The ecology of cow slaughter ban

cowCow slaughter ban is something that was introduced in India thousands of years ago with good intentions though it has lost its rationale today (except for extreme Hindutva forces).

The ban has its roots in pastoral, and later, agrarian societies that grew along the Gangetic plains. Though the region was fertile, floods and droughts were frequent. When a drought strikes and grains become scarce, the natural tendency is to kill animals for food. Besides, water requirements of animals are high. So, it is extremely difficult to maintain domestic animals during a drought.

However, if massive killings of cattle took place, it would destroy even hopes of revival of the economy after drought. When tractors and other machinery were not there, draught animals were critical for revival of agriculture. While killing of cattle en masse could not be stopped, it was important to save at least the cows. If cows are there, even a single surviving bull can sire many calves. (Even now, a practice is there in North India of offering a bull to the community with connotations of bringing prosperity for the donor).

Some wise men apparently thought that the best way to effect conservation of cattle was to formulate it in the form of a religious edict. Obviously, this edict has lost its relevance today because we have better methods of farm management including artificial insemination and modes to transport grains across large distances in case of a regional drought. (Note that hauling loads of grain too required draught animals in olden days.)

Now, cow is no more central to the economy. However, certain other religious beliefs like those surrounding sacred groves in Kerala, for example, retain their relevance even today. Cattle also have role to play in organic farming even today, though that does not negate their slaughter.

It is also worth examining whether vegetarianism has any advantage over consumption of non-vegetarian food. Evolutionary history shows that Homo sapiens were never strict vegetarians. They started as hunter gathers and are omnivorous. Besides, a 100 per cent vegetarian dish can deprive you of some essential nutrients. Milk products and egg can make up for that to some extent. (So, here also cow becomes important). However, it is to be noted that in some regions of the world, you have to be heavily dependent on meat because of scarcity of vegetables and grain. In the arctic region, no vegetable is available locally. And people like the Eskimos, Inuits and the Cree traditionally survived entirely on meat. (They too have beliefs that ensure survival of animal species. The Crees have a method of determining whether the animal is “willing” or ready to be killed. If not, they will spare it.)

However, vegetarianism reduces your carbon footprint. More resources are needed to produce meat compared to vegetables. This is why even U. S. President Barack Obama is concerned about increasing meat consumption in Asia. He wants Asians to eschew meat consumption to keep American dream alive. So, RSS and the US have common interest though for differing reasons.

As human cultures and technology progress, it is expected that cruelty against animals will come down irrespective of whether it is a cow or bull or a goat. However, one should not be creating communal divides over the issue and commit bigger cruelty against fellow human beings.

India opposes ban on pollutants

Stockholm Convention

TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE: Delegates to MoP of Stockholm Convention vote on whether to take a vote on listing, by raising flags, in Geneva on Saturday. Photo: Secretariat of BRS Conventions

India has been blocking moves at the Conference of Parties of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to list more chemicals for elimination from worldwide use. This precipitated a division for the first time in the history of the Conference— which used to take decisions by consensus, at Geneva on May 16, 2015.

The vote was for listing of pentachlorophenol, an organochlorine compound used as pesticide and disinfectant, for elimination (which will lead to ban on their production and use by member countries). Residues of the pesticide have been detected in the environment in wildlife and human biomonitoring studies.

Switzerland pressed for a vote on listing of pentachlorophenol after efforts to reach a consensus failed. The Conference first took a vote on whether matter should be decided through division. Then it voted 94 against two in favour of listing with eight abstaining. The decision is not binding on India.

The Conference this time was part of combined meetings of Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions. India opposed listing of trichlorfon at the Conference of Parties of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade also, leading to deferment of decision for want of consensus. India was the only country to oppose the proposal.

It was after much remonstrance that India agreed to the resolution on elimination of endosulfan in 2011 with riders (specific exemptions that included use on multiple crop-pest complexes). Though the Convention came up with alternatives to endosulfan as decided at its 2011 Conference, India is yet take steps for ratification of the decision through approval of Parliament. This was despite findings of serious harm caused by the pesticide in Kerala and Karnataka, and possibly in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also.

Observers had alleged that representatives of the pesticide lobby were present in the Indian delegation at the 2011 Conference of Parties to prevent the listing of endosulfan. It is not yet known whether similar situation arose this year also with new government in power. However, it is very clear that India’s opinion at the International fora is dictated by the interests of pesticide companies rather than its population or the world at large.

Regulation is lacking or unenforceable (for want of proper enforcement machinery, laboratories and political will) in India though a substantial portion of the food consumed in the country is contaminated to various levels. Pesticides are often applied unnecessarily and in excess of recommendations in agriculture fields as well as godowns in most States. A national level analysis by government of more than 16000 samples of vegetables, fruits, spices, grains and other food items showed that more than 500 samples had pesticide residues above the limits prescribed by Food Safety Standard Authority of India.

India’s biodiversity and the Convention on Biodiversity

The Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Hyderabad from October 1 to 19, may not achieve much. However, it is an occasion for India to take stock of its biodiversity and think about how to protect it. As the Chair of the Convention now, India can also do much in advancing the cause of conservation of biodiversity across the World though the non-ratification by the United States limits the scope of the Convention.

The Conference of Parties serves as Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. It meets from October 1 to 5 and will consider a number of issues related to handling, transport, packaging and identification of living modified organisms under the Protocol.

It may also address unintentional transboundary movements of living genetically modified organisms and emergencies arising from that, besides guidelines for risk assessment and management.  Capacity building and technology transfer would also come up for discussions in this regard. The Protocol’s own effectiveness would also be reviewed.

There is demand from NGOs and scientists including the Third World Network and the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) to factor in socio-economic considerations into the risk assessment of living modified organisms.

India has allowed limited entry of genetically modified crops.  GM crops now dominate about 90 per cent of cotton farming in the country. However, the experience had been mixed.  GM crop failures have contributed to suicide of farmers in Andhra Pradesh.  There is nagging doubts that genetically modified cotton is responsible for death of goats that grazed the fields.  More than that, the disappearance of traditional varieties of cotton and even hybrid varieties with the dominance of Bt cotton raises concerns.

Scientific conference

Addressing a complex problem: Chairman of ENSSER Angelika Hilbeck speaking a Scientific Conference on Advancing the Understanding of Biodiversity. Photo: Roy Mathew

India has already imposed a moratorium on Bt Brinjal considering, above all, the fact that the country enjoys a diversity of about 2000 brinjal species. (Biodiversity is of variety in genes, species and ecosystems.) Dr. Puspa Bhargava told a scientific conference organised by ENSSER, and hosted by the Tara Foundation and Aruna Rodrigues, in Hyderabad last week that the moratorium should be extended to all GM trials in the country.

Scientists are worried about contamination of Western Ghats, the store house of India’s biodiversity along with the Himalayas, by artificially introduced genes as result of GM trials. So, it is imperative that we wait and watch whether humans can have control over the technology while allowing laboratory studies.  Otherwise, even our Ayurvedic System of medicine could be in peril if drug companies start genetic experimentation.

It seems that the peers of Ayurveda were even aware of genetic diversity as texts mentioned importance of collecting plants from certain locations and with specified characteristics. If our medicinal plans gets contaminated, the whole system of Ayurveda would have to be re-worked which will be an almost impossible task as it is the knowledge gathered by thousands of generations.

(To be continued)

For further reading: Scientists want inclusion of social economic considerations in risk assessment of GM crops