Earlier in June this year, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by Sonia Faleiro titled ‘Saving the Cows, Starving the Children‘.
As is typical for Op-eds and opinions in the NYT or The Guardian about India or Indians, a distinctly left-of-centre voice was selected. Nothing fundamentally wrong with that except that there appears to be no balance whatsoever, and Indian authors aspiring to a socialist utopia get a lions share of oped space in Western newspapers. Is someone appreciating free-er markets, economic and policy reforms, and/or less government in the lives of citizens an anathema to these publications? I will not go further into the politics of it though – I will focus on the article itself and deconstruct some of its assertions to see if they hold any merit. Emphasis added is mine.
eggs — a superfood that is about 10 percent fat and extremely high in protein
What exactly is a superfood? As per the British Dietetic Association:
It is simply a marketing term that has become trendy over the last few years. Companies and marketing teams will often put whatever they can on a label to hook you into a purchase.
Many claims can give us false expectations of the benefits or they aren’t fully substantiated.
And in this instance, it is an egg which is a superfood. Evidently, a piece of hyperbole to sell her point of view further. More on superfoods here and here.
How do eggs compare to other foods? I scraped the USDA Food Database for their list of over 8000 foods.
The average protein content in a boiled egg is 12.58 gms per 100 gms. So what are some of the food items that have a greater protein content per 100 grams?
Dried egg white and its variants – which makes sense because that would be nearly pure Albumin, with an exceedingly high bio-availability, but also very expensive. Also, soy protein isolate, pork skins, peanut flour, or beluga whale if you want to go whaling in Alaska. Quite a few of these aren’t really practical or available in India, especially for a program run by the government.
So what items could potentially be used in government food programs, either as is, or as raw materials for cooking? Some options.
||Protein Content (per 100g)
|Soybeans, mature,seeds, dry roasted
|Milk, dry, nonfat,,regular, without added vitamin A and vitamin D
|Peanut flour, low,fat
|Peas, green, split,,mature seeds, raw
|Soybeans, mature,cooked, boiled, without salt
Even Feta Cheese – which is extremely close to the Indian Paneer scores higher than the egg.
I hope this partially answers Faleiro’s question as to what the alternatives to eggs are. I’m basing this on the assumption that government run programs, while aimed at increasing the nutrition content in a child’s daily food intake must fulfil the following criterion:
- They must be available/sourced locally (to cut down on transportation costs and wastage)
- Types of food distributed must be minimised, so as to reduce ordering and inventory costs. Hence no pork sausages or bacon rinds keeping in mind religious sensibilities of a minority. Thus, mostly vegetarian food that can be consumed by all.
As it is, eggs are going to be an increasingly expensive commodity, due to the rise in input costs. There has been a global increase in feed prices for poultry. Donohue and Cunningham write in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research about the rise of input costs for US poultry firms , and the FAO speaks about the global rise too, stating that “almost all developing countries are net importers of these ingredients; the poultry feed industries in Africa and Asia depend on imports, which are a drain on their foreign exchange reserves. ”
Image Source: J Appl Poult Res (2009) 18 (2): 325-337. doi: 10.3382/japr.2008-00134
Next, Faleiro goes on to make another statement, with regards to the recent ban on the slaughter of cows.
Another staple food was taken from the plates of the poor…beef.
Beef a staple food in India? Statements like these, with no basis in fact, leave even a hardcore carnivore like me incredulous. Can we reasonably define ‘staple food’ though? We have the FAO to help us out on this once again.
A staple food is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutrient needs.
The organisation states the staple foods in the Indian region to be banana, bean, chick-pea, citrus, cucumber, eggplant, mango, mustard, rice and sugar cane, although this isn’t an exhaustive list in my opinion. Nevertheless, the economics of meat production simply don’t allow meat to be a staple food in India, and especially not for the poorer sections of society.
Faleiro further asserts that:
Beef, unlike mutton and chicken, is cheap.
Let us inspect the evidence on that.
This is a representation of the Food Price Index from FAO, versus Meat Prices. Meat Prices consist of different forms of beef, chicken, pork and turkey. This chart does make some sense though, given the recent burst in commodity prices for soy, corn etc.
Let’s dig deeper. First some data from the USDA.
Beef vs Pork Prices Source: FAO
These are for prices in the US, where absolute as well as per capita consumption of beef is amongst the highest in the world. As you can see, except for a brief period in the 70s, beef has always been more expensive than pork, even in a country like the US where consumption and production of beef is so high. What about the commodity markets? We have data from the IMF on this.
Beef vs Lamb vs Pork: Commodity Prices Source: IMF
Cows(and bulls) were never quite on the meat market in India as it is, and most meat eaters ordering a steak at a restaurant would know that they were going to eat a buffalo steak, which still is available incidentally – both in restaurants as well as in the wholesale market. Alibaba has a repository of such suppliers. Unless of course, if Faleiro’s contention is that Indian commodity prices are an island, and that they are significantly cheaper than global prices, in which case she has uncovered a massive global arbitrage opportunity.
Next, we are informed that many Indians impose their food choices on children.
In India you are what you eat, and devotion to strict vegetarianism is a trait common to many upper-caste Hindus. Some wield their diet like a badge of their status. Others demand that people around them — like children and household staff members — eat as they do to maintain the purity of their kitchens. They will not visit restaurants that also serve nonvegetarian food for fear of being polluted.
What a travesty indeed! I have heard that some parents also force their children to not have too much candy, force them to drink milk and to eat broccoli.
Jokes apart, I don’t understand the point Ms Faleiro is trying to make. Are children supposed to be making independent food choices now, separate from the judgement and/or values of the parents? If so, why stop at just food choices? Why not let 5 year olds decide what school they want to go to, and how late to stay up at night, or when to start taking out the car?
By the same token, are all those vegan parents in sunny California committing some kind of crime by bringing up their kids in a vegan home? Are Jewish parents feeding their kids Kosher food culinary criminals? Are Muslim parents preparing Halal food at home some kind of insidious racists?
I am not one bit surprised by the quality of Sonia Faleiro’s article. Journalism in India isn’t a profession where ethics, quality or standards are expected or demanded – it’s a nepotistic, mutual backslapping club.
I do however, continue to be surprised by the likes of NYT and the Guardian promoting authors/journalists with this bent. Should India be known to NYT readers only via the word of polemics? To draw a parallel, it would be as if Americans were to be known to the rest of the world only via the words of Chomsky, Malcolm X and Michael Moore. They are important voices, but not the only voices.
To those interested, my R script and files can be access on Github here.
Note: A modified version of this post was reproduced on Indiafacts.co.in by their team.