Crying fowl against vegetarian India

India is among the top countries in terms of chicken and fish consumption growth, but lags in wheat, rice and sugar consumption

Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To be eaten by an Indian.

India is the fourth-fastest growing market for chicken in the world. As fish eaters too, we aren’t far behind with the seventh fastest growth over the last two decades. Although the growth in per capita consumption of these animal proteins comes from a very low base, the data effectively busts the myth of an overwhelmingly vegetarian India.

Data from the recently-released OECD-FAO (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, UN Food and Agriculture Organization) Agricultural Outlook, 2014, shows that chicken consumption in India grew at an annual growth rate of 5.9% between 1992 and 2013. This was just behind Haiti, Vietnam and Ghana which aren’t exactly renowned for their vegetarianism. This growth also is ahead of the 1.63% rate for developed countries.

To be sure, there are some discrepancies between the OECD-FAO data and the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 68th round data on chicken and fish consumption. While the OECD-FAO report pegs per capita chicken consumption in 2013 at 1.85kg per person per year, this figure in the NSSO report is 2.5kg. For fish, the OECD number for 2013 is 6.11kg per person and the NSSO number is 3.1kg, even though NSSO also includes prawns. However, both sets of data show the consumption of these meats is growing fast.

Wheat, rice, and sugar consumption haven’t grown all that fast in the past two decades. India ranks 17th in terms of growth in wheat consumption, 31st in growth in rice consumption and 14th in growth of sugar consumption. This basically shows that for more or less the same amount of rotis and rice, Indians are eating quite a lot more of chicken and fish.

Food anthropologist Pushpesh Pant further debunks the notion of a vegetarian India.

“India is full of closet non-vegetarians—people who don’t eat non-veg food at home, but go out and eat their fill. This has been happening over the years and is not a new phenomenon. What is happening now is that these taboos are breaking, and so people are eating more non-veg food," he says.

There are other reasons for increasing chicken consumption. As Pant points out, a large part of the Indian population is below the age of 27, and a major chunk of these youngsters are itinerant workers. This section of people, with what little disposable income they have, like to treat themselves periodically and that means eating meat for most.

Finally, the fact that chicken and fish are religion-neutral—unlike beef and pork—means that they are the meat groups most often consumed. The Muslim population also has reservations about how their meat has been killed, and so they often refrain from eating mutton or beef.

But eating more chicken and fish doesn’t mean Indians are eating healthier. The OECD data shows that India’s per capita calorie and protein intake as a proportion of OECD levels hasn’t changed appreciably over the years. India’s per capita calorie intake was 69% of developed nations’ in 1992 and this has just increased to 72% in 2013. Similarly, protein intake has increased just two percentage points over the past two decades to 58% of developed country levels.

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