Veganizing Bangladesh

I just got back from a trip to what the British newspaper The Telegraph once called “the world’s most vegetarian country.” The country is Bangladesh, where – according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – the average person consumes only about four kilograms of meat annually. For comparison, in the United States, the per-capita meat consumption is 120 kilograms.

If you know anything about Bangladesh, you know that The Telegraph’s label is grossly misleading. Bangladeshis love kebabs and biryani, and they surely love fish. A retired Dhaka University professor who has thought a great deal about national identity in Bangladesh explained to me that, traditionally, Bangladeshis are Bangla speakers first, and fish eaters second. Religion, politics, and everything else comes after that. In fact, people in Bangladesh consume an average of 24 kilograms of fish per year, which in part explains the four-kilo figure, as the FAO does not consider fish to be meat. Another reason for the relatively low meat consumption in Bangladesh is affordability – meat is expensive.

As median income increases, meat consumption will almost certainly increase as well, and increase drastically. That is exactly what has been happening in other developing countries as they have been making their way out of poverty. For example, while 60 years ago the average person in China only consumed five kilograms of meat per year, that number has now surpassed 60.

This trend is not sustainable. If everyone ate as much meat as Americans do, there would not be enough land to provide the food needed to feed the world’s population. Meat production is incredibly inefficient in terms of land use. It takes approximately 20 times more land to produce a gram of useable protein from cattle than it does to produce it from chickpeas or soybeans; and the water footprint of meat is even more disastrous. Animal agriculture is also responsible for 15 to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than all transportation combined, and a main driver of deforestation, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss.

The worst and most directly affected by increasing meat consumption are, of course, the animals involved. They are – quite literally – paying with their lives. And not only that, prior to being killed they also endure psychological and physical torture that most of us would have a very hard time even imagining.

Shoyibur, Pranjal & Samira

When I was in Dhaka last month, I met a group of students in front of the Teacher-Student Centre. The location was fitting, as the campus of the University of Dhaka has historically often served as the ground zero of progressive movements and new ideas in Bangladesh. Their new idea: veganism. They had just founded the Vegan Society Bangladesh, the first of its kind in the country, and this was their first-ever public event. They brought a table with leaflets, and a banner that asked, “What do you know about veganism?” A fair question! While most people know a good deal about vegetarianism, not least because vegetarianism is a common religious practice among Hindus, veganism is still an unfamiliar concept in Bangladesh.

Samira, Shoyibur & Pranjal in conversation with fellow students

Md. Shoyibur Rahman (26) is pursuing an MBA at the Asian University of Bangladesh and has been vegan for five years. He explains that veganism is not just a diet. “It’s about ensuring justice for animals and giving them the respect they deserve. They can feel pain and happiness just like us.” Pranjal Paul (24), a Master’s student in Microbiology, and second-year Peace and Conflict Studies student Samira Rahman (21), both at the University of Dhaka, too cite ethical reasons as their main motivation for not only abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other foods made from animals, but also from other products that are made with animal ingredients, such as leather shoes, wool socks, and cosmetics with glycerin derived from animal fat. “In good conscience, I could no longer support the exploitation of animals that is so prevalent in our world,” says Pranjal about his decision to become a vegan. Veganism is a rational philosophy, informed by science and motivated by compassion – a way of life, which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.

Samira presenting Dhaka University student Mong Khing Wong with a Bangla translation of Tom Regan’s The Philosophy of Animal Rights

The goal of the Vegan Society Bangladesh is to help people to go vegan. One of the biggest obstacles are misconceptions about veganism that are common in society. “One of them is that we can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet,” says Shoyibur. “People do not know about plant sources of protein that are available in Bangladesh, including chickpeas, peas, beans, lentils, and other legumes, soya chunks, tofu, nuts, and seeds.” Samira tells me that they are planning more events in the future to address such misconceptions and convince more people to embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle – probably the single most impactful step anybody can take to protect animals as well as our planet. Making “the world’s most vegetarian country” a more vegan country is a tall order, but one should never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come. As American moral philosopher Tom Regan once put it, “all great movements go through three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption. It is the realization of this third stage, adoption, that requires both our passion and our discipline, our hearts and our heads. The fate of animals is in our hands.”

A version of this article was published under the following title:

  • “Veganizing Bangladesh,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 20 August 2022)