Ask most people, and they would agree with the suggestion that India is the largest vegetarian country in the world.
Given all the publicity surrounding the status of cows in the Hindu religion, that’s not surprising. We’ve all seen enough video clips of cows lounging in roadways or wandering through a marketplace in some village to believe that the majority of Indians don’t eat animal foods.
However, as a recent and very insightful article in the Financial Express reported, that impression has been nurtured by the country’s “best brand ambassadors from political, spiritual and yoga circles.” As the story noted, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi — who, by the way, could pass for the younger brother of The Most Interesting Man in the World — is himself a vegetarian who recently fasted for nine days during the Hindu religious festival of Navaratri.
The demographic and consumption data paint a more complicated picture, however.
India’s largest household surveys, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office, have periodically collected a month’s worth of consumption data from more than 100,000 households for the last 20-plus years, defining “non-vegetarians” as anyone consuming eggs or fish or meat or any combination of those foods.
“By this definition,” the newspaper reported, “62.3% of Indian households consumed non-veg food in 2011-12, up from 56.7% in 1993-94, and 58.2% in 2004-05. The trend is quite clear — non-vegetarianism is on the rise.”
A more recent Sample Registration System Baseline Survey from 2014 pegged the percentage of Indians over the age of 15 who are non-vegetarians at 71%.
What Indians Actually Eat
So much for the notion that the 1.25 billion people in India are predominantly vegetarians.
What’s more interesting, though, is what the story described as the “chicken revolution,” the growing proportion of Indian households consuming chicken, which has increased nearly 500% from 1993 to 2012. During that same time period, the fish consumption remained stable, mutton consumption plummeted to half its former levels, and beef (buffalo meat) has stayed about the same, at only 6% of Indian households.
Why the dramatic change with chicken?
According to the Financial Express’ analysis, the key has been a “structural change” in poultry production, with the establishment of large-scale, modern hatcheries serving smaller growers. As a result, broiler meat production has risen from less than 200,000 metric tons 25 years ago to nearly 3 million metric tons in 2012. Egg production also tripled during that time period to more than 66 billion annually.
Those increases are significant, but they pale in the context of India’s population and the actual composition of its residents’ diets.
Among countries with a comparable per-capita income, India has the lowest level of meat consumption, at only 6.4 pounds per person per year, nearly two-thirds of which is chicken. By comparison, Pakistan, which has a lower per-capita income than India, consumes four times as much meat per person.
Shockingly, Indians average only about 1% of their caloric intake, and only 3% of their protein intake from eggs, fish and meat. “Given the high incidence of malnutrition in India, especially among children,” the newspaper stated, “this is somewhat concerning for nutritionists.”
The Financial Times’ reporter posed the obvious rhetorical question: “Will government policy promote egg or meat consumption for better nutrition?” and then answered his own question: “The chances are dim.
Part of the solution might be a reduction of the import duty on chicken legs, and construction of more “modernized, well-equipped abattoirs,” the story suggested.
At the end of the day, those nutritional imperatives belie the conventional “wisdom” that vegetarian diets are just as healthy as those that include meat and dairy.
Veggie diets are fine — if you’re shopping at Whole Foods and you can afford all the alt-meat products Western food science has concocted.
For the hundreds of millions of Indians consuming 1% of their calories from animal foods, however, not so much.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.