The Contention Over Dairy Products in US-India Trade Talks

India must strengthen its ‘non-negotiable stand’ against America’s attempts to flood domestic dairy industry with blood meal for reasons beyond cultural and religious sentiments.

Last week, India and the US agreed to exclude their contention over diary from the ongoing trade negotiations. India has refused to open up its dairy market to include US products sourced from blood meal-fed cattle citing “cultural and religious sentiments”. The idea of a cow, a revered animal in India being fed a non-vegetarian diet containing leftovers of slaughtered animals has become a non-negotiable issue for India. 

Disagreement over the dairy sector has been a central roadblock in achieving a comprehensive trade deal between India and the US.

India’s argument against entry for US dairy products 

Blood meal is a protein-rich dietary supplement that is said to be both cheap and effective in meeting the nourishment requirements of cattle. Procured from blood and other remaining body parts of slaughtered animals, the mix is turned into a powdery substance which satisfies the amino acid requirement in cattle.

Feeding cows to cows may sound wrong, but from a nutritional point of view, it makes sense as tissues derived from their species are best suited metabolically. According to Prof Charles G. Schwab, a Professor of Animal Sciences, it improves milk production and milk protein yield in dairy cows.

Blood meal is adopted as a replacement for products like enriched soybean, as a go-to option for farmers who want high productivity. It is also cost-efficient, as it is a byproduct of the same industry – thereby minimising logistical cost. As it is a highly perishable product, it is processed soon after slaughter, even reducing the need for testing impurities.

On the flipside, while it can prove to be cost-efficient to feed leftover animal mix, this tacit cannibalism amplifies levels of infectious organisms. It can also prove to be detrimental to the long-term survival of the species. There is a higher chance of cows being infected as diseases spread more easily within a species that eats its own.

All ruminants i.e. animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, naturally acquire nutrients from plant-based food and their system of the four-chambered stomach is specifically designed to process this. To pump up cattle with blood meal can affect them anatomically as this “human intervention” can alter the natural consumption method by turning the grazer into a carnivore.

Article 20 (a) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), provides for countries to adopt measures necessary to protect public morality. It allows for each nation-state to give its definition of public morality and protect its cultural sensitivities. Thus, this provision gives countries the right to protect itself from the obligations of free trade if it stands in contravention to the socio-cultural practices followed in the country.

Cultural and religious sentiments aside, there is also clear scientific reasoning that India can assert. 

Scientific claim against American dairy products 

According to Sagari Ramdas, a veterinarian and livestock researcher, there is clear proof of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak being a result of animal tissue being fed to cattle. BSE is a fatal nervous disease, commonly known as the mad cow disease that spurs degenerative changes to the otherwise calm animal. 

Symptoms like aggression and lack of motor skills arise due to breakdown in the central nervous system, usually ending in fatality. There has also been clear scientific evidence linking contaminated cattle products causing the infectious agent to the cross-species barrier and eventually affect humans. An epidemic in Britain during the early 1990s had over 185,000 reported cases with a human variant named Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) having killed over 170 people. The outbreak in the UK had crippled the industry affecting the flow of global dairy products with the resulting ban to eliminate chances of new infections. In the process, 3.7 million cattle were slaughtered. In this way, the US dairy industry has been risking the spread of BSE infection by profiteering from cheap supplements. 

Several countries have a total ban on feeding any form of ruminant feed containing animal tissue or blood meal. Stemming from a  scientific and pragmatic basis, Australia has banned feeding to ruminants all kinds of blood meal supplements, including meat and bone meal (MBM) – which is derived from vertebrates like fish and birds. Canada (2007), Japan (1997), New Zealand (1997), and several European Union nations too have banned all forms of MBM.

India’s dairy sector is at a crossroads, with the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of people at stake. Subsidised surplus production followed by the industrialised countries has the potential to squeeze India’s dairy cooperatives which have been beneficial in securing the livelihood of over 150 million people

Comparing the American and Indian dairy sector 

The US government has followed up the complaint by two American lobby groups, the National Milk Producers Federation and the US Dairy Export Council, to push India for not providing a fair and equitable market for its products. India has been adamant about the non-negotiable criteria of involving products sourced from blood meal-fed cattle. 

However, India’s insistence on barriers stems from its need – as a developing nation, to protect its indigenous dairy industry. The domestic industry may not be able to handle the influx of factory-produced cheap dairy products that depend on blood meals for greater yield.

Unlike the cooperative model in India, the private model in the US runs on high productivity, subjecting cattle as for-profit commodities. In India, the majority of farmers under the cooperative model are small landholders, owning just two or three cows/buffaloes. As per the National Sample Survey Offices 70th round survey, 23 percent of the household with less than 0.01 hectare of land has reported livestock as their primary source of income. The average milk production per animal is very low (up to 5.53 liters from an animal per day) compared to industrialised countries (nearly 30 liters from an animal per day). Despite this low-input low-output model, it has helped bring India’s milk production to the top position globally, while also supporting the livelihoods of millions. 

India’s dairy sector is an integral part of its agro-driven economy and has been the lifeblood of its vast rural region. ThusIndia’s cooperative model has been a stable source of income for low-income families; this sector has to be protected from dumping by developed countries in a highly competitive economy.

India is too big a market for the global dairy giants to keep away from, even as continuous pressure has been put on New Delhi in trade negotiations. Hence, without insistence on continuing its protective measures, the domestic industry runs the risk of being in serious trouble, as a result of cheap dairy products flooding the market. 

In summation, with the cultural and religious sensitivities’ argument, New Delhi has to maintain its stance to keep American dairy giants away from the country. Additionally, a claim grounded more on the risks attached to scientific evidence can help India’s case of its dairy industry needing protection from products sourced from blood meal.

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India) [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics. 

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