India is NOT a vegetarian nation. Only about 20% of the population identifies as vegetarian. However, there is a growing anti-meat movement in India that is negatively impacting many in that country. Today, Dr. Sylvia Karpagam goes over the societal, governmental, and corporate forces that are a part of the propaganda wave. The efforts include banning eggs and meat from school lunches.
Dr. Sylvia is a public health doctor and human rights advocate who explains how the traditional caste system in India plays a part in the biases against meat. She also covers the current state of nutrition and well-being in that country, how far some go to penalize meat eaters, and how and why some are promoting a nutrient-poor, cereal-heavy diet to those who are most in need of nutrient-rich foods.
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
You thought there was an anti-meat campaign in the Western world. That propaganda is sweeping through many countries and is going full force in India too. This is Episode 459 and our guest is Dr. Sylvia Karpagam. Dr. Sylvia is a public health doctor and researcher in India. She explains how though India is perceived by many as a vegetarian nation, only a small percentage of the population is vegetarian. Nonetheless, there are forces that want to change that.
There is a strong sentiment against eating meat and even an indoctrination happening at the school level along with a movement to ban eggs and meat from school lunches altogether. Dr. Sylvia reviews how the traditional caste system in India plays a part in the biases against meat. She also covers the current state of nutrition and wellness in that country, how far some go to penalize meat eaters or those suspected of eating meat, and how and why some are promoting a nutrient-poor cereal-heavy diet to those who are most in need of nutrient-rich foods.
Before we get into the conversation, do you follow the Weston A. Price Foundation on its various social media platforms and YouTube? Look for us on all of these platforms, Instagram, Facebook, MeWe, Telegram, and YouTube. On many of these accounts, we offer resources like articles, videos, and recipes all in the context of support for your health journey.
Check out Dr. Sylvia’s blog at Dr. Sylvia Karpagam
Welcome to the show, Sylvia.
Hilda, it has been a long time associated with Wise Tradition. I’m so happy to be here on the show.
You have written some brilliant articles for the journal. I’m excited to dive into what you know about health, wellness, and nutrition in India. Let’s start with the story of a young man whose teacher told him something would happen if he ate meat. Can you tell us that story?
Yes, that story is very symbolic for me partly because of the enormity of the problem but also in terms of how important it is for people to keep talking about these issues. I do give a lot of talks at universities and colleges. I had one public talk. I finished. I was getting off the stage. This young boy who was hardly 15 or 16 years old came forward and said that his teacher in school had always told him this. He’s from a marginalized community. We can talk about that a little later. We called it the Dalit community. It was traditionally seen as impure or polluted for eating meats and all animal-sourced foods other than milk and dairy.
Apparently his teacher who’s from a dominant caste group kept repeatedly telling the students, “If you eat meat, your tongue will get thick. Your brain will not develop. All you will get is muscles. You will be aggressive and violent.” She said that his performance in school is going to be poor because of eating meat. He said that he listened to one of my talks in the regional language. He challenged the teacher. He was so happy. He said, “It made a difference to me.”
For me, that was very affirming because it can be quite toxic for students to constantly hear this. We repeatedly hear parents and students telling us the way they’re criminalized or the way they’re looked down upon in the pretext that it’s more scientific not to eat meat and eggs. It’s very important, especially platforms like Wise Traditions, which bring tradition and science together.
This is a critical job. We’re so grateful to join hands with people like you who are helping people see that the traditions are grounded in science. As Sally puts it, modern science is catching up with traditional wisdom. Before we get into some of that science, I want to ask you to give us an overview of the caste system in India because when you said there are marginalized communities and even criminalized or communities that are denigrated, that’s very foreign to some of us in the Western world. Can you describe the caste system for us and who these marginalized communities are?
I’m not an expert on the historical aspect of it. There are many different points of view about it but as a public health person, I have definitely seen how caste affects nutrition in two ways. The caste structure itself is composed of those who belong within the caste system and those who belong outside it, and those who belong within the caste system are four categories. You have the brahmins, the kshatriyas, the vaishyas, and the shudras.
The Brahmins have been created from the head of the god Brahma. It’s very intrinsically believed that they are the intellectuals. They are meant to be leaders, thinkers, teachers, academicians, and doctors. All the academic spaces are supposed to be populated by the brahmins. This manifests in how they treat people who come in from other caste groups. Although we have a policy in the government of affirmative action, the people who come from the dalit communities into these spaces face a lot of bullying and harassment.
There are a lot of people who take their lives because of the extreme amount of institutionalized casteism. After the brahmins, you have the kshatriyas who are supposed to be the warriors who came from the arms of a god. They are lower in the hierarchy. You have the vaishyas or the traders who came from the thighs of a god, and then you have the feet which are the shudras who do labor but it’s what they call the cleaner forms of labor.
Outside this caste system, you have the people who don’t belong to the caste and who are called the ‘ntouchables’. They fall outside the caste. The government identifies them as the Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribes but a lot of the community also self-identifies as dalit. This community is supposed to be taking the responsibility of doing unclean labor. They handle blood, carcasses, excreta, and garbage.
The entire system, if you see, is geared to keep people within the same occupations. There’s a lot of justification and rationalization even among people who are educated and people who live in the West who migrated from India several generations ago. They continue to reinforce this whole caste structure and say it’s a stable state. If I am born into a family that is meant to clean toilets, then I should be happy doing it because if I try to aspire for something else, then I’m destabilizing the system. I’m also going to be blessed because I’m doing my job happily.
It’s so ingrained. Each group has different practices, different food eating patterns, and different cultures. They’re very subtly used to identifying themselves. The surnames will give you out. All the people say, “I don’t practice caste because it’s against our constitution and the law to practice untouchability,” but people practice it in different forms.
Each group in India’s caste system has different practices, food-eating patterns, and culture that they subtly use to identify themselves.
Can you help us understand how the casteist roots in society play out in terms of food policy? Can you explain that a little bit?
I don’t call it policy because it’s not exactly evidence-based. It’s based on a whole bunch of other things like caste, religion, misconceptions, or propaganda. I call them the decision makers, people who are influential in society. You have the doctors, the researchers, and even the people who identify as nutritionists or civil society who are technically vegetarian and self-identify as vegetarian. They constitute about 20% of the population but because of their access to the resources and power, they make most of the decisions in the country, specifically on nutrition policy. Their constant projection of India is that it’s a vegetarian country but technically, it’s only 20% of Indians who self-identify as vegetarian.
Only 20% of Indians identify as vegetarian? The whole world has the impression that the whole country is vegetarian.
The PR machinery is very good. Most of the others would eat meat occasionally although quite a few of them would have some days when they don’t eat meat or some meats that they don’t eat. Beef is a taboo for a lot of people but it’s important to also know that almost 100 million people in India consume beef. This is a source of livelihood for a lot of people. It’s also a source of nutrition. It’s one of the cheapest meats that’s available in India. A lot of the dalits, the tribal communities, other backward communities, Muslims, and Christians do eat beef.
You have the Jains who don’t eat anything that grows under the ground. They don’t eat roots like onions or garlic. They don’t eat any meats but interestingly, a lot of vegetarians consume dairy. Milk, yogurt, paneer, ghee, and butter are very important parts of their diets. They say they’re vegetarian but technically, they’re not. They get the animal-sourced food but then they create barriers for the others to access the other foods. In India, other than milk and dairy, which go into the realm of the pure, all the other foods are classified as tamasic or impure.
You consume them, and then you’re going to be lustful, violent, and aggressive. You’re going to have criminal tendencies. That’s how the policy gets affected in India. A lot of laws are brought in, especially targeting beef. Different states in India have brought in cattle slaughter bans. Some of them are more stringent than others. What that translates to is lynch mobs. You have groups of people who call themselves the cow protectors. Even a suspicion that someone has beef in his house is enough reason to mob and lynch those people.
I thought you were talking hypothetically like a lynch mob or vigilantes who are passionate about it but they will murder people who are suspected of having meat in their home because the cow is considered sacred in India.
If you do a Google search and put lynch mobs in India, you will see the number of cases, especially in the last few years. The worst thing is that they film it and put it out in public. The response is, “People deserve it. They deserve to die if there is a suspicion that they have beef.” That’s the terrible outcome of this whole targeting of people.
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I understand that Kellogg’s, the man that was behind the breakfast cereal push in the United States, was of the mind that eating meat would indeed make us more passionate or lustful. He wanted people to eat cereal to lower those impulses. He succeeded but where I’m going with this is that the idea that eating meat will make you rebellious, aggressive, or lustful is based on the idea that eating meat makes you strong, makes your hormones function properly, and makes you a leader. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it has been identified as wrong or evil in Indian society.
Of late, it’s not just beef but there’s a targeting of meat eaters. There are a lot of colleges and universities, which are supposed to be progressive spaces which are trying to make spaces vegetarian, preventing students from eating any form of meat on the premises. Eggs are being targeted. We have a very large school feeding program. We have the Mid-Day Meal scheme, which is a legal entitlement of the children. The majority of the children who go to these schools are some of the poorest children with a lot of malnutrition. Most of them are traditionally used to eat meats and eggs at home but the policy around nutrition is such that there’s a large-scale resistance to eggs. Many schools refuse to give eggs.
Contracts have been given to organizations that are openly casteist. They have a very strong presence internationally even in the US. They’re called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. They do a lot of fundraising in the name of these children saying they are feeding these children but their whole premise is sattvic food. Similar to what Kellogg’s is saying, the children’s hunger that they feel is not real hunger. Children are not able to concentrate because they’re eating all these bad foods. We will give them these sattvic foods, which are good for their brain development. They refuse to give eggs. They say eggs are the menstrual discharge of the chickens. They say no to it.
They think consuming eggs and meat is going to make the children lustful or bad students. They believe all the myths out there.
They have been given contracts to a huge number of schools in the country because they have huge social capital. Those of us who target them are called anti-Hindu. They say we are against them because of their religion. Especially those of us who are not Hindus are often targeted for calling out these organizations.
This is exactly what happens all around the world. If you have a dissenting opinion, you are slandered. They plaster you with a label. It’s like name-calling in the schoolyard. There’s no defence for what they’re saying. They resort to name-calling.
There’s a whole gang that comes together.
What are the consequences of eggs and meats being removed from the school lunches?
We have two large national surveys in India on nutrition. They have pretty horrible nutrition indicators for most of the country. Some states which independently decide their nutritional policies do quite well. Some do very badly but on average in the country, if you, for example, take children ages 6 to 23 months, only 42% of children have received the minimum number of feeds per day. They were fed the minimum number of times per day. Only 21% of children had a diverse diet that had at least four more food groups. Children who had both adequate diversity and frequency were around 6%.
That’s so low.
We have only 9% of children who have received iron-rich foods. We have high levels of vitamin A deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, and zinc deficiency. These are documented. I’m not just throwing statistics like that. We have almost 35% to 40% of children who are stunted. They have less height for their age. We have almost 38% of children who are underweight. They have less weight for their age. Anemia is almost 57% to 59% even among children.
If you look at all of these, they don’t come in isolation. It’s very unlikely that a child who’s stunted is not going to have the other deficiencies. Children usually have multiple deficiencies. That contributes to the infant mortality rates. It contributes to higher rates of infection among these children. The girls who also end up having early pregnancies can have more maternal mortality. There can be more infant mortality. India is considered a diabetic capital because even though people are physically thin, they also have a lot of non-communicable diseases.
I’m pausing for a minute to take all that in. What would you say to the naysayer who says, “Indians are genetically predisposed to have slight builds and be shorter in stature?”
We have a lot of those. We have people who want to reduce the standards. They don’t want to go with the WHO standards. They say, “Hemoglobin should have lower cutoffs. The heights should have lower cutoffs,” but what we see is in those populations that have no constraints to good nutrition over 2 or 3 generations, their heights are comparable to the WHO standards. We have evidence that when over 2 or 3 generations you had no social, economic, or nutritional constraints, heights have increased. The secular trends have shown a consistent increase in heights.
I’m thinking about how sometimes in the US as well, the health organizations will move the goalpost. They will say, for example, “The average sperm count for a male in the United States was 2,000.” I don’t remember the exact numbers but then when they see that the sperm count is going down in the average male, they will say, “The average sperm count is now 300,” because that’s what is common but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal or normal. I get the sense this is what you’re saying about the standards for hemoglobin cutoffs for anemia and the standards for height.
The people who wanted to reduce the hemoglobin and height cutoffs used this survey from which I quoted those statistics. They have high levels of stunting and deficiencies. They did that population and used some number juggling, excluded some, included some, and then said, “We got this healthy population.” They picked up a largely unhealthy vegetarian rural population and said, “Magically, we have picked out this healthy population and the average is much less. Therefore, India’s average should be much less.” It’s not even good research. It’s not good science.
When did all of this come onto your radar? When did you realize, “We are under-nourishing ourselves and hurting ourselves, our future, and our children’s future?”
I’ve done public health. When we were doing the MD, we were doing very generic stuff. There was a huge demolition that happened quite close to my house where people were evicted forcibly, almost ,1600 families. I went as a medical doctor there. I saw a very healthy and productive population become sick within 1 week to 2 weeks. The children were having more diarrhea and losing weight. Mothers were having urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, and skin infections. Men were having other issues.
I got interested in this idea of social determinants of health, the importance of water and sanitation, nutrition, and shelter. From there, I moved from the whole healthcare model, which is also important, and we do a lot of work on that but also these social determinants. You realize that certain communities, for example, the dalit communities, are very specifically burdened by all of these social determinants. They have poorer livelihoods and incomes. They have lesser access to social security schemes. They’re more vulnerable to migration and living in urban deprived areas.
There’s more exploitation. They’re more likely to have occupational hazards. What I’ve seen is some of them have very good traditional eating practices but they’re not recognized. They’re criminalized. I would never blame the communities and say, “You have poor nutrition.” Poor nutrition is very structural. It takes away what they already know in terms of their indigenous knowledge.
Can you tell us more about the indigenous knowledge of some of the tribal people groups? What was traditionally a part of their diet? Were they hunters or pastoralists? Tell us a little bit more.
Most of them have been pushed into what you call unclean occupations but if you look at their eating practices, a lot of the community eats meat and beef. Interestingly, they also eat organ meats. If you go to a meat shop, you have a range of costs. You will have the boneless pieces, which are very expensive, and then you have the more fleshy pieces but the organ meats are much cheaper. Therefore, a lot of mothers, grandmothers, or men, even if they don’t have a lot of money, would come and buy organ meats. They eat a lot of dry fish and a lot of dry meats.
I’m not an expert because in India, we have a wide range of foods eaten by different communities but the communities are very resourceful. We have spoken to mothers. There’s a knowledge about what foods are good. We have also worked with traditional birth attendants and women from the dalit community who support women during labor. They give them a lot of these foods because they believe proteins are important. Animal food soups and broths are important for the woman to recover and also the breastfeeding period.
That’s so encouraging to hear that these foods and traditions are still being kept. I imagine on some level societally, it sounds like it’s an uphill battle that they have to go against all of this propaganda, programming, and policy that is pushing in the opposite direction.
If a woman goes with anemia, the doctor will say, “You have anemia. Eat fruits and vegetables.” Even some of them say, “Stop eating meat.” I used to work in an HIV center. HIV is a muscle-wasting disease. I could hear the doctor next to me telling the patients, “Stop eating meat. Eat fruits and vegetables. Why do you want to eat meat?” People with tuberculosis who need these foods are often denied them because of the caste location of the doctors.
Similarly, you have the policymakers. Interestingly, vegetarians, because they come from a higher social class, are able to access a lot of pulses, nuts, and dairy products but if you look at the actual food that is being given in the social security schemes to children in the government schools or what we call the public distribution system, it’s always very cereal-heavy. Most of the rations that they get are cereals.
You might have very little pulses and hardly anything else. There are not even oils, other legumes, and even dairy. There’s a cheap vegetarianism that is being pushed on the poor. To add to that, there’s this constant messaging that meat is bad, “You should stop eating meat. It’s not healthy for you.” The West has contributed. We have this whole EAT-Lancet Commission. We have people who say eggs have cholesterol. They damaged the way food is being pushed into the country of India.
We felt the results of that over here as well. Some people by their own volition are making these choices to reduce their meat consumption because they have been persuaded by EAT-Lancet or other organizations that are a part of this movement. I even heard that in New York, they were going with a Meatless Monday situation based on faulty science.
They’re hurting our kids who need meat in their diet. Some of these children are so poor, at least in the US, that they don’t have much but cereals and cheap processed foods on their plates at home. The one decent meal they’re going to get a day is going to be in the school. As we near the end of the program, I want to ask you. What conclusions have you come to on your own based on your research of nutrients and their impact on health in India? Is there any hope?
There is hope because a lot of communities are reclaiming their traditional foods in what they call food sovereignty. There has been a declaration by diverse groups of people, the farmers, the pastoralist community, and the other people who traditionally own livestock. They put up a statement that talks about the interdependency between forests, water, crops, animals, and humans.
It’s the idea of the commons which has to be protected from the industrialized system that is taking over our food systems. They see this whole coexistence. That’s very positive. They have been speaking at international fora. There’s a pushback from communities of people organizing beef festivals and food festivals pushing for more diversity not just in terms of food but also in terms of representation in decision-making. Those are all pretty positive changes.
That sounds wonderful. I’m so happy to hear it. I want to join a beef festival. That sounds amazing to me. That’s lovely. This has been a wonderful conversation. I would love to pose the question I like to pose at the end of the program here to you. If the audience could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
If your food doesn’t have an ingredient list, then it’s good. Try to procure foods closer to your homes because this whole vegan thing involves shipping foods from across other countries. That’s not helping the climate. Try to have local foods and a lot of diversity of at least four food groups with each meal. Respect cultures. Don’t get into these fads where you’re worried about climate change but then you’re not worried about all the consequences of pushing for it because sometimes, it’s the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized who are paying the price for all these decisions. Be conscious and cognizant of how your actions can impact people who may be very far away from you.
If your food doesn’t have an ingredient list, it is good. Try to procure food closer to your home.
Those are wonderful words to end on. Thank you so much for your time, Sylvia.
Our guest was Dr. Sylvia Karpagam. Go to her WordPress blog to read her paper on the subject of nutrition in India and its many influences. It’s Dr. Sylvia Karpagam. You can find me at Holistic Hilda. For a Letter to the Editor from the Fall 2023 Wise Traditions Journal, “Thank you for your caustic commentary on Senomyx. According to the always accurate Wikipedia, Senomyx patented several flavor enhancers, which have previously been expressed in human cell culture in HEK 293 cells.”
“HEK 293, as Wiki says, is human embryonic kidney 293 cells derived from a spontaneously miscarried or aborted fetus or human embryonic kidney cells grown in tissue culture taken from a female fetus in 1973. Why would our trusted food providers put something like this in food? Good question. Behind what’s in our food and how to eat better, the question is this. Why are we being attacked? Why has our health system been turned into such a harmful monstrosity? Why are our children being educated in such an absurd manner? Why can’t we trust the news to bring us the truth? Why is our world going so crazy? Are our authorities there for our benefit? If not, then what is their agenda?”
“Difficult questions, difficult answers. While not developing severe anxiety about it all, we can still calmly face what’s happening in our world. In my research into where we have been, how we got to here, and where it’s all headed, I’ve seen horrid insights but also heartening solutions that are of the order of magnitude needed to matter. When an intensely divisive, manipulative, deceptive, controlling, and corrupt system that has been in place for so long finally meets its match, sparks might fly. For what it’s worth, I see calmer seeds ahead of us and a lot of work to build a better world.”
This is a letter from Janice in Colorado Springs. Janice, thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel. If you would like to write a Letter to the Editor on the subject of your choice, write us at Info@WestonAPrice.org and put Letter to the Editor in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you. Thank you so much for reading. Stay well. Remember to keep your feet on the ground and your face to the sun.
About Dr. Sylvia Karpagam:
Dr. Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor with around 18 years of experience, who has worked on health and social determinants from a rights perspective with communities, networks and human rights organizations. As part of a larger campaign on the Right to Nutrition, Dr. Sylvia has participated in fact-finding visits, training, and advocacy challenging a centralized, corporate driven school lunch scheme, denial of eggs and ideological impositions through government food schemes. Dr. Sylvia has documented the impact of cattle slaughter bans on farmers, butchers and on others associated with the cattle trade, especially communities that are already marginalized and economically vulnerable.
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The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) openly support the hierarchical and discriminatory caste system and have been given the contract by the government to supply mid-day meals in several public schools in the country. They provide sattvik food which is seen as pure whereas tamassik and rajasic foods which include meat, eggs, onions, garlic etc. are seen as inferior foods which create lust and reduced concentration. A majority of children in public schools are malnourished and enjoy eating all of these spices and foods which are labelled as impure and polluting. Children are indoctrinated by this organisation and those in power that these foods should not be eaten. It therefore leads to a lot of shame and confusion in their minds and even conflicts in their homes. https://scroll.in/pulse/905334/no-onion-no-garlic-akshaya-patra-opposes-karnataka-government-order-on-mid-day-meals
In spite of the known benefits of eggs, there is resistance from powerful religious and caste groups to providing these in the school mid-day meals.
Cattle slaughter bans adversely affect people’s access to income, livelihood, nutrition and cultural rights.
Efforts are underway to reduce the hemoglobin cutoffs for anemia in India using data jugglery. This will have a huge impact. A letter (signed by 250 doctors, public health experts and activists) written to the WHO, UNICEF and other national bodies has not received any response till date.
The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey shows the alarming levels of malnutrition in the country.
The Eat Lancet Commission has been pushing for plant based diets and promoting India as a ‘model’ for the rest of the world!
Mobs attack and lynch individuals on the suspicion of possessing beef and videos are circulated as a lesson to others. Poor Muslim men are disproportionately targeted by the mobs and often the law works against them.
Open discrimination against eating practices of meat eaters in public spaces and universities.
Laws and calls for boycott of consumption and sale of meat is a barrier to nutritional and economic rights. https://aharanammahakku.home.blog/2022/05/05/targeting-the-consumption-and-sale-of-meat-in-india-is-an-attack-on-the-right-to-food-and-nutrition/
Veganism is not an option https://www.thenewsminute.com/voices/whether-one-casteist-or-anti-caste-veganism-not-solution-168675
Given the lack of dietary diversity and erasure of animal source foods and the high levels of malnutrition in the country, large scale fortification of rice as being mandated by the government is not a sustainable solution https://www.thenewsminute.com/news/rice-fortification-is-the-wrong-fix-for-indias-anaemia-and-malnutrition-problems
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