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Can we ignore food ethics in a discussion about food diversity and politics?

Mukund Padmanabhan writes: Allowing oneself to think critically and candidly about food may demand making challenging dietary changes.

Like Singer, I look hopefully at the growth of plant-based meat alternatives (which may become cheaper with growing economies of scale) and the advances in the making of in-vitro meat (essentially lab-grown meat through the painless harvest of muscle tissue). (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

I found myself reading my friend Peter Ronald deSouza’s essay (‘The mutton mince dosa test’, IE, September 15) with a mix of hearty appreciation and nagging disquiet. There is indeed, as he argues, a troubling link between food and fanaticism in India. He is right in saying our attitudes towards what we can and cannot eat have led to a “politics of othering”. While there is much to be said for outrightly condemning violent beef vigilantes or exposing the irrationality of specific food taboos, it is somewhat simplistic to draw up an unreserved case for food diversity, leave alone suggest, as he does, that it is “a good index of a tolerant society.”

The argument that we must be tolerant about what others eat often involves making a conceptual leap from “descriptive relativism” (the empirical reality that our morality and our cultural practices are diverse) to “ethical relativism” (the theory, in its most extreme forms, that moral truths can be known or determined only within cultural contexts). One man’s meat, as the saying goes, is another man’s poison. And so, isn’t it better to just leave it at that?

This kind of relativism is usually well-meaning, being grounded in notions of plurality and tolerance. Attempts to contest it risk appearing narrow and illiberal. Taboo foods, after all, the main subject of deSouza’s thought-provoking critique, tend to awaken deep-seated cultural prejudices, arouse feelings of revulsion. Surely, the point is to overcome this?

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Yes, of course it is. Social discrimination on the basis of food choices is unacceptable. Even so, it is important to remember that at the high table of a true and thoroughgoing food libertarianism, as opposed to that populated with dishes catering to a moderate gastronomic adventurism, it is not enough to be seated (or share) such things as pork curries, beef frys, or mutton mince dosas. One would have to be fine with other more “unusual” dishes as well, such as raw monkey brain, rice wine infused with baby mice, dogs of various breeds, and sautéed tarantula. The people who consume them have as much a right to complain about food puritanism and othering as your everyday desi non-vegetarian.

Reading deSouza’s call for food diversity (which is not quite the same thing as food fusion, which he also celebrates), I realised what nagged me was its deafening silence about one aspect of food ethics — is it right to eat certain kinds of food at all? It’s time to make a disclosure here. For the last year-and-a-half, I have gone from being an occasional non-vegetarian to a vegan. Almost vegan is much more accurate, as I have allowed myself to, on occasion, eat something with butter or ghee rather than risk offending a host and, much worse, cadged a bite or two of some milk-infused burfis. Moreover, as the former US President Jimmy Carter admitted in a different context, I have looked at non-vegetarian dishes nostalgically and lovingly, or been routinely disloyal in my mind.

What surprises me though, as a struggling and imperfect vegan, is how people react to veganism. Some believe it is a form of food puritanism, which it most definitely is not. Others dismiss it as a result of some passing woke trend, an attempt to be a food fashionista (as opposed to a deSouza-like “food fusionista”). Although there are some activists who have given veganism a bad name, very few appreciate that it could also be arrived at through deliberative philosophical inquiry into the ethics of food, its production and consumption. My so-called “conversion” occurred while reading and re-reading Peter Singer, the brilliant (and controversial) Australian philosopher now based at Princeton, as preparation for a couple of bioethics lectures to university students.

The monstrous cruelties that attend industrial factory farming, which author Yuval Noah Harari described as probably the worst crime in history, need no repetition here. But if you do not believe, as some religious texts have declared, that man was made in God’s image and was placed to have dominion over every other living thing on earth, then it is worth at least considering the vegan case, particularly as we now live in a world where human survival and nourishment can sustain without animal slaughter on such a gigantic scale.

Vegetarians like to think they are more humane about their dietary choices, but they rarely consider what goes into the making of dairy products. What it usually means is a long and quick succession of pregnancies for cows and buffalos, their calves separated not so long after birth, and their milk diverted for human consumption. If the calf is female, then it is raised for another succession of economically-lucrative pregnancies. If it’s a male, then it is usually quietly sent to the abattoir.

That the many millions who worship cows in this country choose to be either unaware or unfeeling about how they suffer on account of milk production is reflective of a larger truth. When it comes to thinking about how our food is produced, we would rather not know, or deal with our cognitive dissonances by suppressing what we do know. Allowing oneself to think critically and candidly about food may demand making challenging dietary changes. It is this kind of collective denial that results in activist campaigns, and even books, devoted to climate change failing to make even a passing reference to food. Our food system produces more greenhouse gases than most other sectors, including transportation, but we are more comfortable talking about limiting the size of cars than reducing the harm to cows or goats. Never mind also that methane, tonne for tonne, is about 30 times worse in its impact than carbon dioxide by some estimates.

The issue, of course, is not merely whether we are staking our future for the sake of sushi or hamburgers. It seems fair to ask whether animals, particularly those that have sentience (which Singer defines in terms of capacity to feel pleasure and pain) and have some notion of continuity (loosely, a sense of self-awareness over time) are worthy of moral consideration. One may think they don’t, but at the very least, a case needs to be made out for this.

In an intellectual climate where prejudices on the basis of tribe, culture, nation, race, sex, and sexual preference have been rejected, Singer believes we are still struggling to overcome “speciesism”, a bias in favour of one’s own species over that of others. He argues, and disturbingly, that just like racists violate equality by privileging the interests of their own race and sexists violate equality by favouring their own sex, speciesists abuse the interests of members of other species. “The pattern,” he says, “is identical in each case.”

Such veganism is not founded on food puritanism. Neither is it grounded in taboo or irrational revulsion. For instance, some vegans allow themselves to eat bivalves such as clams and mussels because they lack brains as well as a central nervous system. It is important to contrast the philosophical literature on veganism with the narrow and reproachful attitude of many vegan activists, who rely only on moral messaging, fail to recognise their own imperfections, and get the backs of others up through campaigns that seem hostile and denigrating.

Like Singer, I look hopefully at the growth of plant-based meat alternatives (which may become cheaper with growing economies of scale) and the advances in the making of in-vitro meat (essentially lab-grown meat through the painless harvest of muscle tissue). It may be just the thing to relive the taste of the mutton mince dosa at the Delhi School of Economics canteen. Like my friend Peter deSouza, I remember it very fondly too.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 22, 2021 under the title ‘Meat of the matter’. The writer teaches philosophy at Krea University and was the Editor of The Hindu

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