Last month, the India branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) created yet another stir by locking horns with Amul over the question of transitioning to plant-based dairy alternatives. Not for the first time, the animal rights organization seems to have got its priorities mixed up.
In a Twitter post, R.S. Sodhi, managing director of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (GCMMF), which owns the Amul brand, offered a stern rebuttal by reminding PETA that any such move would deprive 100 million poor farmers of their livelihoods. He also charged the NGO of wanting to hand over all the “resources built in 75 years with farmers’ money to market genetically modified Soya of rich MNCs at exorbitant prices, which the average lower middle class can't afford.”
He has a point. Not only do millions of farmers depend on producing dairy products to feed their families, the PETA narrative does suit the interests of multinational food companies trying to launch such products as milk from soya, almond, cashew, hazelnut and oats in the country. As the world’s largest producer of milk and milk products, that makes little economic sense for India. Besides, there is the small matter of consumers having the right to choose what they want to drink and eat.
While it is true that parts of the dairy industry in India are exploitative and unethical, blanket demands like PETA’s do little to rectify the problem of exploitative food industries. PETA’s demand to Amul is only one of many outlandish controversies it has been embroiled in: over the years, it has garnered a great deal of critical attention for its shock tactics, including comparing killing animals for meat to the holocaust and “all humans” to Nazis.
However the problems go beyond advertising. PETA’s demands themselves need to be critically interrogated.
Historically, PETA has been known for an ethics-based approach to veganism, which, in a political climate that vilifies certain religions and castes for eating particular kinds of animal products, all too easily lends itself to food-shaming. For organizations that consider any form of animal product consumption itself inherently unethical, the blame for unsustainable practices lies first and foremost in the hands of consumers. Even while chiding Amul for not switching to plant-based milks, PETA is implicitly critiquing the eating habits of those who still consume dairy-based products.
It is worth repeating that some aspects of the dairy industry are in fact violent and exploitative. At the same time, it is fair to say no industry is free of these problems. As the saying goes “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”. Take the classic summer staple, the glorious Indian mango. Despite its ubiquity in the market, Indian mango farmers are often trapped in cycles of debt and exploitation by MNCs. Similarly, cashew farmers in the past have been reported to face “appalling conditions”. And as we know from the recent farmers’ protests, the entire agriculture sector is in upheaval over the lack of agency farmers have in setting standards for producing and selling crops. Yet organizations like PETA, determinedly navel-gazing in their approach, turn a blind eye to these practices, endorsing the consumption of any food as long as it is plant-based.
Compassion towards animals and labour rights do not have to be in opposition. PETA’s larger goal, bringing about a more compassionate and ethical relationship between humans and animals, is certainly a desirable one. However, using outlandish tactics and demands that deny the lived realities of millions of consumers and producers alike does very little to, facilitate moving towards that goal.