How many Bengalis do you know who do not like shorshe ilish? Can you imagine a Bengali wedding without kacchi biryani, or beef rezala? If I had to guess, I would say that your answers are "not many," and "hardly." Even though my knowledge of Bengal is rather limited, I think this I know: Bengalis love meat, Muslims probably a bit more so than Hindus, and virtually every Bengali loves fish. One might think that makes lecturing about animal rights in Bangladesh a quixotic exercise. I found that the opposite is the case.
I first visited Bangladesh in 2009, and I have been coming back once or twice every year ever since. One of the many things that, in my opinion, makes Bangladesh a great country with an even greater potential is its vibrant academic and thriving student community. I have been welcomed warmly by that community, and I had the privilege to talk about my work in philosophy at a number of universities in and near Dhaka. I am very grateful for that. Initially, my focus was on issues in epistemology, human rights philosophy, and value theory. Only recently did I start talking about what I have spent most time thinking about: Animal ethics. Maybe that is because I thought that, in a country where non-vegetarian foods are everybody's favorites, there would be little interest in taking a critical look at the relationship between humans and other animals. If that is what I thought, I was wrong. Both students and faculty in Bangladesh are generally quite open to, and genuinely interested in, the idea that the way we currently treat non-human animals is morally problematic. I say "non-human animals" rather than "animals" to remind us of the plain, but often forgotten, fact that we are animals, too. In a sense, that is where the argument starts.
The animals we eat or use otherwise are like us not only in that we too are animals, which is merely a matter of biological classification, but also in ways that are morally important. They have a unique psychological presence in the world, and they are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. What happens to them matters to them. They have beliefs and desires, and some of them are self-aware and can use certain forms of language. Many have cognitive abilities that exceed those of human infants, and people with certain cognitive disorders. In fact, there seems to be no intrinsic difference between all human beings and all non-human animals which could justify the superior moral status we normally ascribe – rather conveniently – to ourselves. If that is true, and if we owe equal respect to all human beings, then we must extend the same respect to other animals as well. I therefore believe that it is immoral to use non-human animals as a source of food or clothing, or for scientific research. It is mainly for that reason that I stopped eating meat about eighteen years ago, and eventually became a vegan – that is, somebody who does not consume any animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy – about nine years ago. None of us would want to live the miserable life of an animal in a factory farm, which ends in a violent death, so why without necessity impose that kind of life on others who are very much like us? There were times when people could not survive without consuming animal products, but today we can, and Bengali cuisine in particular offers a great variety of vegan options, including vegetable curries, daal, and bhortas.
That, of course, is at best a rough sketch of an argument for animal rights, and much more needs to be said. But I hope I made clear what is at stake. Whether or not we need to rethink our relationship with other animals is a debate worth having, and we should have it publicly rather than leave it to academics. The aspect of that relationship that arguably deserves most of our attention is food animal agriculture, because it involves far more animals than any of the other ways in which we use non-human animals.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, humans kill approximately two thousand animals for food per second, not including fish and other sea animals. If animals have rights, then animal agriculture is nothing short of a moral catastrophe, and must be brought to an end. However, there are also plenty of other reasons that might make you want to reconsider your diet. I have asked four Bangladeshis who swore off meat about their reasons for doing so, and here is what I learned:
Tapash (51) decided to become a vegan mainly because of his opposition to animal cruelty. He largely credits the documentary film Earthlings, which I highly recommend you watch, with opening his eyes to the scale of cruelty that is involved in the production of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. But he told me that it is also concern for his health and the planet that makes him stay away from animal products. A well-balanced plant-based diet is in fact often said to decrease the chances of suffering from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Tapash and his wife Tanusree (42), also a vegan, attest that they are very well "physically, mentally, and spiritually." Miton (45) concurs: "I am much better physically and many of my health complications have gone since I stopped eating meat." He was a vegetarian for six years but recently started eating fish again due to family pressure. Like many, some members of Miton's family falsely believe that vegetarianism is an exclusively Hindu practice, whereas the Qur'an clearly too advocates kindness towards animals, as do all other major religious scriptures. Bollywood star Aamir Khan, a Muslim, just a few weeks ago surprised his fans with the announcement that he has become a vegan. He was inspired by his wife, a long-term vegan herself, who showed him a video about the health benefits of a plant-based diet. "The video showed me a healthier way of life. I only miss dahi but I'm still having a good time. I can eat anything without having to watch calories."
"The fact that I can survive without taking another mammal's or bird's life is mentally satisfying," says Dipen (55) who eats no animals except fish. But, just as Tapash, he is quick to add that there are significant environmental benefits, too. "Meat production demands growing animal food that takes up precious land." That should be of particular concern in Bangladesh, where land is a scarce resource. The production of dairy, eggs, and meat, particularly beef, is highly inefficient in terms of land use. Soybeans, rice, corn, other legumes, and wheat yield significantly more usable protein per unit of land.
Animal agriculture is also a serious source of water pollution, and a waste of water. For example, it takes 4,664 liters of water to produce a portion of beef, but only 371 liters to produce an entire vegan meal. Animal agriculture further generates more greenhouse gas emissions than does the use of gasoline for transport, and is a major contributor to world hunger, as only a fraction of the calories fed to farm animals are returned in the form of edible flesh, eggs, or dairy – calories that would benefit much more people if consumed directly.
Factory farming, which is on the rise in Bangladesh due to more and more people being able to regularly afford animal products, is particularly harmful to our health, the environment, and the animals involved, and it is high time we start taking this seriously.
Food for thought, I hope – suitable for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Rainer Ebert is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at Rice University in Texas, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He blogs at rainerebert.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @rainer_ebert.