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Animal Farming and Protein
Reflections from Kashmir
In 1836, an ancestor of mine started an annual family ritual at a temple he built on a beautiful hillock with a spring that feeds orchards around it. It’s cool to know that for the last 186 years, Dhar family members have showed up here, rain or shine, on a specific full moon of the year to honor their ancestors in a Shiv temple he built. The temple houses a huge stone phallus, the symbol of Shiva, found in the river Jhelum. I’ve never been religious, but I find the family tradition special. I know that on this day of the year, I’ll find my family here. Friends show up occasionally, which makes it even better.
While I’m here, I take full advantage of the beauty of Kashmir, walking up my favorite valleys into the snowy passes. For those of you who are similarly inclined, I’m going to share some images from my hikes this week. They speak for themselves.
The good news about hiking in Kashmir is that Indian tourists don’t walk. They drive to wherever they can, on roads that creep into the valleys. A few are ferried up to the scenic overlooks on ponies. On seeing us walking up the trail, one of them commented “these people from outside like to walk.” I objected in the vernacular, “I’m not an outsider.” They grinned back sheepishly.
Check out my latest podcast with guest Ben Hunt, author of The Epsilon Theory newsletter. Ben has an interesting perspective on the emerging metaverse. He points to the need for a theory to understand the alien beings that inhabit our metaverse and are changing the way we think. Ben has three blogs on the subject, so check out his newsletter for more.
In one of his newsletters, Ben mentioned that he operates a little family farm in Connecticut. He describes his relationship with his animals who are fortunate enough not to be raised for consumption.
What resonated with me was his observation that we have become so distant from what we eat, specifically meat. I’ve noticed that we increasingly refer to meat as “protein.” I ordered a salad recently and was asked “what kind of protein would you like to go with that?”
So, I dug deeper into our brave new world of animal machines and where it’s taking us. We are so used to seeing cows, pigs, sheep, and chicken come neatly wrapped in the protein section of the supermarket, that we pay no attention to how they got there.
What happens to them on the way to the market is extremely disturbing. Some might call it morally wrong. And it is very damaging to the environment.
I’d recommend starting with Peter Singer’s book called Animal Liberation.
Singer describes how animals have become machines that convert low-priced fodder into high-priced flesh. Innovation in this industry is one that results in a high “conversion ratio.” That is, it maximizes the ratio of output price to input cost.
Let’s start with the scale of animal farming. Over 100 million cows, pigs, and sheep are raised and slaughtered in the United States each year; and for poultry the figure is 5 billion. Over 160 million birds are gassed, suffocated, or die every year in the United States because the ultra-fast growth rates required cause all kinds of deformed animals, the worst of which are eliminated. That doesn’t mean that the rest are healthy.
But the conversion ratio isn’t just about maximizing growth rates. In veal production, for example, you also want the flesh to be as tender and light as possible. Calves are immediately snatched from their mothers and shackled in tight stalls to avoid movement, and deprived of iron to keep their flesh pale. The calves desperately crave iron, to the point that they lick the urine residue from the wooden slots through which their waste falls. In the meantime, their mothers are equally traumatized. Its not much different for pigs, who get their tails cut off to stave off aggression from being cooped in a tight space, or chickens who get their beaks cut off twice during their eight-week lifespan for similar reasons.
I could go on, but you get the point, and it’s hard to ignore.
Meanwhile Back in Kashmir…
I’ve been a non-vegetarian all my life. I’ve grown up enjoying meat. I grew up eating Kashmiri cuisine, and learned its art through an aunt and extensive experimentation. I have a deep curiosity about flavors and textures and try to combine the best ideas from Asian, African and European cuisines. Most of my signature dishes are meat-based.
But we are causing a lot of trauma to a lot of animals unthinkingly. Markets reward producers for maximizing conversion ratios. However, market-oriented solutions fail us when they are unable to price something important. One example is the environment, which I discussed with venture capitalist Albert Wenger, based on his book “The World After Capital.” We ignore the environment, and create what economists refer to as an “externality” that is exploited by producers.
Animal cruelty seems like another example of market failure. Animals can’t demand rights, and we are happy to consume them as long as they’re out of sight. Cruelty is similar to an environmental externality.
As it turns out, my cousin invited me for lunch shortly after I arrived in Kashmir. It was a magical Kashmir afternoon on a lush green lawn with fruit laden trees. Sure enough, it featured the classic Kashmiri meat dishes. I skirted them all, until I reached my cousin who was serving the “macch” (seasoned ground lamb koftas in a fiery red yogurt rich sauce). I informed him that I had just turned vegetarian. He toasted that decision by serving me a piece.
It was excellent. But I’m done with meat. Its not that I will never ever touch it again. A piece or two of macch every year or so won’t change the fact that I’m done turning a blind eye to our current methods of animal farming and my mindless consumption that encourages it. I nibbled on my brother’s kebab sandwich a few days later and didn’t care for it. It feels like I turned a mental switch, one that feels right.
Even if a tenth of us turn that switch, the impacts would be huge. I’ll save the details for a future newsletter.
For those of us who are hard core carnivores, let’s hope artificial meat becomes a reality soon.
I’ve been talking about animal cruelty, so imagine my delight when, on my way back from a long hike, I saw this sheep enjoying his cheeks being rubbed by his keeper.
Until next time.