India’s central government has brought in a law that threatens to end the slaughter of cattle and buffalo in the country, raising the potential for the biggest change in the global beef market in decades.
It is a shocking development, but its effect on beef markets has been negligible so far because most observers figure the policy is not sustainable.
I was surprised to learn that since 2014 India has been the world’s largest exporter of bovine meat. The meat is mostly from water buffalo.
Most of India’s majority Hindu population sees cattle as sacred — a respected maternal figure celebrated for its dairy products and farm labour.
Most Hindus do not eat cow meat and for many the restriction extends to buffalo. Stray, wandering cattle are a common sight. Most Indian states do not allow cattle or buffalo slaughterhouses.
But Hindus do like dairy, and here is another surprising fact: India is the world’s largest producer of bovine milk.
And as with any dairy industry, there are a large number of culls — male calves and spent adult females. Also, a large number of buffalo are used as draft animals and farmers prefer to sell them once they are too old for work.
Cattle slaughter also supplies a booming leather goods industry.
States regulate animal slaughter. Most do not allow slaughter of cattle, but there is more leeway on water buffalo.
There are many illegal slaughter operations, as well as a huge transport system to move buffalo and cattle to states that do allow slaughter, such as West Bengal and Kerala. Beef is consumed by India’s minority but still huge populations of Muslims, Christians, Tamils, Dalits and others.
However, there is still a huge exportable surplus of more than two million tonnes with much of it going to Vietnam and Malaysia but also destinations in the Middle East.
Because of sanitary issues, especially its endemic foot-and-mouth disease status, India does not sell into developed country markets.
Also, the quality is lower than beef from Canada, the United States, Australia and other top exporters, so the two types of meat do not really compete against each other.
The issue of bovine slaughter has come to a head since India’s central government, with its ruling Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, put severe restrictions on the sale of cattle and buffalo. All sales must include paperwork guaranteeing that the animal will not go to slaughter.
The government says the rules are designed to protect animal welfare because there are appalling conditions in transport and slaughter in some situations.
But also, the rules appear to support Modi’s agenda of reviving Hindu culture.
States that allow slaughter are challenging the rules in court, but in the meantime many slaughterhouses are closing.
The issue is raising religious tensions because Muslims dominate the trade and many have been thrown out of work. An estimated two million Muslim slaughter and leather workers are threatened.
Conservative Hindu vigilantes have attacked Muslims suspected of transporting or slaughtering cattle.
Outside observers think the new situation in India is unsus-tainable. There will be too much economic and civil disruption, they say.
“It would cause the biggest disruptions (to the world meat trade) since the Second World War, so I can’t see it happening,” said Ross Ainsworth, a meat industry consultant based in Jakarta, Indonesia, an important destination for Indian bovine meat. He was quoted by Australian broadcaster ABC.
The situation has not affected the North American beef market, but it has provided modest support for prices in Australia, according to Australian publications.
An agricultural analyst with Rabobank was quoted as saying the people who have been buying the cheap meat might substitute with low cost pork or poultry.
And as Ainsworth said, the situation might not last long.
The economic sustainability of India’s dairy industry will likely fail if there is no market for males and spent females.
With no ability to sell bovine animals once they are no longer suitable for dairy or for ploughing, the number of abandoned animals would quickly become unmanageable, creating even more animal welfare issues.