Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilisation. The integration of livestock in farming has been the secret behind India’s centuries-old sustainable agriculture systems.
Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilisation. The integration of livestock in farming has been the secret behind India’s centuries-old sustainable agriculture systems. Farm animals sustain our soils by providing soil fertility. They sustain the agrarian economy with renewable energy. As K.M. Munshi, India’s first minister of agriculture after Independence, and a dear friend of my late parents, wrote: “The Mother Cow and Nandi are not worshipped in vain. They are the primeval agents who enrich the soil — nature’s great land transformers — who supply organic matter, which, after treatment, becomes nutrient matter of the greatest importance. In India, tradition, religious sentiment and economic needs have tried to maintain a cattle population large enough to maintain the cycle, only if we know it.”
Like our seeds, India’s animal breeds were bred for diversity — diversity of breeds and functions. The best cattle breeds of the world have been bred in India — the Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Rathi, Tharparkar, Hariana, Ongole, Kankrej and Gir.
Indian breeds are multi-taskers. Both the female and male offspring have value. The cow provided nutrition through dairy, and the bullocks provided energy for transport and farm operations and this sophisticated breeding was done by indigenous experts.
Just as farmers breeding of seeds, and crop diversity, has been ignored by industrial crop breeding, breeding genetic diversity of livestock with multiple uses has been ignored by the industrial animal breeding “factories”, which have reduced cows and their progeny to milk machines and meat machines.
The industrial model, based on what I have called the Monocultures of the Mind, breeds uniformity and one dimensionality, it breeds standardisation and mediocracy. Indigenous breeds in India use 29 per cent of the organic matter provided to them compared to only nine per cent in US industrial farms. Indian cattle use 22 per cent of the energy, compared to only seven per cent in the US. India’s holy cow is much more valued, and valuable than “pounds of flesh”.
Traditionally cows and farm animals have used organic matter — like straw — while the grain goes to human consumption. The Green Revolution dwarf varieties deprived animals of their food, and the aata from these varieties being tasteless — deprived people. Most grain from industrial crop production is now used as animal feed, depriving humans of food. A new competition has been created between food for animals and food for humans. Seventy-five per cent of corn grown in India is for animal feed. In addition, we imported 500,000 tonnes of corn in 2016.
Yet, the highly efficient, sustainable indigenous food system, based on the multiple uses of crops and cattle, has been dismantled in the name of “efficiency” and “productivity”. Integration has been replaced by fragmentation and separation. Dynamic complementarity has been replaced by a forced one-way competition. Cyclical and circular processes — based on mutuality and the law of return — have been replaced by linearity, violence and exploitation. India’s multidimensional, multifunctional systems have been replaced by single commodity output systems using high inputs.
The sacred cow has thus been reduced to a milk machine. As Shanti George observes: “The trouble is that when dairy planners look at the cow, they just see her udder; though there is much more to her. They equate cattle only with milk, and do not consider other livestock produce — draught power, dung for fertiliser and fuel, hides, skins, horn and hooves.”
In the industrial-exploitative paradigm, of the cow as a milk machine, our superefficient and resilient Indian breeds are declared (quantitatively) inefficient, sans qualitative assessment. The pure indigenous breeds are replaced by homogenised hybrids of the Zebu cow, with foreign branded strains like the Jersey, Holstein, Friesian, Red Dane and Brown Swiss, supposedly to improve the Zebu’s dairy “productivity”.
Other contributions of farm animals are forgotten in the mechanistic reductionism paradigm. When I wrote Staying Alive, more than two-thirds of the energy needs of rural India were met by 80 million work animals, of which 70 million were the male progeny of indigenous breeds.
When I worked in the IIM Bangalore in the late 1970s, N.S. Ramaswamy was the director. He was famously known as “Cartman” — for his work on the contributions of animals to India’s economy. According to him, animals ploughed 100 million hectares and hauled 25 billion km tonnes of freight in 15 million ox-carts. He estimated that 74 million oxen and eight million buffaloes make available 40 million horsepower of energy (worth Rs 100 billion per year). Animal energy saves six million tonnes of petroleum (worth Rs 120 billion per year). The asset value of our pashu dhan is Rs 250 billion. The replacement of animal energy by mechanised systems would require an investment of $200-$300 billion.
Just when we need our farm animals to play an important role in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals to which India is committed, we are destroying our animal wealth, and with it the ecological and economic contributions they make. For the first time in the history of Indian agriculture, the male calves have been declared useless. And this is what has led to the explosion of slaughterhouses, and the “pink revolution” of meat and beef exports. The livestock policy — made as part of the World Bank-driven structural adjustment policies — to promote the meat industry states “religious sentiments against cattle slaughter seem to spill over also on buffaloes and prevent the utilisation of a large number of surplus male calves”.
India today is the top beef exporter of the world. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15 alone buffalo meat exports grew more than fourfold, from 4.9 lakh tonnes to 13.14 lakh tonnes; from $1163.54 million to $4068.64 million. But these export earnings hide the losses to the soil fertility, the nutrition of children and lost renewable energy.
Animals on a farm sustain the soil, and lives and livelihoods of small farmers. As the Viniyog Parivar calculated, in the case of the foreign-owned Al Kabeer slaughterhouse in Andhra Pradesh, if the animals had been allowed to live, they would save foreign exchange worth Rs 910.25 crores. Just in terms of fertility of soil, the slaughtered farm animals would have provided Rs 36.41 crores of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium (NPK), for which we pay the “fertiliser” industry.
We are not just exporting our animal wealth. We are exporting our soil and water. We are trading away our future.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust