For a Moment of Taste is vegan evangelism, targeted at consumers. A shift away from meat-eating will require engagement with other stakeholders
Poorva Joshipura’s For a Moment of Taste would have made a stronger case for veganism if it weren’t as gospel-like as it is. As in, there are facts weaved into what is largely hagiography intended to prop a following. It was Jesus then, it is veganism now. The message is loud, if not always clear: Veganism saves. The animals that would otherwise die. The planet. Primarily, you.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to mock faith or veganism. Neither the gospels, nor Joshipura’s book. One just wishes there was at least an attempt to engage with complexities in the telling. For Joshipura’s book, it would have meant looking at meat-eating (term used here generically to denote non-vegan diets, including dairy-featuring ones) from the prisms of diet and culture, access to food resources, livelihoods, etc. Instead, meat-eating is largely reduced to a matter of taste in the book while the reader is sermonised about its evils.
On the other hand, there is shockingly little awareness of the toll non-vegan diets take on the planet in terms of lost forests, greenhouse gas emissions, health outcomes, etc, and this is where the strength of For a Moment… could have been, given that there is a glut of research that underscores the environmental and health benefits of plant-based diets. Two chapters, The unsustainability of eating animals and The price we pay, marshal in such research findings that, of course, have been reported extensively before, but Joshipura arranges the isolates to drive home the point. For instance, to the most common criticism of plant-based diets—that vegans don’t get enough micronutrients from their diets, specifically B12 that is abundant in meat and eggs—Joshipura responds with the argument that B12 supplements could help.
Meat and dairy’s links with climate change, climate change’s links with farmer suicides, meat’s link with diet-related ailments, etc, are dealt with in these pages. But, there are vast, inexplicable leaps of assumption that the informed reader may spot in these chapters. For instance, while discussing stunting amongst children, the author seems to absolve nutritional deficiencies of their role in this, invoking a WHO report that says half of all malnutrition is linked to repeated diarrhoea or other infections from contaminated water. “In other words, much of the answer to addressing malnutrition lies not in feeding India’s children foods that are at a high risk of contributing to food-borne illnesses and conditions like diarrhoea but in working to ensure access to clean water, toilets and a hygienic environment,” Joshipura writes.
There may be significant benefits from a plant-based diet—for instance, there is research showing lower risk of heart disease with lower total cholesterol levels. But, there is also research showing that there could be deterioration in the case of the more predictive markers like triglycerides/HDL.
In the same chapter (The price we pay), there is a short discussion on mercury in fish. Mercury, of course, is toxic to humans, but a large part of the mercury that enters our system through fish enters the fish from unsafe disposal of industrial waste—for instance, coal-fired plants in India generated 160 metric tonne of the mercury in FY18. Against such a backdrop, should the call for meaningful action on mercury be about boycotting fish or about safer disposal of mercury generated in industrial processes? Also, one wonders how fair it is to argue for a shift away from meat-eating to battle climate change, while there are many other forms of consumption with much larger carbon footprints.
To be fair, the book does a good job of conveying the problems—ethical, relating to regulatory standards, etc—that afflict the meat industry. The case for veganism from an anti-cruelty perspective is built carefully. One can’t escape feeling discomfited by the portions where Joshipura talks about the meat industry. There are numerous examples of mistreatment of animals farmed for human consumption that are touched upon in the book—from that of a calf that “didn’t want to die” to pigs being slaughtered with hammers.
That said, even though there may be some environmental gains from a plant-only diet, and the ethical considerations for this could be quite compelling, PETA-style vegan evangelism is not going to win the day for the movement. Without reconciliation with aspects relating to culture, access, livelihoods, nutritional impact, the rationale for the shift away from meat-eating won’t convince many. Joshipura’s book is well-written, and even lays down a path for transition. It may even result in some newly-minted vegans. But, the vegan movement will have to, at some point of time, engage with other stakeholders in meat-eating, not just the consumers.
For a Moment of Taste: How What You
Animals, the Planet
and Your Health
Pp 376, Rs 499