Holy cow! Why cows are sacred in India

Hinduism, the main religion practised in India, encourages appreciation of the natural world and reverence for all forms of life. The cow is particularly sacred to Hindus, most of whom are vegetarians. For this reason the slaughter of cows is illegal in most Indian states.

The cow is a maternal symbol in India because it provides more sustenance for a family if kept alive than if killed for its flesh. It provides milk, yoghurt, butter and ghee -- all of which are generally considered an essential part of a vegetarian diet. (Ghee, or butter-oil, is widely used as a frying medium.)

Cows are also important as "workhorses" on family farms, particularly in terms of their ability to plough fields. Their dung is valuable as a fertiliser, and is used as an ingredient in wall and floor plaster. Importantly too, the cow is a symbol of non-violence, as it's essentially a peaceful and meek animal who gives its milk freely to humans.

I'm mentioning all this because of the blame that's being heaped on these gentle animals - due to the greenhouse emissions produced by the dairy industry. However, as pointed out by the World Wildlife Fund, "the scale of these impacts depends on the practices of the dairy farmers and feed growers [...] The WWF envisions a global marketplace in which all dairy is produced as sustainably as possible. By working to engage dairy farmers, co-ops, companies and others in promoting the use of sustainable practices, WWF aims to transform the milk production industry".

As mentioned above, dairy products are an important part of a vegetarian diet. Plant-based alternatives to cow's milk provide a tiny fraction of the protein in cow's milk, and utilise vast amounts of water. (The almond and rice milk available in stores for example, consists largely of water.)

Organic cow's milk is better for the planet than "ordinary" milk as it reduces pesticide use and generally involves more sustainable practices. It provides us with 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than equivalent conventionally produced products, according to a 2016 study conducted at Newcastle University.

If you're concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, it's a wiser choice to reduce or eliminate your meat consumption. Part of the money you save by doing this can be spent on organic dairy products, which are admittedly a bit more costly than their non-organic equivalent but provide greater health benefits (as well as tasting so much better!)

So please, the next time you hear someone complaining about cows, remember their peaceful, generous nature, and the sacred position they hold throughout most of India. Cows deserve our respect and appreciation, and they deserve to be part of an industry that uses sustainable practices with minimal greenhouse emissions.

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