India Shows Why the Global Shift to Plant-Based Diets Is Dangerous

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Why you should care

What works in the West isn’t necessarily good for developing countries.

Vegetarians, much less vegans, would prefer not to be compelled to eat meat. Yet the reverse compulsion is what lurks in the growing proposals for a new plant-based “planetary diet.” Nowhere is this more visible than in India.

The subcontinent is often stereotyped by the West as a vegetarian utopia, where transcendental wisdom, longevity and asceticism go hand in hand. 

Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission released its global report on nutrition and called for a global shift to a more plant-based diet and for “substantially reducing consumption of animal source foods.” In countries like India, that call could become a tool to aggravate an already fraught political situation and stress already undernourished populations.

The EAT report feeds into the false premise that “traditional diets” in countries like India include little red meat, which might be consumed only on special occasions or as minor ingredients in mixed dishes.

Disadvantaged castes and indigenous communities are being coerced into giving up their traditional foods.

In India, however, there is a vast difference between what people would wish to consume and what they have to consume because of innumerable barriers around caste, religion, culture, cost, geography, etc. Policymakers in India have traditionally pushed for a cereal-heavy “vegetarian diet” on a meat-eating population as a way of providing the cheapest sources of food. 

Currently, under an aggressive Hindu nationalist government, Muslims, Christians, disadvantaged castes and indigenous communities are being coerced into giving up their traditional foods.

None of these concerns seem to have been appreciated by the EAT-Lancet Commission’s representative, Brent Loken, who during the launch event in New Delhi said “India has got such a great example” in sourcing protein from plants.

But how much of a model for the world is India’s vegetarianism? In the Global Hunger Index 2019, the country ranks 102nd out of 117. Data from the National Family Health Survey indicate that only 10 percent of infants between 6 to 23 months are adequately fed.

As a result, 38 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted. About 1 in 5 women and men are underweight, with a similar proportion being either overweight or obese, especially in urban settings.

Anemia affects almost 60 percent of children ages 6 to 59 months, more than half of women between 15 to 49 years old, and almost 1 in 4 men in that same age group. Subclinical vitamin A deficiency in preschool children is 62 percent and is closely associated with malnutrition and poor protein consumption. Hardly a model to be followed.

Which is why calls for a plant-based diet modeled on India risk offering another whip with which to beat already vulnerable communities in developing countries.

A diet directed at the affluent West fails to recognize that in low-income countries undernourished children are known to benefit from the consumption of milk and other animal source foods, improving anthropometric indexes and cognitive functions, while reducing the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies as well as morbidity and mortality.

Or that, in India, bone fracture and shorter heights have been associated with lower milk consumption. Importantly, traditional livestock gets people through difficult seasons, prevents malnutrition in impoverished communities and provides economic security. 

EAT-Lancet claimed its intention was to “spark conversations” among all Indian stakeholders. The stakeholders, however, were carefully narrowed down to yea-sayers. 

Vocal critics of the food processing industry and food fortification strategies, such as India’s Right to Food campaign, have been left out of the debate along with the National Institute of Nutrition, the 100-year-old government nutrition research body whose research points in favor of animal source foods. But the most blatant omission may as well be the fact that India’s farmers were conspicuously absent.

Yet the government seems to have given the report a thumbs-up. Rather than addressing chronic hunger and malnutrition through an improved access to wholesome and nutrient-dense foods, the government is opening the door for company-dependent solutions.

What is conveniently being ignored are the environmental and economic cost of shifting metric tons of micronutrients from Western countries on a permanent basis while at the same time destroying local food systems. It’s a model fraught with danger for future generations.


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By Sylvia Karpagam, Frédéric Leroy and Martin Cohen

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