Why Not Eating Meat Should Be an Interfaith Issue
In the United States, eating meat is one of the few issues both Democrats and Republicans can support. While Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) may complain about the rising price of ground beef and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) may condemn Burger King for moving its headquarters abroad, the mere issue of eating beef is not a political issue. Even Ben Carson, the only vegetarian presidential candidate, hasn’t come out in defense of cows.
But things are different in India. After a 50-year-old Muslim man was allegedly killed for consuming beef. the “beef controversy” became a major political issue in the recent the Bihar state assembly elections. The BJP — the political party supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — released an ill-conceived political ad asking voters what difference eating beef makes. The voters apparently thought eating beef makes a big difference and the BJP lost the election.
The beef controversy in India is much larger than the Bihar state assembly elections. The country is predominantly Hindu, a religion which reveres cows as sacred and forbids their slaughter. After India gained independence from the British, the Hindu populace has continuously urged politicians to ban cow slaughter and the consumption of beef in the country. While Indian politicians have resisted a ban at the central level due to the secular nature of the country and its constitution, some states, like Bihar, have succeeded in implementing local legislation.
The issue is further complicated by the large number of Muslims and Christians who live in India. Unlike Hinduism, the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — don’t believe any animals are sacred. Jews and Muslims follow kosher and halal dietary laws, which forbid eating pork and require other animals, like cows, to be slaughtered respectfully. Christians have no dietary rules at all.
From an American perspective, the beef controversy in India appears to be grounded in nationalism and religious intolerance. While I may not understand the perspective of the Hindus in Bihar, it’s hard to see a justification in killing a human because he killed a cow. But from an environmentalist perspective, the beef controversy raises an important opportunity to talk about other reasons why mass consumption of meat is not good.
Agriculture accounts for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, half of which are from livestock. Beef is by far the worst environmental choice out of all livestock. It requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water, and results in five times more greenhouse gas emissions. The impact is greater because cows make far less efficient use of their feed.
“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat signficantly less red meat,” Prof. Tim Benton at the University of Leeds said. “Another recent study implies the single biggest intervention to free up calories that could be used to feed people would be not to use grains for beef producing in the US.”
If religious leaders are serious about taking climate action and helping the hungry and vulnerable, they may want to encourage their followers to eat less beef regardless of whether or not meat consumption is a historic religious tenant. India is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and has a high population of people living below the poverty line. If eating less beef can protect the planet and care “for the least of these,” then Christians and Muslims should limit their meat consumption along with Hindus.
People in the United States should do the same. While the government should not regulate what people eat, it could end subsidies to beef producers. Would Ben Carson be the president to do that? Probably not. It’s hard to believe Carson would do anything to protect Earth when it’s not even clear he lives on the planet sometimes.
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