For those of us who can afford it, we eat meat all the time, but do we ever stop to think why? Do we need to eat so much meat? Why do we only seem to think of cute, fluffy animals when we talk about animal welfare, and not cows and chickens? I sat down with Rubaiya Ahmad, the brains behind Obhoyaronno, to get a clear idea of animal welfare in Bangladesh, particularly in terms of livestock and poultry, and to change the way I view the food on my table – not just slabs of meat, but living, breathing creatures that deserve to live well and when necessary, die peacefully.
Are you ever eating just meat?
Obhoyaronno campaigns to promote the reduction of meat consumption by focusing mainly on the health concerns – a surefire way to get people to listen to you. Meat in general, especially red meat, can be devastating for you. It clogs arteries, affects diabetes, creates hypertension and leads to childhood obesity.
What I didn't know is how harmful the way meat is processed can be for us, especially in Bangladesh, where factory farmed animals are usually treated with growth hormones, steroids, fattening agents and antibiotics – which is possibly why we are increasingly becoming resistant to medicines.
However, we tend to forget what the animal is going through when it iss being slaughtered. Rubaiya says, “There are instances when hujurs who are called in to perform the task of sacrificing the animals don’t even know the proper way of doing so. You can’t expect young kids from madrasas to perform the act in a humane and ascribed manner (cutting the four main arteries that connect the brain to the body) so they keep on cutting back and forth and ensuring the most painful death for the animal while at it. In the regular slaughter-houses, the butchers are lazy enough to not bother about sharpening the blades. There have been many incidents when people reported seeing an animal running around with their throat slit in half.”
We are actually one of the lowest meat consuming countries. 80 percent of the meat consumed in that number is consumed by 5 percent of our population. It’s all the KFCs, BFCs, FFCs
From a religious perspective, such treatment of the animals we eat is completely forbidden. In fact, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity – all religions ask you to abstain from meat at a certain period of time. Rubaiya points out, “Our Prophet (PBUH) apparently once said, if you eat meat 40 days in a row, your heart turns cold. Islam is often viewed as a religion where everyone eats meat thrice daily but that’s not at all the case. Our Prophet (PBUH) and sahabis didn’t eat that much. So when someone comes in and says that they’ve eaten meat for ages, they are mistaken. On the contrary, factory farming of meat is a recent phenomenon. Ordering fat burgers that are delivered to your doorstep is not how we’ve eaten meat all this time.”
Eating one, sparing the other
During the Yulin festival in China (also known as the lychee and dog meat festival), you come across a multitude of posts on social media that condemn the dog meat trade, complaining how the Chinese and Korean are barbaric in that regard. But how does one morally justify eating one particular kind of meat and not the other?
What is an acceptable form of meat, varies from one place to another. In India, you can run the risk of being lynched if you eat beef in certain states. The lower incidence of cow slaughtering in India means there is a roaring trade in illegal cattle across our borders since we are more than happy to bite into beef every chance we get. In some parts of China, cats and dogs have livestock status.
However, we still tend to feel a certain amount of empathy for mammals. But how often do we worry about eating birds, like chickens? In fact, there is an odd belief that if the animal is smaller, their suffering is proportionately less as well. While you might not have much respect for these 'bird brains,' chickens have actually been proven to be sophisticated and intelligent birds that have some sense of numbers, can communicate with each other and can even anticipate future events.
But I understand – being a meat eater myself, it isn't easy to just give it up, but it is easy to start caring about the source of the meat on our plates and holding meat vendors accountable.
If you are still interested in eating meat, don’t pick one that was born into a farm factory.
Rubaiya paints a horrendous picture: “A chicken, which usually needs two years to complete its growth, is injected with various growth hormones at farm factories to bloat it up while its legs are too weak to hold the weight of the body, making it collapse ultimately. They spend their entire lives in confinement before being slaughtered with a knife in front of other chickens and are thrown into a drum where they suffocate and die. Just because you want to eat meat, you don’t have to support this. Go find a chicken in the villages that are free-range, catch it and eat it – it’s much better.”
While talking about how oblivious we are to the current state of things, Rubaiya used the example of footage from a Bengal Meat advert from a super shop that showed how the animals were kept and slaughtered.
“It is horrible that how such barbaric scenes were actually part of a widely accepted advertising scheme. These are footages which people in other countries would otherwise want to hide. People need to start questioning the sources of their food, and as consumers, they should hold these businesses accountable.”
Omnivores, not carnivores
Studies show that the mass production of meat in the world is effectively overheating the planet (combined climate change emissions of animals bred for meat are about 18% of the global total), eating up land that could be used for crops, wasting water, causing deforestation and having a multitude of harmful effects on the environment.
But it is not just the production of meat – all of these negative impacts are part of the by-products industry as well, and animals continue to suffer even when they are farmed for milk and eggs. Some may think that milking is not as bad as killing, but it definitely has a negative side. It is hard to fathom how cruel the dairy industry is. They artificially inseminate the cow over and over again to make it pregnant since that’s the only way they produce milk. A cow’s pregnancy period is of nine months, just like humans, so imagine how horrible it is to be impregnated every year? On top of that, farmed cows have their calves taken away from them and sacrificed to the veal industry.
But of course, we've all asked ourselves the question – why should it matter if one tiny person reduces their consumption in a world that is teeming with meat-eaters? But the frequency in which and the amount of meat that we now consume cannot be justified with such feeble logic, and we should all be worried about the growing carnivorous tendencies that we are slowly being surrounded by.
“We understand that Bangladesh has been a traditionally meat-eating country but believe it or not, we are actually one of the lowest meat consuming countries. 80 percent of the meat consumed in that number is consumed by 5 percent of our population. It’s all the KFCs, BFCs, FFCs. People living in rural areas consume a balanced diet whereas the city dwellers are the ones who need to change their behaviour and eating pattern – it will leave an overall impact on the meat industry and factory farming standards,” Rubaiya added.
One small step
She suggests that you don’t have to think about the impact as a whole - “We are talking about a few large cities within a very small country. Ideally, if you stop eating meat thrice a day, and ask ten of your friends to do the same who get ten of their friends to follow suit, there will be a dent. This is something Obhoyaronno promotes and advocates very aggressively. We also realise that it is utopian talk, so we are asking people to go meatless once a week.”
Among the various initiatives by Obhoyaronno, their introduction of the Meatless Monday campaign is one that really stands out given our social context. A global movement, the campaign has been going on for decades. It first started in USA during the 1980s by John Hopkins University and was later made popular in the UK by Sir Paul McCartney before being popularised all over the world. “We have brought it to Bangladesh. We’ve partnered with schools to implement the idea for lunch. We have Jatra Biroti that has a Meatless Monday menu with all kinds of vegan food. I also saw a few Meatless Monday items on Cookups so I can tell that the movement is catching on,” she said.
While talking about our reluctance to move away from our carnivorous habits, Rubaiya recommends that people need to move away from the “if-I-can’t-do-everything-I-will-do-nothing” tendency. She urges, “Every bit helps, every meal counts. Every meal that you choose to go meatless, and opt for a vegan item – you’re saving an animal. It doesn’t have to be Monday, it can be any day of the week. Try to go meatless as many times as you possibly can.”