The article ‘Chewing the cud’ (IE, March 4) suggests that “mainstream scientific research” into Panchgavya — milk, curd, ghee, dung and urine — will bring about rural development. The article, however, is merely an attempt at pushing the cow-protection agenda through an embarrassing combination of revivalism, bad science and rhetoric.
The article claims that “substantial research” shows A2 type milk, which comes from indigenous breeds, prevents diseases and disorders like obesity, arthritis and autism. This research is far from substantial — it depends on claims made in some studies that suggest A1 type milk has correlations with certain disorders. This research is not conclusive, in fact most reviews (such as the European Food Safety Authority report in 2009) agree that these correlations put forth are extremely tentative. Even if future research shows a strong correlation between A1 milk and major diseases, to suggest that A2 milk prevents diseases is merely speculation that has absolutely no scientific basis and simply creates a false dichotomy. In addition the authors also do not think it necessary to tell the readers that while 98 per cent of Indian cow breeds give A2 milk, 100 per cent of Indian buffaloes give A2 milk as well. It begs to be asked if the authors would fight as vociferously for research into buffalo milk as they would for cows.
Since some of us would find the suggestion of consuming cow urine products to be egregious, the authors try other ways of persuading us to do so. They invoke the WHO report which speculates about the ineffectiveness of antibiotics in the near future and suggest there is global research taking place on cow urine to counter this. They cite two patents have been granted for the “medicinal properties” of urine which supposedly acts as a bio-enhancer and as an anti-cancer agent. These patents (No. 6,896,907 and 6,410,059) granted to Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India are issued in 2002, bear no connection to the WHO report and since then have expired. Both patents admit that “urine distillates from buffalo, camel, deer” also show the same results.
It is evident then that there is no contemporary “global” research, nor is there any specific basis to focus on cow urine. While obtaining a daily dose of anti-cancer urine from a deer might be difficult, the authors’ penchant for research into cow urine specifically as opposed to urine from a buffalo or any other animal is inexplicable.
The authors also refer to the use of cow dung cakes as cooking fuel for the rural population. They claim that since the temperatures from burning these cakes never rises beyond a certain point, it does not destroy the nutrients in food. Apart from the contribution to air pollution, the use of cow dung as fuel may lead to arsenic poisoning, not to mention multiple respiratory ailments that rural women suffer as a result of breathing in smoke that is composed of suspended particulates, formaldehyde and sulphur dioxide. There are also other studies from different regions of India (such as a Jadavpur University study in 2007), that point to incidences of arsenic poisoning from burning cow dung fuel.
Surely the authors are aware of better ways to control heat and nutrients while cooking than using cow dung: There have been considerable national and regional programmes to reduce rural pollution and make cooking environments healthier through construction of biogas plants, increased supply of LPG and awareness campaigns. The authors are extremely myopic, if not regressive, in their celebration of continued use of cow dung as fuel.
In their pursuit of reviving traditional knowledge the authors wax eloquent about the anti-radioactive and anti-thermal properties of cow dung. As scientists who want to bring such knowledge into “mainstream scientific discourse”, I am sure the authors are not far from persuading physicists of our country to plaster our nuclear reactors with fresh cow dung (not buffalo) to save us from a potential Chernobyl or Fukushima type disaster.
While exploring the economic possibilities of rural India’s cattle might be fruitful in other ways, the Panchgavya project seems to be a process by which the authors want to promote the rhetoric on cow protection through a scientific discourse. It is dangerous for knowledge creation and a democracy when leading scientists of our country misuse the vocabulary of rural development and scientific enquiry to pursue projects of religious revivalism.