse impact of beef consumption worldiwide? 


In 2018-19 India exported buffalo meat worth $ 3.6 billion. Surely, a rising India can live without such exports.


The author is not an expert on the subject so happy to be enlightened.


Also read

1. Dietary shifts webinar recap

2. The Truth about Cow Slaughter in India  




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