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  • Parika Sikder

The Climate Impact of Meat Consumption In South Asian Diets

For centuries, meat was traditionally consumed by the upper class on special occasions. By the 1950s and 60s, meat became more affordable to the expanding middle class, with countries like America subsidizing the meat industry, making it cheaper than fresh produce.

While this increase in production fits right in with the American dream, meat consumption has become a matter of reversing climate change now — and all eyes are on the growing middle class in Asia. With Asia’s meat consumption poised to increase to 78% by 2050, it's time we talk about our relationship with meat consumption as a cultural showcase of wealth and what we can do as South Asians to combat this trajectory.

For our diaspora raised in meat-eating households, it seems like a farfetched dream to get our families to give up serving meat during weekdays, let alone cultural holidays and special occasions. This is because the current sustainable eating practices and trends don’t always come with culturally and religiously competent options and explanations.

Why should we care?

It’s important to remember that overall Asian culinary traditions are popular worldwide. We can’t just categorize the incoming increase in meat consumption as an ‘Asia problem’ without including ourselves, especially because North America’s industrialized beef, poultry, and pork consumption are relatively higher than the rest of the world.

The diaspora must and address the issues within their households and South Asian circles here and across the ocean because right now, the amount of resources required to rear animals is the most significant contributor to climate change. It’s the number one source of deforestation, with the footprint of one animal affecting everything from water consumption to grain industries worldwide. We know this already thanks to the research presented in food consumption documentaries such as Cowspiracy, Food Inc. and In Organic We Trust.

Our people are the ones who will directly suffer from food scarcity, lack of access to clean water and extreme weather as the Earth continues to warm because of unsustainable meat production. Imagine not being able to show your children their parents or grandparents’ homeland because it’s underwater or in a drought.

Climate change isn’t just real; it’s heartbreaking. In 2050, many of us will be in our 50s. We will feel these changes in our lifetime.

Speaking of heartache, long-term consumption of meat also contributes to many of our community’s ongoing health issues, from heart disease to hypertension. Food industry documentaries always make me consider the level of stress animals experience right before they are slaughtered. My gut tells me that their stress carries into our systems (although science apparently can’t prove this at this moment). I’m a firm believer that we are what we consume across food, media, knowledge etc. A lot of what we consume (alongside other circumstances) even contributes to the fact that we are the most depressed, stressed and anxious generation.

Let’s break down the miscommunications around meat and fish consumption some more.

I love a good conspiracy documentary, but I know better than just taking the director’s viewpoint as the only truth. While these documentaries often point us to organic, grass-fed meats, the options come with a steep price increase which puts them out of reach for so many families of colour in North America. Not surprising as the majority of food consumption documentaries are from the white lens.

Take Seaspiracy: the director chose to point and wag his finger directly at Asia’s overfishing practices. Yet everyone knows America imports everything from Asia, so why was there no link back to our unsustainable consumption practices? Why are we shaming Asian countries for practices that North Americans perpetuate?

According to NOAA, Fisheries estimates that the United States imports more than 80% of the seafood they eat. A significant portion of imported seafood is caught by American fishermen, exported overseas for processing, and then reimported to the United States. The reports say America mainly imports seafood from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador. Their top imports (by volume) include shrimp, freshwater fish, tuna, salmon, groundfish, crab, and squid.

It’s our consumption lifestyle that’s impacting the demand and desire in Asia.

The majority of South Asians in developed countries don’t have an accurate idea of how much meat and fish we need to live a healthy, sustainable life. Part of the problem is we lack South Asian dieticians with the resources to provide us with culturally competent options that don’t wholly overthrow our traditions and cuisine preferences.

According to Zippia, the most common ethnicity among registered dietitians in America is White, which makes up 70.5% of all registered dietitians. The chart below represents the full disparity across races.

Who’s ready for a career change?

If we want to help our families with their health, we need more dieticians to tackle the root of our health problems. After working with a South Asian dietician, I realized there’s so much our community doesn’t understand about eating a balanced meal. Think about how many dawaat’s you’ve been to where there’s fish, chicken, beef and maybe even kabobs on the table with two veggie options and an endless supply of rice. Our diets are so disproportionately skewed towards flavoured meats, it stands out like a kacha-morij (hot pepper) in a salad.

All jokes aside, this is a subtle showcase of wealth, and we cushion our minds by telling ourselves we’re offering our guests the very best in options and flavours. If another white sustainable food activist can’t convince our communities to make a change, we’ll need more South Asian dieticians to provide practical, research-based evidence and solutions to supplement the desire for meat as our primary source of protein.

We also need to talk about our biggest privilege living outside of South Asia: our right to vote. Yeah-yeah-yeah, democracy is democrazy right now, but we as a generation must look deeper into the backgrounds of our leaders. Policymakers who subsidized the meat industry and their descendants are still influencing power. For some reason, while the rest of the world is electing younger leaders, America continues to elect 70-year-olds!

A lack of science-informed politicians is Canada’s problem too. Research conducted for this op-article found that while 22.4% of all Master’s degrees and 57.8% Ph.D.’s earned in Canada were in STEM fields, these numbers are not reflected in Parliament, with elected officials with STEM backgrounds respectively representing just 4% (Master’s) and 15.4% (Ph.D.’s).

So what we have right now is incredibly qualified scientists telling the government that climate change is real and that the meat industry needs reform without any actual power to enact policies to slow and reverse the effects themselves. The chart below breaks down the educational backgrounds of Canada’s Parliament as of 2019.

If we are ever to see real change on the destructive policies that line pockets, we need more STEM experts guiding policy in Parliament, and it’s on us to vote them in. Skipping the polls affects the decisions made for our collective future. And if you’re a STEM major with a passion for bigger systemic issues, it’s your time to shine in politics.

So, where does that leave us?

I’m not saying that we need to cut out meat and fish altogether. We just need to be more intentional about the way we consume it. As South Asian diaspora, we need to remind ourselves that our lifestyle choices affect meat consumption and fishing in Asia and that the impact of our decisions will be felt hardest in our motherlands. Here’s the key takeaway:

  1. We need to disconnect our associations of wealth with meat, no matter how covertly this thinking appears in our day-to-day. This starts with reducing the number of meats we display day to day and during dawaats.

  1. We need to adopt or create alternative meat options that suit our cuisine and flavour preferences. Think Beyond Biryani or Beyond Butter Chicken. We can’t afford to not innovate at home and not advocate for corporations to do the same.

  2. We need to grow our base of culturally-informed dieticians so our families can see the health impacts of overconsumption and find their personal reasons to adopt balanced diets for their lifestyles.

  3. We need to vote more climate change-aware scientists into leadership. Period.

  4. Lastly, we need to use our knowledge to influence our friends and families here and overseas. It’s time to advocate for conscious meat and fish consumption overall and not consumption for the sake of grandeur.


Image by Amber Kipp

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