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Why plant-based?

These days, a lot of the conversation around food includes buzzwords like ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’. Plant-based diets are gaining traction globally. These concepts have been around for some time now, but something has changed. Why are so many of us talking about a plant-based/vegan lifestyle?

The action at the heart of the vegan lifestyle is to drop any product or thing we might use that has been derived from an animal. While there may be a conversation about whether plant-based and vegan are the same, followers of both diets and lifestyles understand that the nutrition a body needs can be gained from pulses, fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc. Thus, the choice to go plant-based can be understood to be a lifestyle choice, as part of a political movement involving food activism, or both. 

There are three main reasons that people choose to adopt a plant-based diet. 

Health 

Dairy has received a fair amount of attention for its role in a balanced diet. It is nutrient-dense and packs a lot of the macronutrients we look for in food. In nations where people struggle to get their daily nutrition, dairy can be a good way to fight malnutrition. This is why, globally, governments have pushed for mass consumption of dairy (including India’s own dairy movement, ‘Operation Flood’). However, with the rise of plant-dairy, we’ve moved into an era wherein we can get all our nutrition without the need for the middle-cow. Plant-based mylks like soy mylk and fortified varieties of mylk make it possible to go completely plant-based without losing out on too much of the nutrition provided by dairy milk.

Meat (especially meat derived from larger animals AKA red meat) can have serious negative effects on our health. A diet composed of largely red meat has been associated with a higher risk of diabetes, strokes, and colorectal cancer. Additionally, there is a high risk of disease associated with processed meat such as sausages and salamis. All of these complications have prompted people to adopt a diet that involves limited to no meat consumption at all. That said, studies have shown that the impact of lean meat such as chicken and fish can have none to even positive nutritional impacts on health [see here]. 

The nutrients that might be missing from our diet when we switch to a vegan/plant-based diet are easily derived from vegan supplements. Despite the added factors of controlling one’s diet and adding a supplement, people are still turning plant-based. One of the biggest factors contributing to this is not the health risks associated with animal products, but the sustainability of animal-based food.

Sustainability

Plant-based diets have also been on the rise because of the increasing evidence that nutrition derived from animals in the form of meat and dairy is unsustainable. The UN has found that, globally, emissions from animal agriculture (including meat and dairy) amount to 7.1 gigatonnes of Co2. This is 14.5% of all our greenhouse gas emissions and is almost as much as all the emissions caused by every vehicle in the world. This is a real concern on a planet that is struggling with rising sea levels and rampant climate change due to global warming. Additionally, there has been concern about the number of resources that humans use to produce animal protein. Humans use 25 kilos of grain and 15,000 liters of water to get one kilo of animal protein in the form of red meat. For perspective, globally, we kill 200 million animals every day.

Further, one of the biggest concerns about industrialized animal agriculture is that the animals are injected with antibiotics to combat the unhealthy living conditions they are kept in. This can increase the resistance of harmful disease-causing microbes. Over time, these microbes can cause problems for humans through cross-species contamination. 

With the rise in the global standard of living and the movement towards fast food derived from factory farms (this is a trend even in developing nations now), more people are now capable of buying meat and dairy on a regular basis rather than as a one-off purchase for an occasion or as part of one’s chosen balanced diet. While this might sound like a good thing (hey, nutrition for everyone!), more people in the world being upwardly mobile and consuming more meat increases the demand for animal agriculture.

The sustainability of animal agriculture is already a cause for concern. To have it grow even more could make things a lot worse. Thus, people who have the means are adopting a plant-based diet. Globally, there are scientists and entrepreneurs actively working to find a way to provide humankind its nutrition by just relying on plants.

Animal Rights

One of the oldest concerns about using animals for our nutrition has been the ethics surrounding it. The basic question is: Do we have the right to kill a sentient being that is much like ourselves? A halfway point in the negotiating of these ethics, involving food labeled ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’, is to ignore the question of slaughter and demand that the animals we use have good lives before we kill them. Whatever our stance is, the fact remains that globally, even under regulation, animals live under very poor conditions. 

In more developed countries, the lowering of the cost of meat and dairy corresponds with the rise of factory farming. These involve the use of industrial complexes where animals live, from birth to slaughter, in cramped and unhygienic conditions (feces, urine, blood, feathers, and hair carpet the floor in these spaces). Most of them will not see the sunlight. To overcome these unhygienic conditions and ensure that the food that reaches dinner tables is safe to consume, these animals are injected or fed antibiotics to stave off any infections that might occur.

The auxiliary products of eggs and dairy also involve violence of a similar kind. Dairy milk, much like the production of milk in humans, occurs after pregnancy. It is the mother’s body’s natural mechanism to nourish her young. To ensure that a steady supply of milk is available all year round, cows are made pregnant via artificial insemination. Chickens are sorted by sex from birth and male chicks are immediately ground into the meat because they cannot lay eggs or reach the optimal size for lean meat. Female chicks are immediately transported to a broiler for a life dedicated to laying eggs before they are slaughtered for meat. 

Conclusion

Taken separately, each of these reasons may be unlikely to move a hardcore animal-eater. However, together, they have created a movement composed of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians who rely on a largely plant-based diet for their nutrition. With the growth of the movement, there has emerged an entire industry of people engaged in creating plant-based food for both ethical and monetary reasons. This is how it begins.