What is good about milk, meat and eggs?


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FOODS of animal origin – milk, meat and eggs – are generally considered an important part of ‘good’ and nutritious diets, especially for growing children, and pregnant and lactating mothers.1 Animal foods have essential amino acids, vitamin B12, zinc and iron, and their absence can lead to severe deficiency diseases and malnutrition. On the flip side, foods of animal origin pose a potential risk as carriers of serious zoonotic diseases. To make animal foods easily available, affordable and accessible, and to minimize zoonoses, animal farming systems in India have been changing. Factory farming and industrial systems of livestock rearing are being promoted, but such industrial systems are not without risks. They are known to have low standards of animal welfare and to use plenty of antibiotics that enter the food stream, leading to multi drug resistance in humans.

The answer to addressing food and nutritional security seems to lie neither in the industrial models of livestock rearing presently being promoted, nor in the emerging high priced ‘organically certified’ systems. But what is the right answer? This paper discusses some of the different systems of livestock rearing in India; the social, economic and environmental concerns centred around each system; and explores ways in which systems can perhaps better address the nutritional needs of society.

Despite the rapid growth in India’s economy, malnutrition continues to be widespread.2 ‘Hidden hunger’ which is the lack of, or inadequate intake of micronutrients, and results in different types of malnutrition such as iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin A deficiency, continues to remain a problem. Poor communities, especially those belonging to indigenous groups, the rural landless and the urban poor, are particularly affected as they do not have the means to grow and raise their own food; nor do they have the money to purchase food which provides adequate and complete nutrition. Diets available for poor communities tend to have a lot of cereal and starch and very little protein, as protein foods including beans and lentils are more expensive than cereals in India.3 Several Indians today are vegetarian not because of religious reasons and preference but simply because they cannot afford to consume foods of animal origin. Existing production and supply systems for livestock, as well as the policies that govern them, do not meet animal protein nutritional security amongst the poor.


The Indian landscape has always been dotted with small subsistence farms, hunter-gatherers and pastoral communities. For these marginal groups, a proportion of the animal component of their food was always obtained through hunting (wild boar, wild birds etc.) or gathering (crabs, fish, termites, insects etc.). Hunting in India was banned with the imposition of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972,4 whilst crabs and fish, which were normally harvested from flooded rice fields, have all but disappeared in the recent past due to the excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture. Gathering of insects and consumption of reptiles is looked down upon and for a section of the Indian population this important source of nutrition has all but disappeared.

Pastoral communities obtain the animal component of their diet from the animals they rear. Interestingly, several pastoral groups such as the Rebaris, Bharwads and Sodhas of Gujarat, and the Raikas of Rajasthan are vegetarian and do not consume meat. Strong social taboos forbid them from slaughtering the animals they rear (see Köhler Rollefson in this issue). Pastoralists play a critical role supplying other communities with products of animal origin, such as meat, milk and wool. By marketing their produce either directly, through decentralized and informal markets, or through barter and exchange, pastoral systems continue to contribute significantly to India’s economy. However, nomadic pastoralism as a production system is frowned upon by the state. Over the past hundred or more years there have been many attempts to sedenterize these communities as well as control the marketing of their products.


Livestock markets are a vibrant and colourful component of the Indian rural landscape. From large ones like the well known Pushkar of Rajasthan where camel and cattle herders come to trade their stock, to small village haats or santhas where women sit with chickens, goats or piglets, they are an integral part of the country’s huge informal economy, providing easy access to livestock products in the rural areas as well as livelihoods for many. Extremely decentralized, with each region having its own distinct pattern, India has annual markets, weekly markets, markets related to a festival or a livestock species and breed markets. These are the nodal points from which an intricate web of livestock produce, milk, meat, live animals, hides, horn and bone travel across the country to provide raw materials to butchers, cobblers, weavers and other craftsmen practicing their skills and sustaining themselves.

There have been many attempts to streamline, regulate, take over and control these markets as well as their produce. Under the guise of modernization there have been attempts to usher in more centralized forms of livestock production accompanied by the introduction of new technology, exotic animals and more formal systems of channelling produce.5


As new forms of marketing emerge it is easy to label traditional production systems and the people involved in these forms of production as inefficient: which translates into ‘too many low producing animals utilizing too many resources’ or ‘not up to sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures’, simply implying ‘unhygienic and unsafe’. Most traditional methods of pig production in the country have been labelled as unhygienic and unsafe, as are systems of backyard poultry rearing, making it easier to push for modern industrial systems. In a pre-industrialized society where refrigeration techniques did not exist and livestock products like milk and meat perished quickly, it made sense to keep production levels low and within manageable levels; but a modern society with technology at its fingertips makes different demands on its livestock producers.

Industrialization helps shape a different food culture, a different food-scape. Today milk is available as milk powder, low bulk and low volume to be reconstituted on demand. Milk is also available in special containers labelled as long life milk. Eggs can be converted into egg powder. Meat is available in cans and tins, or vacuum packed in sterile bags. All these products can be imported under new trade laws and regimes. Who cares about backyard pigs or poultry?

Cooperative dairying is the well known example of the centralization of livestock production systems that India has undergone post-independence. Milk was seen as the best animal based food for tackling widespread malnutrition in the country, especially amongst growing children and pregnant and lactating women. Through the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), farmers across the country were brought under a vast umbrella that set the standards for dairy production.6 NDDB has tried to provide safe ‘pasteurized’ milk at an affordable price for consumers across the country, especially in urban areas. It also seeks to keep dairy farmers happy by giving them a fair price for their milk, but all is not well with the cooperative dairy sector (see Murray in this issue) and several small farmers have in fact moved back to informal marketing.7 The pricing of milk by dairy cooperatives is a challenge to farmers as input costs of fodder and healthcare keep escalating. Mastitis is a common problem in dairy cattle, especially of the crossbred cattle promoted by the dairy cooperatives, and antibiotic therapy, also recommended by the dairy cooperatives, is expensive. Continuous antibiotic therapy is undesirable but unfortunately the use of antibiotics in India in livestock is uncontrolled and extremely high.8


Milk is also not always the ideal animal protein for supplementing diets, as is often popularly believed. For some indigenous communities milk is not a part of their traditional diet, but meat and eggs are. Several livestock policies over the years have been blind to this however, and the thrust has been to enhance the country’s dairy production even in areas where dairying is unsuitable or difficult. Where indigenous and tribal populations are high, some of these groups cannot digest the lactose, as the enzyme lactase is lost between the ages of two and five in several populations.9 There have been very few studies to document the consumption patterns of milk amongst different communities in India, a lacuna which scientific research perhaps needs to address. Beef is consumed by the poorest groups in the country but now has to be foregone because of recent bans on beef slaughter.10 Recently, one of the state governments also banned eggs from its school nutrition programmes, citing religious reasons.11 As cheaper sources of animal based protein get eliminated from their diet, people have to start looking for substitutes, or more often do without.


In order to control produce and markets – as well as to supposedly make animal foods easily available, more affordable and accessible, and to minimize the risk of zoonoses – India has focused on industrializing its farming. Industrial livestock production has also been promoted as the only alternative to growing urbanization and rising incomes as India steps into a post-modern world.12 Industrialization is seen as a step towards removing the tarnish of being a poor, underdeveloped and inefficient country. Poultry production was the first livestock sector to be ‘industrialized’ in India and several entrepreneurs in the poultry sector have set up poultry units, making India one of the largest producers of eggs and poultry meat.13 The industrialized poultry sector caters to 75% of the total egg production in the country.14 Dairy was the next livestock sector to be industrialized and today India boasts of large farms with over 2000 animals viz. Abis farm in central India owns up to 5000 animals. Several other industrial units rearing pigs and goats have rapidly sprung up across the country. It is argued that industrial livestock production units provide jobs and give India valuable items for trade. Policy makers have become eager to promote these systems, establishing SEZ’s (Special Economic Zones) for processing industrialized livestock products for export.


It is not at all clear whether factory farming and industrial systems of livestock rearing are providing a response to the prevention of malnutrition amongst the poor in India. It is estimated that 75% of the eggs produced by industrial poultry houses are consumed by 25% of the population, most of which live in urban areas.15 The meat from industrial poultry houses finds its way to hotels and restaurants where the poor do not eat, or to supermarket shelves where the rural poor do not shop. Milk coming from industrial farms gets converted to high value items like ice cream, ghee, cheese, butter, paneer and yoghurt – which the poor cannot afford to consume.

Industrial systems also pose other risks. Pandemics such as Avian flu are known to have originated in industrial units.16 Industrial units are also known to have low standards of animal welfare and use chemicals and antibiotics in an effort to keep the risks of infection low, especially if regulation is poor and legal systems are not in place.17 Industrial units have many environmental problems which are difficult to tackle in developing countries, with poor consumer awareness, poor public health polices and farmers who are not aware about the environmental and public health risks of their farming systems.

Excessive and uncontrolled antibiotic use in India has already led to the problem of residues in animal products. These in turn enter the food stream leading to multi drug resistance in humans. Multi drug resistance especially for tuberculosis is now quite high in India.18 There has been concern raised about industrial systems by a few groups such as the Humane Society International and GARP (Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership)-India, but the issue is still not discussed widely enough.


Other models of livestock rearing have emerged in the Indian context, including the exclusive and privately run organic farms, which cater to a small and elite section of society. Special farms like Kegg Farms (www. keggfarms.com) is one such. Kegg Farms prides itself on maintaining high animal welfare standards, producing organic chicken and eggs, and using almost no antibiotics. But they charge twice the standard amount per egg. Several privately owned small dairy farms across India also provide special quality milk at extremely high prices. Certified ‘organic’, and sold in niche markets, these products are way out of the reach and pockets of the poor.19

In order to respond to the levels of malnutrition in the country, the National Food Security Act was passed in 2013.20 The act was passed ‘to provide for food and nutritional security within the human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto’. Salient features of the act include entitlements to pregnant women and children from economically deprived backgrounds, including a free meal per day as well as health care. It has been difficult to include foods of animal origin in these entitlements. In a largely tropical country with poor refrigeration chains, foods of animal origin spoil easily and carry organisms and micro-organisms which can be life threatening.


Since the answer to addressing food and nutritional security, especially for the poor, seems not to lie in the industrial or centralized models of agriculture and livestock rearing that are currently being promoted, it is essential to look for some other options. David Keller and Charles Brummer in their essay, ‘Putting Food Production in Context: Toward a Post-mechanistic Agricultural Ethic’, talk about a concept of agriculture which is more than simply food production but recognizes its non-economic values such as ecological, aesthetic, historical, political, social and even spiritual. They call on land grant institutions, agricultural agencies, and the food consuming public to recognize the plenitude of values involved in the activity of farming.21


Another approach that is gaining popularity is agro-ecology, which focuses on giving recognition to smallholder production systems and ensuring proper policy instruments to encourage chemical free production. A multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach is also being suggested by some agencies working on food systems globally. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems22 argues for ‘a new analytical lens for sustainable food systems’. Their first report published in May 2015, states that sustainability must be defined in all of its dimensions: protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems; ensuring optimal use of natural and human resources; supportive of food and nutrition security, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; and nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy for present and future generations. They also argue for a new transdisciplinary science of sustainable food systems, which maintains that political and ethical choices cannot be made by scientists alone, but needs the greater involvement of many partners in determining food choices.

In a complex society like India this approach raises other concerns. Presently, religion and culture have actively entered debates on livestock, including which animals must be raised and how they must be raised. Some recent examples are the ban on beef, the sale of bovines and camels in animal markets and the case of Jallikattu, a sport in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that is linked to a local breed of cattle (see Karthikeyan in this issue). The debate in these cases has usually been emotional and even violent. Both people and animals have lost their lives in ways that negate our claims to the legacy of ahimsa.


In India, one area of nutrition that certainly would benefit from more focus is street foods. Many of the urban poor are dependant on street food for their daily nutrition, but such food is often labelled as unhygienic, unsafe and unhealthy. Asia has several examples of successful street food cultures, for example the food markets in Malaysia, which have developed effective laws on licensing to ensure they are safe for regular consumption. Such an example could be shared with other countries and societies across Asia.

There must undoubtedly be other approaches to addressing the challenges of nutritional security. Interesting global models include farmers deciding what they would like to produce and consumers deciding what they would like to eat; in which decisions are not taken by intermediaries such as the state, wealthy landlords, private corporations or an international supermarket. There are forums being created where producers and consumers speak directly to each other instead of having their conversation mediated by a long chain of anonymous intermediaries. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one such concept, which aims at increased support to farmer groups and consumers, shorter value chains and encouraging local produce for local areas. In another example, which supports informal markets in Africa and Asia, researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) along with their partners, have developed and piloted an institutional innovation: a training, certification and branding scheme for informal value chain actors that they claim has the potential to improve the safety of animal source foods sold in the informal market. They have developed a theory of change for how the intervention is expected to contribute to better nutrition and health outcomes for consumers.23

What is clear is that in India we would benefit from looking at our livestock differently. Instead of viewing them as mere producers of milk, meat or eggs, or as religious symbols and historic artefacts, our cattle, sheep, goat and poultry should be viewed as sentient beings that share this earth with us. The relationship between pastoralists and small farmers, the animals they rear and the land they rear them on, needs to acquire fresh relevance to keep rural landscapes alive.


This change would need science, policy makers and society to accept diversity and decentralization. It would also need tolerance for different food production methods and food cultures, and it would require more informed producers and consumers. It would also require a change in the way policy and trade decisions are defined, a change in how laws are framed for farmers, and new course material and curricula designed as extension messages to enable farmers and livestock keepers to transition to environmentally safe and socially relevant farming systems. A brave new world needs to make brave choices.



1. FAO, World Livestock 2011 – Livestock in Food Security. FAO, Rome, 2011.

2. FAO, IFAD and WFP, The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Meeting the 2015 International Hunger Targets: Taking Stock of Uneven Progress. FAO, Rome, 2015; International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International, National Family Health Survey. IIPS, Mumbai, 2005-6; Government of India, Rapid Survey on Children: India Fact Sheet (provisional). Ministry of Women and Child Development, GOI, New Delhi, 2013-14, p. 10.

3. Krithiga Shridhar et. al., Nutritional Profile of Indian Vegetarian Diets – the Indian Migration Study (IMS), 4 June 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4055802/ (accessed 10 June 2015).

4. Government of India, Wildlife Protection Act. Ministry of Environment and Forests, GOI, New Delhi, 1972.

5. Nitya S. Ghotge, Livestock and Livelihoods: The Indian Context. Foundation Books, Delhi, Cambridge, 2004.

6. NDDB, www.nddb.org/ndpi/about. 2011.

7. Anthra, Internal Reports (unpublished), 2014.

8. Anthra, Extent of Mastitis in Dairy Cattle of Pune District (internal report). Anthra, 2011; Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership (GARP) – India Working Group, ‘Rationalizing Antibiotic Use to Limit Antibiotic Resistance in India+’, Indian Journal of Medical Research, September 2011, pp. 281-294.

9. Peter Gluckman, Alan Beedle and Mark Hanson, Principles of Evolutionary Medicine. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

10. http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21648024-protecting-cattle-popular-meat-industry-wants-protecting-too-pink-and-saffron

11. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/egg-less-meals- at-anganwadis-madhya-pradeshs-ban-pitches-nutrition-againstpolitics/

12. Henning Steinfeld, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, 2006.

13. Nitya S. Ghotge, 2004, op. cit., fn. 5; UNCTAD, ‘Wake Up Before it is too Late; Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate’, Trade and Environment Review, UN, Geneva, 2013.

14. Jan van der Lee, Nitya S. Ghotge, Gayatri Rajurkar and Jitesh K. Panda, Good Agricultural Practices in the Indian Layer Industry; Opportunities and Challenges for Egg Powder Export. Technical, Wageningen UR Livestock Research, Wageningen University, 2010.

15. Ibid.

16. Christine Chemnitz and Stanka Becheva, The Meat Atlas. Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Friends of the Earth Europe, 2014.

17. UNCTAD, op. cit., 2013, fn. 13; Ibid., fn. 16.

18. GOI, National Policy for the Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance. Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, GOI, New Delhi, 2011.

19. Nitya Ghotge, ‘Organic for Whom: The Dilemma Faced by Small Livestock Producers in Developing Countries’, in G. Rahmann and Godinho (eds.), Tackling the Future Challenges of Organic Animal Husbandry; Proceedings of the 2nd OAHC. Hamburg, 2012.

20. GOI, The National Food Security Act. Government of India, New Delhi, 2013.

21. R. David Keller and E. Charles Brummer, ‘Putting Food Production in Context: Toward a Postmechanistic Agricultural Ethic’, in David R. Keller (ed.), Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions. Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

22. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, The New Science of Sustainable Food Systems: Overcoming Barriers to Food Systems. IPES, 2015.

23. N. Johnson, J. Mayne, D. Grace and D. Wyatt, How will Training Traders Con-tribute to Improved Food Safety in Informal Markets for Meat and Milk: A Theory of Change Analysis, July 2015; Susan Mac-millan, ‘Towards-professionalizing-not-criminalizing-informal-sellers-of-milk-and- meat-in-poor-countries’, ILRI News, 08 06, 2015. http://news.ilri.org (accessed 8 December 2015).