Food is the basic element for our physical survival, but it is also our strongest attachment, our basic prejudice. From baby Ramesh and his mother who tries to coax Ramesh to eat what's good for him, to the after dinner conversation of sophisticated adults, food is more controversial than sex, politics, religion or drugs. Many people feel that their whole lifestyle is put to the test and is discredited if you refuse, on philosophical grounds, to eat certain foods in their homes. Nowhere is this more obvious than around the question of meat-eating. Yet consider these facts:
A cow must be fed twenty one pounds of protein in order to produce one pound of protein fit for human consumption.
Meat is the chief source of toxic chemicals in our diet.
Confronted with the gaunt face of famine in the developing nations, and the raging epidemic of cancer and heart disease throughout the developed countries, the topic of meat definitely provides food for thought. Any housewife on a budget will agree that meat is an expensive diet item, but few people realise that it is an absolute luxury in terms of this planet's resources. Livestock can be grazed on land unsuitable for crops, turning the poorest grasses into food for man. Moreover, animals like cattle, sheep and goats don't need to eat protein to produce protein. Micro-organisms in the stomachs of grazing animals can manufacture protein from nitrogen in the form of urea (a recyclable waste from humans and animals). Yet relatively little advantage is taken of this, especially in cattle grazing countries.
On the contrary, in all countries where livestock have become big business, enormous quantities of the best quality food sources are fed to animals. In countries like India, poultry, pigs and cows graze on whatever they can get by the roadside, while the amount of special fodder they receive is between zero and ten percent of the nation's harvest. Yet, in Russia twenty eight percent of all grain crops are fed to animals, while in the USA this spirals to an incredible seventy eight percent. Fully half of the agricultural land in the USA is planted with crops that are intended only to feed animals, and other grazing countries like Argentina and Australia are striving hard to catch up. The UK annually imports 400 million pounds stg. worth of grain and other feeds just for their fat stock. About half the world's fish catch is fed to animals rather than their keepers. This fish and grain could be fed direct to human beings, and is often imported from struggling nations who could use it to ease their own problems. We can see that the waste involved is truly phenomenal when we consider that livestock are fed literally millions of tons of proteins that could be eaten directly by man!
Another way of gauging the high cost of meat-eating is to make a comparison with plants and the amount of protein produced per acre. An acre of cereals can produce five times more protein than one acre devoted to meat production; one acre of legumes (peas, beans, lentils - what Indians call dhal) can produce ten times more; and leafy vegetables fifteen times more.
Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet) points out that in the USA alone, the protein wasted in beef production represents ninety percent of the world protein shortage. Agricultural experts estimate that forty percent of world livestock production is derived from vegetable sources suitable for humans, which, if fed directly to man, would increase the world food supply by thirty five percent.
The tragedy is that this extremely expensive foodstuff is failing to provide good nutrition. With their over consumption of meat, the industrialised nations are laying themselves open to cancer, heart disease, nervous system impairment and other more subtle ills resulting from the high concentration of toxic chemicals in meat. Even though use of DDT and Dieldrin has been outlawed in most countries, these two pesticides were in use so long that their concentration in the earth's soil and water is still very high. They have been replaced with other chemicals supposedly less harmful, but whose long term toxicity cannot yet be estimated. These chemicals are retained in animal and fish fat, and are very difficult to break down. Once they enter the human system, they accumulate in the fat cells of muscles and organs, and it may take from seven to forty years before they are eliminated.
Although pesticides and other chemicals are found in vegetable sources, they exist in much lower concentrations and less variety. According to data in the American Pesticides Monitoring Journal, the concentration of organo-chloride pesticides in meat, fish and poultry is about twelve times greater than in all classes of plant produce. Apart from metabolic poisons and wastes manufactured by the animal itself in response to unnatural methods of herding and forced feeding, other contaminants in meat include arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, tin, synthetic sex hormones, antibiotics and tranquillisers.
Continued high meat consumption might be tolerable, even under these circumstances, if there were no alternative protein sources. However, this is not the case. Those who insist on the indispensability of meat as a protein source are misled by the tendency of scientists who call meat 'first class' protein and plant protein 'second class'.
Our bodies require twenty-two amino acids to maintain our protein supply. Of these, there are only eight that cannot be synthesised by the body. For healthy metabolism, all these eight (called essential amino acids) must be present at one time, and in the right proportions. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products are called 'first class' proteins only because they contain all eight essential amino acids. The implication is that they also contain the highest quantity and best quality protein. When we compare the two categories for quantity and quality we find that it is not necessarily so, and that the two classes are actually one continuum.
Measuring, protein quantity as a percentage by weight, we find that plants rank the highest, particularly in their processed forms. Soybean flour comes first (forty percent) followed by cheese and whole soybeans. Meat ranks only third (twenty to thirty percent). Legumes (dhals) are equivalent to fish and to some meats being twenty to twenty five percent protein. In fact, lentils contain a far greater percentage of protein than lamb, tuna, eggs or milk.
Looking at protein quality, we must consider what United Nations nutritionists term the 'biological value' of protein i.e. the proportion of protein digestible and usable by the body. On this basis it is possible to assign a value for the Net Protein Utilisation (NPU). On this scale, animal proteins have the highest values with egg (94) and milk (82) at the top. However, meat is only slightly above average with an NPU of 67. Plant proteins range from 40 to 70, but the protein in some plants such as soybeans and whole rice approach or overlap values for meat.
In general, one needs to eat proportionately less meat than plant protein to obtain the essential amino acids, but this doesn't mean that we have to depend on meat for protein. Dairy products and eggs can be substituted for meat, or we can eat a variety of plant proteins that have mutually complementary amino acid patterns. Since plant sources contribute seventy percent of the world's available protein, to make them our first choice is preferable from the point of view of ecology, financial economy and taste variety.
Protein isn't everything, and many people point to meat as a rich source of vitamins and minerals. However, both British and American studies show that the major contribution of vitamins and minerals to the national diet is actually made by plant sources. While most mineral and vitamin charts list meat as a chief source, dairy products are equally valuable. Legumes, green leafy vegetables and whole grains are also primary and abundant sources of all vitamins, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. In fact, for these last three elements, and for calcium and phosphorus, non-meat sources are superior. It is commonly thought that vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is one nutrient strictly limited to animal sources. However, this vitamin is also found in soybean paste, yoghurt (dahi), nuts, and the herb comfrey, which is its richest supply.
Thus the myth of the superiority and indispensability of meat as a food is seen to be just that - a myth. Eating habits have a wider significance than simple physical survival; our food preferences are overlaid with all sorts of emotional connotations. So the continued popularity of meat as the best of foodstuffs lies more in emotionally ingrained attitudes than nutritional theory.
There is a widespread belief that meat - eating is instinctive to man. There is no evidence to support this and a considerable case against it. For instance, investigations strongly indicate that the matriarchal cultures of immediate prehistory, which gave rise to all the great, ancient civilisations, were chiefly vegetarian. It has often been pointed out that if man were intended to eat large quantities of meat, he would have been given the appropriate biological apparatus. As it is, man has a long bowel for dealing with the fermentative bacteria involved in the digestion of plant food. By comparison, carnivores have a very short bowel for the rapid expulsion of the putrefactive bacteria associated with decomposing flesh. The stomachs of carnivorous animals also excrete ten to fifteen times the amount of hydrochloric acid in a human stomach. Mankind secretes an alkaline saliva high in ptyalin for breaking down starches, while carnivores have an acid saliva that contains no ptyalin. Although we can digest just about anything, differences in teeth, jaw, liver and urine indicate that man is equipped for a plant-oriented rather than a meat-oriented diet.
The food we have eaten since childhood is charged with an emotional satisfaction that usually outweighs its nutritional value, so that we are generally conservative in our food patterns. Many people feel a meal is simply not complete without meat; anything else is just a 'snack'. This feeling is bound up with the belief that if one is going to work hard and needs lots of endurance, then one must eat large quantities of 'bully beef. After all, mothers have been telling their children for years to eat up their meat so they'll grow big and strong.
Yet the evidence does not prove that meat gives superior strength. Rather, a study by Dr Irving Fisher of Yale (USA) demonstrated the opposite. Placing untrained vegetarian sportsmen in competition against Yale's best athletes, he found the vegetarians had more than twice the endurance of the meat-eating athletes, despite the latters' advantage in training. Cinema muscleman Johnny Weissmuller, famous as jungle hero Tarzan, broke several world swimming records on a vegetarian diet. Olympic gold medallist Murray Rose is another celebrity whose vegetarian practices have become world famous. In the realms of mind power, it should be noted that Pythagoras, Socrates and Einstein were intellectual giants and vegetarians.
Sharing food is perhaps one of the most ancient and widespread forms of hospitality, and the kind of food we eat has a definite social value. Low meat diets are generally associated with low incomes. The 'best' food used to be Sunday's roast meat, and it is a measure of our success and prosperity that we can afford to eat Sunday dinner every day. The choicest meat, prime beefsteak, has been transformed into a prime status symbol. In developing countries, the increased meat consumption is largely due to nutritional propaganda and the fad amongst some wealthier sections of the community for all things western.
Nevertheless, the times are a 'changin' and, of necessity, so too are our food habits. The concern of vegetarians and ecologists is gradually filtering down to the man in the street, who is also being alarmed by shortages of his favourite foods and his susceptibility to heart attacks and cancer. Even a Commission of the USA National Academy of Sciences has concluded that to survive in the future we will all have to rely more on plants and less on meat for protein. The west is becoming more familiar with the tasty possibilities of oriental dishes and with yogic and macrobiotic ideas on diet. People of both east and west are coming to realise that traditional, low-meat, high-vegetable diets reflect a body wisdom that is actually closer to man's requirements than a meat-based diet.
The tantric tradition is not only the last to condemn meat-eating, but actually incorporates meat and fish into a ritual for expanding our consciousness. The tantric experience has given rise to the practical guidelines that are yoga, and the main principle of yoga is moderation in all things. The major fault with the current approach to meat is excessive intake. The attitude 'if a little is good, more must be better' is not viable in practice - it's actually a case of 'too much of a good thing'. While yoga does not condone food fanaticism, the facts would suggest that people could definitely benefit by reducing their meat intake. It is only common sense to ask ourselves 'why eat so much meat?' and , in view of the evidence, many people might like to ask themselves 'why eat meat at all?'