PETA Goes on Attack in India Over Milk Giant’s Treatment of Cows
In a country where animal rights is a hot-button issue, the dairy industry is on the defensive.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- A business as powerful as Amul needn’t usually worry about a bunch of animal-rights activists in its home country. The top bovine farming cooperative in the world’s biggest producer and consumer of milk, Amul had revenue of $7 billion last year, and its Amul Butter Girl, with her rosy cheeks and polka-dot dress, is one of India’s most recognizable corporate mascots. That should be enough for the company to withstand criticism from the India branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is trying to persuade the dairy cooperative to switch to plant-based alternatives.
Yet Amul has a fight on its hands. PETA may be a fringe group in other parts of the world, but animal rights is a mainstream issue for right-wing supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a vegetarian from Amul’s home state of Gujarat. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has made cattle protection a wedge issue to help win the support of Hindu voters. (Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and Hindu groups in India, while not opposed to milk consumption, object to the slaughtering of cows and male calves.) Rules against cattle slaughter have been tightened under Modi; since 2014 several BJP-run states have passed new laws, some of which deny bail to alleged violators, according to a Human Rights Watch report, emboldening “violent vigilante groups” to attack people suspected of harming cows.
In highlighting the alleged mistreatment of cattle, PETA is appealing to these Hindu sentiments. In May the group launched an offensive saying the dairy sector supplies India’s beef industry and cows are “raped” through artificial insemination. The country’s dairy industry is out “to make a profit no matter the animal welfare, health, or environmental consequences,” says Kiran Ahuja, the vegan outreach coordinator for PETA India.
Amul is hitting back by appealing to hot-button topics of its own. In June it called on Modi to ban PETA, claiming the group is promoting the interests of foreign companies and putting tens of millions of livelihoods at stake. Amul also wants regulators to prevent the use of the word “milk” for nondairy products, saying PETA’s campaign is an effort by outsiders to undermine Indian farmers. “It’s propaganda, and they have a lot of money funded by foreigners,” says R S Sodhi, the managing director of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd., which owns the Amul brand. “They want money to flow to the American multinationals, which are producing genetically modified soy or oat products.”
While foreign brands such as Oatly Group AB have yet to make a big push in India (though Oatly’s oat milk is offered at Starbucks in the country), Amul is seeking government protection from them. The cooperative presents itself as the champion of about 80 million rural households, many of them landless farmers who own fewer than 50 head of cattle. “Where will we go if we quit dairy farming?” asks Manoj Kumar Behera, 35, who has 37 cows and calves on his farm in the eastern state of Odisha. “It’s an attack on our subsistence.”
As incomes rise in India, so does demand for milk, cheese, and other dairy products, which have become a $150 billion industry. Milk substitutes made from soy, nuts, or oats are growing in popularity in more developed nations, but they’re more expensive and remain far behind dairy in India.
Bevry, a Gurugram-based startup launched in 2019 by three young Indians, last year began selling a locally made oat milk, marketing it as creamier than Oatly to cater to local tastes. It sells online and in about 60 locations in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, though Bevry has found it hard to expand with many shops shuttered during Covid-19 lockdowns. “The culture of vegetarianism in India has been there for hundreds of years, but the concept of veganism is fairly new,” says Pradeep Sakuar, 21, a Bevry co-founder.
Many of Modi’s supporters may sympathize with PETA’s campaign, but he will probably avoid openly siding with the group. Some BJP-affiliated organizations will try to capitalize on the dairy industry’s alleged animal abuse, says Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based author and political analyst. However, the fight puts the prime minister, who’s still under fire for his handling of the pandemic, in a tough spot as he tries to balance conflicting parts of his political base. “One side is the cow protection brigade, which is the Hindu vote bank, and the other side is the cooperative societies in Gujarat, which is Modi’s big vote bank,” Jerath says. “The issue is too sensitive.”
Modi may also be wary after tens of thousands of farmers descended on New Delhi late last year to oppose his plans for agricultural reform. Plus, many dairy producers are struggling from a crash in demand following a brutal second wave of Covid infections in the spring. Modi’s administration won’t want to get too involved with this “spat,” says R. Ramakumar, a professor specializing in rural development at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, adding that Amul has put forth its case very strongly by appealing to economic sentiments. “They simply can’t stand against Amul,” he says.
Still, PETA’s not likely to stop its drive to change India’s increasingly dairy-rich diets. Amul needs to “realize the way the wind is blowing and consider transitioning to plant milk,” says PETA’s Ahuja. “All the smart businesses are responding abroad.” —With Bibhudatta Pradhan
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