What is India’s beef
There is a certain delicious irony in the news that India is forecast to become the world’s largest exporter of beef in 2012. Sacred Cows Sold to Nonbelievers to Broil. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true.
The forecast is by the United States Department of Agriculture in its April 2012 Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade newsletter. It so happens the USDA counts buffalo meat as a variety of beef (it uses a term, which I have never heard before, “carabeef” for “deboned frozen buffalo meat”). India’s official exports are all buffalo. Strictly speaking, India is the world’s largest exporter of buffalo/beef – and it now exports so much it has overtaken Australia, the world’s biggest exporter of beef.
Nonetheless, the figures are impressive. India is forecast to export 1.5 million tonnes of carabeef or whatever you want to call it. Its overall production of buffalo meat is 3.5 million tons, 220,000 tons higher than the previous year. Across the world only “India achieved significant gains” in terms of production, says the analysis. (This would seem to indicate Indians consume 2 million tons of buffalo inside the country – impressive when you remember about 70% of Indians are vegetarian.)
As I and any beef-eater can testify, buffalo is no match for real cow flesh. So one wonders who buys buffalo when there is so much beef floating around the global market. The answer, it seems, is Southeast Asia, West Asia and Africa where the appetite for beef-like meat is rising faster than incomes. Buffalo has effectively become a cheap beef substitute for this aspirational class. Presumably as they become wealthier they will shift to Argentinian sirloin or Australian steak.
Because India now exports 40% of its beef/buffalo production, there is a great incentive to have the more profitable buffalo rather than the less renumerative cattle. As a consequence, buffaloes have now grown to about a third of the Indian bovine herd. Cattle may be reduced to a minority soon. An example of how being economically useful trumps being sacred.
Of course, India does export beef in a sense. It smuggles cattle across its borders, mostly to Bangladesh, where the cattle are mostly slaughtered and converted into beef.
No one really knows how many cattle go across the border. Most estimates put it at about 1.5 million cattle a year. Indian cows are pretty runty and weigh about 600 kilogrammes each. Assume about 30% of this can be made into meat (it’s about 40% for a US cow) and that means 300 million kilograms of meat exported – on the hoof. That’s 660 million pounds or 330,000 tons. Back of the envelope calculation, but that would push India’s buffalo/beef exports to a sizeable 3.8 million tons.
Not bad for a land of sacred cows. What India should do is regularize the export and sale of buffalo and beef so it can be a genuine world-class industry. Difficult given religious sentiment. Ancient Indians ate beef and lots of it. You only have to read the Vedas and endless Sanskrit texts to be certain of this. Perhaps we should give beef exports a pass on cow-slaughter bans by declaring them “Vedic Hindu.”
Incidentally, while India has seen a massive increase in chicken consumption, production still lags far behind any other major nation. It increased production by 450,000 tonnes a year and is forecast to reach a record 3.2 million tonnes. But compare: Brazil produced 13.3 million tonnes of broiler and China 13.7 million tonnes.