India is celebrating Gandhi Jayanti to day, an occasion to recall the sacrifices this great soul made to liberate the country from colonial yolk and uphold the ideals propounded by him. Gautama Buddha and Mahavir Jain, the apostles of peace and ahimsa gave India a distinct cultural and philosophical foundation, which was put into practice by Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century, showing the world the irrelevance of conflicts, arrogance and inhuman traits that afflict the modern society and how peace and non-violence can overcome all the ills that confront mankind. On this occasion it is worth while to consider whether the concept of non-violence can really be practiced when it comes to food production and processing.
Violent acts like slavery for enforced labor are things of the past and with ILO setting standards for labor management whether in agriculture or manufacturing, very little coercion is discernible in many parts of the world. But child labor, obviously of a forced nature, still continues in some regions in India, in spite of stringent laws on paper. In a civil society there is no place for committing atrocities by one person or a group of persons against others and gentle persuasion with patience can bring about changes in attitudes even amongst die-hard dissenters. At the same time the collective bargaining strength the unionized labor forces have should not be misused for violent actions, destruction of properties, anarchy, forceful dharnas and gheraos, harming the fellow workers and above all inconveniencing the common citizens through forceful bandhs. The recent lynching of a CEO of a multinational firm in Delhi cannot be condoned in this country of Buddha, Jain and Gandhi.
As for food technology it is a tool to convert any raw food into an edible form and to conserve the food for as long as possible for uniform availability. The debate about vegetarianism often centers around the need for killing animals while plenty of food is available in this planet and sky is the limit to increase production to meet every body's needs. Marvelous technology basket at the disposal of the mankind to day like high yielding seed materials, production enhancing methods, tissue culture, cell culture, genetic engineering and a host of others to cut down pre- and post harvest losses can ensure adequate food supply for one and all perpetually. The only hitch in converting the consumers of animal foods to shun such foods, is the ingrained habit cultivated since childhood and attachment to the unique texture and flavor provided by animal foods, whether meat, poultry or fish. The evolution of mankind is closely linked to the philosophy of survival of the fittest and man, being the most intelligent and cunning creature has had upper hand in the ladder of evolution. But in modern society, unlike the wild environments of ancient civilizations, man's future is not threatened by any other living creature except man himself !. The need for animal food therefore may not be justifiable as other alternate sources are easily available.
Contrary to the common impression prevalent to day, hardly 25% of population in India shun animal foods, remaining wanting to consume them if economic plight permits. Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and UP are dominated by vegetarian population, while in Kerala, Orissa and West Bengal 94% of the population consume animal foods. It may be difficult to convince life time consumers of animal foods to switch to complete vegetarian foods, in spite of the voluminous evidence that most animal foods tend to affect the heath adversely and production of animal foods is energy and input intensive. It takes more than 7 tons of food grains to get 1 ton of beef and cattle populations constitute one of the worst green house gas emitters polluting the environment. There are fish varieties like anchovies on the verge of exinction due to over fishing.
Animal slaughter to day is based on sound scientific principles, giving minimum discomfort to the animals though animal lovers do not concur with this claim. The stunning technology momentarily makes the animals feel practically no pain during subsequent processing. Still taking a life for satisfying an avoidable pecuniary pleasure might be conflicting with the maxim 'live and let live' which governs human behavior as far as fellow human beings are concerned. Is it possible to develop technologies that will avoid violence against animals but also will satisfy human hunger for nutritious animal foods? "In vitro meat", a new concept being touted as feasible approach to produce meat muscles in bio-reactors under controlled conditions holds some promise for future to avoid raising meat animals with all accompanying problems and the 2001 worldwide patent for a process to produce in vitro meat shows the way. At current costs it may not be economically viable but under mass production conditions the cost will come down dramatically. Of course live animals will still play a role in donating embryonic stem cells or specialized stem cells in the muscle tissues for initiating the production just like the inoculum in microbiological fermentation but they will not have to be slaughtered.
Soy protein and gluten based meat analogs marketed since last two decades still serve a purpose as poor man's meat since the cooker extrusion technology has been able to simulate the meat texture to a great extent. What is needed is further improvements in flavor to meet the taste expectations of connoisseurs of various meats like beef, mutton, pork and chicken. With millions of flavor and booster chemicals available to day the above task may be achievable within a relatively short time. Gandhi's dream of a non-violent world is still valid and the day may not be far off when man learns to respect the right for life for all creatures on earth.