The Egg Debate – Missing the Bean in the Room? Dr Arun R, Ashraf Mohammed and Sejal Parikh

Guest Post by Dr ARUN R, ASHRAF MOHAMMED, SEJAL PARIKH

The Madhya Pradesh government’s recent decision to continue avoiding eggs in children’s mid-day meal schemes sparked off heated debates in newspapers, social media and the television. There are several facets to the inclusion of eggs in mid-day meal schemes. This article examines those, and sheds light on facts and perspectives ignored by most parties involved in these debates.

Opponents of the government decision have rightly pointed out the resistance to certain food options for the midday meals scheme in schools is largely due to caste oppression and class privilege. In India, diet has indeed been used, historically and now, as a tool in oppressing dis-privileged caste and minority-religion groups. These groups comprise a huge chunk of India’s impoverished people who must get all the government support possible for meeting their dietary and other needs. Interestingly, governments which oppose eggs on the basis that they are not vegetarian do not have any problem with dairy, when dairy also involves the killing of spent cows and male calves (apart from the forced impregnation of cows every year). While we must acknowledge and oppose these forms of bigotry steadfastly, the way we do it should be such that we don’t uphold one good cause at the expense of another.

Fighting one form of oppression with another

There is another oppressive dynamic at work here. The implications of some of our food involve another constituency of vulnerable victims, the species-based “others”. Food is a personal choice only so long as it doesn’t involve any agony of innocent sentient beings (which is why we would avoid and oppose food that involves child or human slave labour). Hence, recommending eggs and other animal products – and consuming them personally – is ethically untenable, since it amounts to oppressing egg-laying hens and other innocent nonhuman animals. We are confident that, with an open mind, we can propose nutritious, viable, cheaper, safer and familiar alternatives to eggs that are not motivated by hypocritical, caste-based discrimination and instead by a morally consistent rationale which is just with respect to all sentient beings.

Non-human animals are sentient individuals like us – they can feel pain, joy, fear, love, distress, companionship and a variety of other emotions. Yet, we turn them into commodities, take away their freedom and separate families, all for our greed. Of all the animals that needlessly suffer at our hands, animals raised for food (including meat, dairy, fish and eggs) form the largest group – the UN estimates that more than 60 billion land animals (and countless sea animals) are bred and killed for food every year.

Egg production torments and kills male baby chicks and hens

Many people are not aware that, just like meat (or dairy), eggs give rise to acute misery and brutal killing. Most hens raised for eggs are confined to spend almost all of their lifetimes inside stacked cages in stinking, unhygienic compounds, and a hen typically gets an area of an A4 sized paper. To reduce the losses caused by the stressed birds’ pecking, they are de-beaked (i.e., their beaks are chopped off with a hot blade without anaesthesia) at a very tender age. When these hens are no more ‘economically viable’ for egg production, they are butchered barbarically in full view of their terrified fellow victims. The egg hatcheries brutally grind all male baby chicks to death, most of whom are just a day old, since they cannot lay eggs and do not grow fast enough to be raised viably for meat.

Even the so-called ‘free-range’ farms kill male baby chicks as well as ‘spent’ hens, because raising them would cause monetary losses. They also require more resources (including land, food and water), and consequently, are several times more expensive.

Why is it morally excusable to enslave, harm or kill hens and other non-human animals when we know that they want to live and be free? The exploitation of sentient beings on the arbitrary and discriminatory basis of their species, referred to as speciesism, is fundamentally similar to sexism, casteism and other injustices. To quote Richard Ryder, a renowned psychologist, speciesism is “based upon morally irrelevant physical differences”. “Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any “painient” – pain-feeling – being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species.”, he writes.

Animal rights are NOT at odds with the right to nutrition

Does taking an ethical stance against speciesism mean that we scuttle poor children’s right to cheap, nutritious food? The answer is an emphatic no; we point out nutritious, cheaper and safer plant based alternatives to eggs.

Table 1 compares eggs and beans (also called pulses, legumes or dals) on several attributes. We can clearly see that beans provide better nutrition at a reduced cost (the cost per gram of protein or kcal of energy from pulses is less than 1/3 of that of eggs) [1, 2, 3]. Sprouted beans are even more nutritious.

   Attribute

Eggs

Pulses

8:2 Wheat:Chana dal

Price (per kg)

Rs. 80 (Egg wt = 55g; Cost – Rs.4.4 per egg)

From Rs. 45 (horse gram – a staple in many Indian homes)

Rs. 35.4 (0.8 * 28 + 0.2 * 65)

Energy (kcal per kg)

1454.5 kcal

3210-3720 kcal

3512 kcal

Protein (per kg)

113.4 g

171-280 g

136 g

Cost per gram– Protein

70.55 paise

From 20.45 paise

26.03 paise

Cost per kcal of energy

5.5 paise

From 1.4 paise

1.01 paise

Fiber (per kg)

0

91-280 g

133 g

Cholesterol

3872 mg

0

0

Heart Disease Risk

May increase risk

Lowers

Lowers

Table 1: Eggs vs Plant Based Staples – A Comparison

A combination of cereals and beans has been the staple across several parts of India (in North India, for instance, it is often roti/dal; in the south, it is rice/millet with sambar). It turns out that such a whole grains – beans combination provides all the essential amino acids and several other micro-nutrients (vitamins B1, B2, folic acid and also minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron, in addition to complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber) [1], and is also the most cost-effective way to meet calorific requirements, making them an attractive choice for tackling malnutrition.

We must note here that contrary to the popular perception, energy inadequacy is a major cause of malnutrition among Indian children and not protein inadequacy [1]. Table 1 also shows that plant based staples are superior to eggs on many counts (millets offer even better benefits [1]). In addition, these plant based staples have longer shelf-life (simple preservatives like dried neem leaves will do) and are easier to handle than eggs, which often require refrigeration and are fragile.

Using eggs (or other animal products) to combat energy malnutrition is highly inefficient – plant based staples are several times cheaper (Table 1). Eggs (or other animal products) cannot replace vegetables and fruits which can complement whole grains and pulses as well – many locally available green leafy vegetables like moringa and agathi are highly nutritious and inexpensive. Most importantly, eggs and animal products lack complex carbohydrates, fiber, Vitamin C and other protective phytonutrients which are almost exclusively present only in plant based foods. Vitamin B12 that is often added to poultry feed (among many other vitamins and minerals that are present in eggs) [13, 14] to comply with the specification of poultry feed [15] can be directly supplemented in children’s food (for instance, in nutrimix powders made by women’s self-help groups, or in wheat flour, as in [16]) or in salt.

Eggs are not just unnecessary, they are fraught with substantive health issues. While there are studies that suggest that eggs aid human health or are not associated with significant health risks, there are also many studies published in reputed scientific journals that suggest that the consumption of eggs increases the risk of heart disease and cancer [7, 8, 9, 17]. It should be noted that eggs are very high in cholesterol, and just a single egg yolk, which also has about 44% of an eggs’ protein, has about 190 mg of cholesterol [2].

On the other hand, whole grains and pulses pose no such risks, and are safe to consume to meet energy requirements. They do not have cholesterol, and typically, less than 15% of energy in them comes from fat [1]. In fact, the fiber and phytonutrients present in them offer protection against heart disease, diabetes and cancer [6]; they are also the staples used in several diabetes and heart-disease reversal studies published in reputed scientific journals [4, 5].

To summarise, using plant based staples is a win-win situation for all of us – children, hens whose lives are at stake, those who fight oppression, and for poor people (as a means of income):

  1. They are nutritious, safer and more cost-effective means than eggs for ensuring nutrition of poor children, and offer strong protection against lifestyle diseases.

  2. They encourage children to attend schools, and children develop healthy eating habits at a young age.

  3. Traditional Indian foods are centered around them, and children like these familiar foods.

  4. Their    production does not involve oppression of sentient beings (human or non-human); On the contrary, egg production involves violent oppression of fellow sentient beings, and egg consumption means that children’s foundation is laid on cruelty; it denies children an opportunity to develop empathy for all classes of sentient beings (worse, it could suggest children that there is nothing wrong in oppressing certain ‘others’ – egg laying hens and other nonhumans).

  5. Nutrimix powders (popularly known as ‘poor people’s horlicks’) made from sprouted cereals and pulses provide employment to poor people and women’s self-help groups (several women’s self-help groups in Tamil Nadu already produce and sell such powders).

Those privileged people fighting oppressive caste/religion/sex/sexuality based politics and bigotry should make the connection between different forms of oppression [10, 11, 12] – oppression of innocent sentient non-humans is principally very similar to other forms of oppression that they passionately fight – they cannot conveniently ignore or condone one form of oppression, while passionately arguing against other forms.

At the same time, we are fully sensitive to the predicament of the poor with respect to food and other lifestyle choices (most often, they do not have the luxury of choice in the first place) – hence this appeal to make individual and systemic changes is directed to the governments and the privileged. We request well-meaning activists to encourage governments to amend their policies to provide school children with (and promote) nutritious and safe plant based staples, and oppose the unethical and unsustainable industries that thrive on the misery and death of fellow sentient beings, and also put the health of the less privileged at risk.

[We are deeply grateful to Pulkit, Bindu, Pooja & Milesh for their insightful inputs and feedback on the article contents.]

References:

[1] Nutritive Value of Indian Foods. Gopalan C, Rama Sastri BV, Balasubramanian SC, Narasinga Rao BS, Deosthale YG and Pant KC. National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, India. 2007.

[2] http://www.e2necc.com/egg-index.html

[3] Retail Prices in Kundalahalli, Bangalore (8 July 2015)

[4] A Way to Reverse CAD? C.B.Esselstyn Jr. et. al. The Journal of Family Practice. Vol. 63, No. 7. July 2014.

[5] A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. ND Barnard et. al. Diabetes Care. Aug 2006

[6] Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. July 2009.

[7] Egg consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes: A meta-analysis. Li Y, Zhou C, Zhou X, Li L. Atherosclerosis. 2013. Aug; 229(2):524-30.

[8] Egg, red meat, and poultry intake and risk of lethal prostate cancer in the prostate-specific antigen-era: incidence and survival. Richman EL, Kenfield SA, Stampfer MJ, et al. Cancer Prev Res (Phila) 2011, 4:2110-2121.

[9] Dietary cholesterol and egg yolks: Not for patients at risk of vascular disease. J D Spence, DJA Jenkins, H Davignon. Canadian Journal of Cardiology. 2010 Nov; 26(9): e336–e339.

[10] Can the Treatment of Nonhuman Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust? David Sztybel. Ethics and the Environment 11 (Spring 2006): 97-132

[11] The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Carol J Adams. Continuum. 2000

[12] ‘Eternal Treblinka: Our treatment of Animals and The Holocaust.’ Charles Patterson.

[13] http://www.venkys.com/products/biotech/vitamin-premixes/ventribee-plus/ – Accessed on 2 July 2015

[14] http://www.leobiocare.com/company-profile.html. Accessed on 2 July 2015

[15] Indian Standards – Poultry Feeds Specification – Fifth Revision. Accessed from https://law.resource.org/pub/in/bis/S06/is.1374.2007.pdf on 2 July 2015

[16] http://www.thebetterindia.com/19031/tribal-rajasthan-women-use-special-flour-good-health/

[17] Egg consumption and coronary artery calcification in asymptomatic men and women.Choi Y, Chang , Lee JE, et al. Atherosclerosis. 2015;241:305-312

Engineers by profession, Dr Arun R, Ashraf Mohammed and Sejal Parikh are involved in grass-root level activities for social justice. In the past, Sejal has helped the secretariat for the Right to Food campaign for a year.

15 thoughts on “The Egg Debate – Missing the Bean in the Room? Dr Arun R, Ashraf Mohammed and Sejal Parikh

  1. rajinder chaudhary

    While I broadly share your sentiments, yet I have two queries. What about dairy products? Does not your criticism of egg based nutrition extend to milk and milk based products? And more significantly, what about plants; are they also not living beings? Economic and nutrition based arguments/comparisons are fine, but let us not place different foods principally on different pedestals. May be our guiding principle, can be least foot print and most care for others.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Yes, our criticism of egg based nutrition extends to dairy products too (and we have mentioned that dairy products – and all animal products – are no better than eggs, in multiple places in the article).

      Yes, plants are also living beings. But one difference between animals and animals have brain and nervous system, due to which we (animals) experience pain; plants do not possess them.

      Even if we assume that plants can feel pain and suffer, it is all the more important to consume them directly; because, even after all the confinement of animals in cages, to restrict their movements and reduce their energy requirements, feeding them growth promoters so that they eat less food, and grow disproportionately, we need to feed 2-10 times more plant food to animals, to get the same amount of animal products (So we need proportionately larger land, more water and other resources).

      34% of cereals produced in the world are fed to animals, when so many poor people are going to bed hungry. Getting nutrition through animals is inherently inefficient, so if anyone wants to reduce their resource foot-print, they can not ignore the contribution of food.

      There are several resources on the web on the resource foot-print of animal products and the environmental damages they cause (Eg. UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadows report – released by FAO in 2006, documentaries Cowspiracy, Meat the Truth, Sea the Truth, etc – these are very helpful). Several celebrities like James Cameroon (director of Avatar) have switched to a purely plant based diet, to reduce their resource foot-print (Unfortunately, this kind of news does not reach the public easily).

  2. Amazing article, an eye opener!
    I support and totally concur to all that is mentioned in here and avoiding eggs in the children’s mid day meal is the best decision taken in every way.
    I would like to again, thank the many erudite authors of this post for coming up with these very important facts.

  3. Krishna Prasad

    What a well researched article complete with all the facts that help us conclude that avoiding eggs in the children’s mid day meal is indeed the best decision taken by the government!
    The authors shed light on so many aspects that I earlier had no clue about. A very humane, progressive decision that benefits all!
    Thank you, Arun, Ashraf and Sejal for this contribution. I’m going to share this very enlightening post right away.

  4. Gitika

    Very informative article. There is absolutely no need to cause unnecessary harm to other sentient beings when plant based alternatives are healthier and cheaper :)

  5. DR K. Varadarangan

    I appreciate the authors for their critical analysis of the subject validated by facts and figures. Eggs are animal products and their consumption oppresses the animals concerned,- the hens and the chicks. It is high time we realized that these non human livings are sentient like us and their commodification is a gross violation of their right to live peacefully. Consumption of animal products is highly detrimental to our environment and unless we stop this there is no hope for the reversal of climate change that is threatening the very existence of human beings and other animals. Also, as pointed out, eggs are not just unhealthy but also could be plain dangerous. The nutritional components present in eggs can easily be obtained through plant based sources.

  6. Darshana

    With all this information now easily accessible I should hope that pressure will build up to remove all animal products from these children’s lunches.

  7. SunaliniK

    While I agree with the views expressed above including in the comments, I hope we will resist any efforts by any government to impose general dietary choices on the public at large. There is no justification for even the most secular, animal-rights-focused vegetarianism to be imposed from “above”. Also, it is important to point out that it is only mass production of poultry and animal products that is cruel in the manner described in the article. Free-range poultry products and traditional livestock management are a completely different matter I believe. And many of those who support vegetarianism with a zeal forget to extend it to their own use of leather products or don’t bother when the environment is degraded at large. I find this baffling.

    1. Thank you so much for taking time to read, and for the valuable comments.

      There is absolutely no doubt that it is unfair to impose one’s choices upon others. It would also be helpful to ask ourselves if it is fair on our part to impose our choices on animals (they had no choice when their lives are taken, or freedom curtailed, for our luxury).

      Reg. traditional livestock management or free range poultry: The term ‘free-range’ is abused a lot by many, if not all, farms (we can easily figure that out, if we are inclined to).

      However, even for free-range animals, as mentioned in the article, death is still unnatural and painful, and their very basic rights are denied (for instance, a mother cow can not decide when she can feed her baby, and for how long she can nurse her baby). We need to ask ourselves if this is just. Such free-range farms are similar to – no, they are actually worse than ‘humane slavery’.

      To understand these issues better, we need to think from the perspective of the victims, rather than a human-centric perspective (It has to be noted that most vegans alive today were not born so; at some point in their lives, they had supported all these cruelty without realising these – this applies to the authors too; Once we become aware of these issues, we can question ourselves and decide for ourselves).

      Moreover, the fundamental issue with such ‘free-range’ or ‘traditional’ animal farming practices is the commodification of sentient beings. This is what has led to factory farming in the first place. The works of Richard Ryder, Carol Adams (Sexual Politics of Meat Eating) will be very helpful in making the connection between our oppression of non-human animals and ‘other’ humans (eg. humans belonging to a different race, gender, etc.)

      It is indeed sad that many vegetarians do not mind using milk, leather (or silk, wool, fur etc.). For those who wish to lead a compassionate, environment-friendly life-style, joining relevant facebook groups (Vegans in India, Vegan Bangalore, etc). can help a lot.

    2. C

      Hey Sunalini,

      I actually see in this article an opposition of dairy as well. Vegetarians do forget or ignore the problems with dairy, leather and other animal derived products which are as cruel as meat, as you correctly pointed out. However, there is a lifestyle which seeks to avoid all this harm (to the extent practically possible) – which is veganism: http://vegankit.com/why

      Also, free-range and/or traditional methods of exploiting animals are equally problematic. First of all, there are no humane ways to “kill” animals or to acquire milk (which is, as we know, survival food for the offspring of another mammal). Whether our meat/eggs/dairy is “Certified Humane”, local, or whatever (I agree it might be in some ways less painful for the animals) – it still misses the crux of the issue which is enslaving animals just because we can. Now, how “nicely” we exploit them is immaterial. We have no survival need for animal products, so I don’t think it’s an unreasonable position to think they should be left alone.

      Also, why the so-called “humane” methods of exploiting animals aren’t sustainable: http://freefromharm.org/agriculture-environment/organic-meat-not-sustainable/

      What most people don’t know is that most certified humane products (as well as traditional goshalas) also come from facilities that are downright cruel. They don’t let the animals free, they are also mostly forcefully bred (there is no other way to ensure consistent production, the males, useless to dairy are slaughtered/abandoned. Most animal protection laws are invariably flouted, and the animals continue to suffer, and we get tricked into feeling less guilty.

    3. jdevika

      I have been thinking of this for some time now, if mainly because I have an animal rights advocate in my daughter! This is a totally personal view which I am still grappling with: I find it hard to agree with many fundamental assumptions of absolute pacifism. While I agree that all sorts of killing for the sake of nothing but human pleasure should be avoided, I find it hard to consider human beings are entirely pacifist beings. I think that historically human beings are omnivores — and to me, history is the only possible guide to any ‘essential’ character that species may possess. In history human beings have always eaten animals — but not always only for pleasure, and always inhumanly.

      I fear that in not acknowledging this we draw upon not our history to construct our self-image, but project ourselves in the form of an imagined, completely pacifist Godly being. I feel that this is futile and to some extent, hypocritical. Today, in the Hindu, there was news that plants send stress signals quite similar to those sent by stressed animals — so what happens if it is proved beyond doubt that plants too are closer to us than we’d admit? Instead of striving for what to me looks like impossible (not just morally but also practically –not achievable without a massive reduction of human population on this earth hopefully eaten by other creatures), we could perhaps start by acknowledging that we are omnivorous animals who eat others, and then proceed to think collectively on how we could give up our unfair power over other creatures — reduce our consumption of other animals to the bare minimum without attributing ethical inferiority to those who do? And how we could make our consumption less painful to the creatures we eat?

      Secondly, I do think the trouble is mainly with commercialized egg and meat production. I grew up seeing families raise chickens and goats and cows and consume them and their products — and I know well that all egg farming, especially domestic farming, is not violent, and that butchering was traditionally not a blood-thirsty activity (traditionally, in my area at least,techniques of butchering were quite sensitive to the animal as a sentient being). I agree that the capitalist production process is totally devoid of those values and that we must oppose it actively. I also agree that setting up Gosalas etc to merely beat down another community — i.e. using animal protection for other purposes — is downright wrong too. But to hint that all forms of animal raising is potentially violent is a mistake.

      Thirdly, I do think we must admit that substituting pulses for eggs assumes that pulse production in the country is a totally nonviolent activity is outright wrong! It too is part of the commercial production circuit and is as violent to Nature as any such commercial crop production. It is out of sight, and therefore, out of mind. There we would demand more humane agriculture,we should demand humane animal farming.

      Fourthly, I do not think vegetarian or vegan lifestyles necessarily implies greater love for animals or vice-versa. I know many vegan friends who harbour quite irrational fears of generally harmless house insects, wall lizards, cockroaches etc. (and have a hard time when they visit Kerala!).

      Just as our love for plant life does not mean we don’t give up eating them, I do think it is possible to love animal life but still consume animal products in moderation. And that is because of our limitations as yet another animal species on this earth. True, it is vital to give up our sense of superiority and the violence we do to other creatures just because they can’t do the same to us — but that is not to forget that we should forget our limited place in the food chain. More importantly, it is the silent projection of humans as absolutely pacifist God-like creatures by many animal rights activists that feeds into certain strains of Hindutva ideology that identifies saatvic as absolutely pacifist diet.

      I am still thinking, though …

  8. Parag

    The authors have done a remarkable job in consolidating and presenting facts, and analysing this issue from multiple angles: health, compassion [and environment]. We can only hope that this article get’s read by several folks, and enables them to make informed choices.
    Scientifically established facts [which the authors have presented very well] may even be preceded by logical thinking: I am not aware of any specifies which eats eggs [or drinks milk] of some other species [and that too, to stay healthy], or of any species drinking milk once it’s no longer an infant/baby.

  9. Nirupama Sarma

    Many, many thanks Arun, Sejal, Ashraf for this much-needed and valuable argument. However, as both an animal rights activist, and someone who has worked on child survival issues (which includes nutrition) I do want clarity on a few questions: 1) how effective is a vegetarian/vegan diet in tackling inter-generational nutritional deficits – which is the kind that plagues thousands of women and children in the country? 2) In terms of your research, are all your sources from peer-reviewed publications? 3) The table with the calculations (costs, protein content etc) – where is it from? Need a clear source and citation. The reason I ask is because I want to share this piece with several policy makers in the country – including people like Jean Dreze who recently argued vehemently in favor of introducing eggs into the mid-day meal scheme.. we really need to add to that discussion.

    I look forward to hearing from you – and once again, thank you for this valuable effort. Warmest –

    1. Hi Nirupama,

      First, thanks a lot for taking time to read this. Pulkit, Bindu, Pooja and Milesh also helped us a lot.

      1) A purely plant based diet is nutritionally adequate for all age groups (including pregnant, lactating women). I would request you to go through the American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegetarian diets [reference 6 in the article] (which covers vegan diet as well) – You could google it, or here is a link to a copy: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/2009_ADA_position_paper.pdf

      The book ‘Nutritive Value of Indian Foods’ talks about nutritional deficiencies in Indian children, and how it can be corrected. The major cause for malnutrition is inadequate energy, and not protein inadequacy (the book clearly mentions this). There is no need for animal products in correcting nutritional deficiencies.

      2) Most of our references pertaining to nutrition and disease are from studies published in reputed peer-reviewed journals [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 17]. In addition, we have also referred to the book ‘Nutritive Value of Indian Foods’ released by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and from National Egg Co-ordination Committee’s website. Please have a look at the ‘References’ section of the article, which has the sources.

      3) The cost of food items are based on retail prices in small shops, which sell food items in loose (not in big malls – where both eggs and pulses are more expensive!) in Kundalahalli, Bangalore, on July 8, 2015. The nutritional information is derived from the book ‘Nutritive Value of Indian Foods’ released by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and from NECC website.

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