Monday, 28 September 2015

Climate Justice and What We Eat

These days there is a raging debate in India about ‘our right to eat just about anything we want to’. Our right, yes. And what about our duty to Mother Earth? Who will worry about that? In this article I try to explain how the present food preferences of a large chunk of the human population are seriously jeopardizing the future of our planet by contributing to global warming and climate change etc.

Each community has its share of educated people, and this article is addressed to them. In any case, as Modiji has said often, 65% of our population is below the age of 35 years. And this population of youngsters is more likely to be educated than people in the previous generation, particularly because of the easier access to the Internet. I exhort these youngsters to imbibe the essence of what I am saying here, and then show off (!) how ‘cool’ they are when it comes to appreciating matters of global concern.

There are three main types of people when it comes to eating: Vegans, non-vegan vegetarians, and non-vegetarians.


Vegans are vegetarians who do not consume even dairy products. They eat only plant-based foods. This is the most eco-friendly way of living. I quote Ami Sedghi: 

Meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. IME state that to produce 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water whereas to produce 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water.

But there are certain nutrition-related problems a vegan has to tackle, particularly regarding the B-vitamins. Although there are claims that there are ways to solve this problem in a vegan diet, they are not entirely true. Use of (semi-synthetic) supplements helps, as also the use of certain fortified foods, but this can be a rather costly proposition. Here is what a young friend wrote on my Facebook page, participating in a discussion on this subject:

I am a vegan. I switched over to one from a strict non-vegetarian for several reasons. Love for animals was the most important, health issues (gout, cholesterol being some) and environmental issues being some of the others. However, my personal experience was like this; very soon I developed deficiency in B12, Zinc and Calcium. Also, my cholesterol and specially triglyceride could not be lowered by just vegan diet which makes me believe that the vegan sources of omega 3 and 6 in the form of hemp oil, is not as good as fish oil. However, I did'nt give up my vegan diet and still continuing to practise the same, of course supplementing my diet with expensive medicines of vegan sources. Based on this, my own conclusion is, while I do not have any doubt that vegan diet is good for health (of course the tacit statement is, cooking has to be done in a healthy way) and good for the environment, but it will be meaningless to advise people on vegan diet unless they are given a choice to opt for one which guarantees them all the necessary vitamins, proteins and minerals and which suits their financial status. More research is required in this field.’

On the issue of vitamin B12 intake, I begin by quoting from the Wikipedia (emphasis added by me):

The B12 vitamin is of note because it is not available from plant products, making B12 deficiency a legitimate concern for vegans. Manufacturers of plant-based foods will sometimes report B12 content, leading to confusion about what sources yield B12. The confusion arises because the standard US Pharmacopeia (USP) method for measuring the B12 content does not measure the B12 directly. Instead, it measures a bacterial response to the food. Chemical variants of the B12 vitamin found in plant sources are active for bacteria, but cannot be used by the human body. This same phenomenon can cause significant over-reporting of B12 content in other types of foods as well.[27]

Ultimately, animals must obtain vitamin B12 directly or indirectly from bacteria, and these bacteria may inhabit a section of the gut that is distal to the section where B12 is absorbed. Thus, herbivorous animals must either obtain B12 from bacteria in their rumens or (if fermenting plant material in the hindgut) by reingestion of cecotrope faeces.

Vitamin B12 is found in most animal derived foods, including fish and shellfish, meat (especially liver), poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products.[2] However, the binding capacity of egg yolks and egg whites is markedly diminished after heat treatment.[33]

Vitamin B12 is essential for the manufacture of red blood cells in our body. It plays an important role in the normal functioning of neurons, and for the manufacture of myelin. It is also needed for the replication of DNA, meaning, among other things, that its deficiency can result in just about all the effects of aging. Your body just cannot afford to be too deficient in this vitamin.

A fine set of articles I have come across on the issue of B12 deficiency in vegans is by Jack Norris. It is important to read the articles fully. Here are some excerpts (emphasis is mine):

Vitamin B12 is generally found in all animal foods (except honey). Contrary to the many rumors, there are no reliable, unfortified plant sources of vitamin B12, including tempeh, seaweeds, and organic produce. One of the earliest studies conducted on vegans, from the U.K. in 1955, described significant vitamin B12 deficiency in the vegans with some suffering from nerve damage and dementia. This, as well as many case studies since then of vitamin B12 deficiency in vegans, and a great deal of other evidence detailed here, has led to the overwhelming consensus in the mainstream nutrition community, as well as among vegan health professionals, that vitamin B12 fortified foods or supplements are necessary for the optimal health of vegans, and even vegetarians in many cases. Luckily, vitamin B12 is made by bacteria such that it does not need to be obtained from animal products.’

Despite the overwhelming evidence that vegans without a reliable source of vitamin B12 are likely harming their health, some vegan advocates still believe that "plant foods provide all the nutrients necessary for optimal health," and do not address vitamin B12 when promoting the vegan diet. Other advocates acknowledge the need for B12, but only as an afterthought. And still others emphasize that humans need only small amounts of B12 and that it can be stored in the body for years.

While true that, at the time they become vegan, some people have enough B12 stored in their liver to prevent overt B12 deficiency for many years, people often misinterpret this to mean that you only need to consume a tiny amount once every few years. Actually, to build up such stores, it takes years of consuming B12 beyond one's daily needs (unless you are using supplements which can build up stores more quickly). Some people do not have large enough stores of B12 to be relied upon for optimal health even for short periods.

In another article, Jack Norris writes:

In the published research, the only plant food that has been tested for improving B12 status in humans using the gold standard of lowering methylmalonic acid (MMA) levels was nori, which did not improve vitamin B12 status. Thus, the discussion about whether Western vegans can get B12 from plant foods could end here.

Because so many plant foods have failed at improving B12 status and because this topic is of interest to the vegan community, the research on vitamin B12 in vegan foods is examined in detail below.

A number of foods, arguably, warrant further attention. But unless these foods are shown consistently to correct B12 deficiency, vegans should not rely on them for vitamin B12.’

And this is what he writes about organic produce as a source of vitamin B12 for vegans:

Unless uncleaned, organic produce is shown to lower MMA levels, it is unjustified to claim that B12 can be obtained in such a manner, or to claim with certainty that humans have ever relied on it as a source of B12.

Only until organic foods are chosen randomly from markets and grocery stores throughout the country (or world) and are consistently shown to decrease MMA levels will someone not be taking a considerable risk in relying on organic foods for B12. This article documents many vegans suffering from B12 deficiency, and it is safe to assume that many of them consumed significant amounts of organic foods.

Given that the vegan movement's aim is to eliminate cows on farms, relying on organic foods for vitamin B12 is not a long-term solution for providing vitamin B12 for vegans, even if it was plausible.

Herbert (26) reported a group of "vegan" Iranians growing plants in night soil (human manure). The vegetables were eaten without being carefully washed and the amount of B12 was enough to prevent deficiency. However, for this information, Herbert cites Halstead et al. (1959) (27), who do not mention these Iranians in their paper. Herbert possibly meant to cite a 1960 paper by Halstead et al. (28) which reported that some Iranian villagers with very little animal product intake (dairy once a week, meat once a month) had normal B12 levels. None had megaloblastic anemia. Their average B12 level was 411 pg/ml which was quite high considering their diet. The authors speculated this could be because their diets, which were very low in protein, allowed for B12-producing bacteria to ascend into the ileum where the B12 could be absorbed. They also speculated that because they lived among their farm animals and their living areas were littered with faeces, they picked up enough B12 through contamination.


Such people generally do not eat even fish. Apart from cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, they consume dairy products. Therefore, by and large, they do not face the nutritional problems faced by vegans. From the point of view of carbon footprint (see below for its meaning) and global warming etc., they do not fare as badly as non-vegetarians, but there is still a catch, namely the need for a very high cattle population on our planet to meet their demands for dairy products.

The current cattle population far exceeds the human population. We raise cattle, not only for meat, but also for dairy requirements, and there is an urgent need to reduce the cattle population by gradually improving the eating habits by all non-vegans. I quote from an earlier blog post of mine, which was on the possible emergence of a Heliocultural energy regime in the future (Wadhawan 2013):

To suppress the discharge of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the environment, the Symbian Man will seek to exploit geological and chemical sequestration. An interesting aside regarding carbon dioxide is the large amount of this and other greenhouse gases released by cattle: They emit from both ends! Their population should be reduced. In fact, there is a strong case for reduction in the use of food products of animal origin. Their production is very energy-intensive, with a very large carbon footprint. Humans should move towards a larger use of foods of plant origin.’

Practically all the global warming over the past five decades has been due to an increase in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases like water vapour, CO2, methane, and ozone. An overarching measure is used for expressing this damage to our ecosphere, namely the ‘carbon footprint’. It is the total amount of greenhouse gases produced directly or indirectly for supporting human activities, expressed in equivalent tons of CO2.

 Excessive presence of certain gases in the ecosphere leads to an excessive trapping of the infrared radiation emitted from the surface of the Earth, leading to what is called 'global warming'. Such gases are commonly referred to as the greenhouse gases.

I quote from the website Time for Change:

A cow does on overage release between 70 and 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2). But the negative effect on the climate of Methane is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2. Therefore the release of about 100 kg Methane per year for each cow is equivalent to about 2'300 kg CO2 per year. 

‘Let's compare this value of 2'300 kg CO2: The same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is generated by burning 1'000 liters of petrol. With a car using 8 liters of petrol per 100 km, you could drive 12'500 km per year (7'800 miles per year). 

‘World-wide, there are about 1.5 billion cows and bulls. All ruminants (animals which regurgitates food and re-chews it) on the world emit about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year. In addition, clearing of tropical forests and rain forests to get more grazing land and farm land is responsible for an extra 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2 emission per year!

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO's Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation."

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.
Are cows to blame for global warming? Are cattle the true cause for climate change?

We cannot deny that farming has a major impact on global warming. Since farming is basically serving the consumer's demand for food, we should look at our nourishment. With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

A Japanese study showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a global warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). It also releases fertilising compounds equivalent to 340 grams of sulphur dioxide and 59 grams of phosphate, and consumes 169 megajoules of energy (Animal Science Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1740-0929.2007.00457.x). In other words, a kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days (New Scientist magazine, 18 July 2007, page 15 ).

‘The following tables indicates the CO2 production in kg CO2 equivalents per kg of meat depending on the animal: 

1 kg of meat from
produces kg CO2e

Source: Environmental Impacts on Food Production and Consumption.


The eating habits of non-vegetarians are the worst offenders in terms of the resultant carbon footprint. Cattle are raised not only for dairy products, but also for beef. And between beef, mutton, and chicken, beef production and consumption is the most damaging. Chicken is the least damaging (as seen from the table above), with mutton and pork consumption footprints falling somewhere in-between those of chicken and beef.

Chicken consumption is not only least costly in terms of carbon footprint, poultry farms also provide eggs, and egg protein is the most perfect protein for human consumption. A vegan diet supplemented with egg consumption is a rather eco-friendly way of eating, taking good care of our nutritional requirements. Better still, add fish too if you can.


There are two types of people. Those who do not want to eat ‘dead creatures’, and those who have no compunctions about that. For the first type, the best option is vegetarian food, with only a minimum essential consumption of dairy products; add eggs if you can.

For the second type I would recommend vegan food plus fish and other seafood. Add some chicken consumption if you wish, but avoid pork, mutton, and beef. Of course, occasional binging is OK (even desirable perhaps), if you crave for it.

There is something particularly eco-friendly about consuming fish and other seafood. The produce from the seas (and the rivers) is the equivalent of vegetation on land. Both are natural, or near-natural, phenomena and are environment-friendly.

Organic farming has the great advantage of freedom from the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilizers. But there is another advantage, not duly publicized. Production and transport of pesticides and fertilizers entails a large carbon footprint, which is absent when only locally produced natural manure is used for farming.

And a word about fish consumption. Eating fish which has spent a lot of time in contaminated waters for growing to its present size poses the problem of large concentrations of, say, mercury, in its flesh. The answer is organic fish farming, just like the organic farming of vegetables and grains etc. In India there is a lot of enthusiasm these days about water conservation, rainwater harvesting, construction of check dams, etc. These artificial ponds can also be put to good use for the organic farming of fish, nurtured on only organic food produced nearby.

To conclude: You are what you eat. And what you eat depends on what you are: If you are a person who cares for Mother Earth, you would avoid eating certain foods to the extent your physical, mental, and financial health permits you to (or you would eat the eco-costly foods only sparingly and occasionally). You would keep in mind the climate-justice aspect of eating. Are your eating habits contributing adversely to global warming and climate change, thus adding to the miseries of countless poor and undernourished children of Mother Earth (through an increase in the incidence of famines and low rainfall etc.)? What kind of climate justice are you meting out to those small island cities and countries which are going to get submerged and thus obliterated from the face of the Earth if the sea levels rise too much because of the excessive melting of the polar ice due to global warming?

As James Cameron said, ‘You can't really call yourself an environmentalist if you're still consuming animals. You just can't’. Al Gore, please note.


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