The majority of livestock farming in Kazakhstan is represented by small family cattle risers that sometimes practice semi-nomadic traditions. Photo: Julien Pruvost.

Culture on the table: Kazakh vegans inch ahead against the odds to displace meat from national diets

Meat is ubiquitous in Kazakh culture, but a small number of vegans is taking steps to change food in the country.
Meat is ubiquitous in Kazakh culture, but a small number of vegans is taking steps to change food in the country.

Aigerim Berikkan became vegan two years ago after she had watched Earthlings, a documentary produced in 2005. She cried all along with the documentary and right after decided that she wouldn’t consume meat again. “Once you understand that you don’t want to perceive animals as an object, you just don’t want to go back. Especially today, when we have huge access to products and don’t need to fight to survive,” explained the 24 years old medicine student from Almaty, in Kazakhstan. 

The young woman soon joined a group of vegans. There she met people who share the same values, which made her happy. 

A report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that a plant-based diet is one of the best individual actions to mitigate climate change. However, for Aigerim, a reduced climate footprint is just the cherry on top of her non-violence effort

The exact number of vegans in Kazakhstan is not known, but the Veganstan’s group on Instagram has around 2500 followers. The majority of them are young people

Culture and food

In the past, Kazakhstan’s culture was nomadic. Meat and milk products were important for people’s nutrition (even if a recent analysis of ancient bones showed that nomads ate plants and less meat than their descendants imagine). Total sedentarization came in the 20th Century when the country was part of the Soviet Union, but meat and dairy products remained an essential part of the table in addition to cereals and vegetables. That is still true for the majority of the population, though on supermarkets’ shelves you can now find products for vegans. This, for Aigerim, is proof that her everyday choice matters. 

Sound engineer Adilbek Temirkhanov joined the group after visiting a vegan fast food restaurant. He wanted to do more to promote his lifestyle, even if his experience of campaigning to his parents was not successful: “My father called me a radical. I could have imagined him reacting this way,” said Adilbek. His father doesn’t believe that a plant-based diet can be healthy and varied. The man perceives his son’s choice as a “sectarian” or “politicized” one. 

An average Kazakh eats around 79 kg of meat per year. Photo: Danara Ismetova

Working for the cow

Cattle and dairy farming generates high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the calculations that the country presented to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC, 10% of the total amount of emissions in Kazakhstan come from agriculture. And these figures are not about to decrease. 

As part of the Paris agreement, Kazakhstan promised to reduce its emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by 2030. The government hasn’t announced any change in agricultural policies. 

Kazakhstan has a small meat industry. The country produces only around 500 000 tons of beef every year, while Russia produced around 1,7 million tons of beef in 2015. Also, 60-70% of livestock farming is in the hands of private family farms. Nevertheless “if we talk about the population employed in this sector, millions of people work in animal farming. In Kazakhstan, it’s still the base of employment, because, in fact, in villages, everyone works for their cow,” said economist Almas Chukin

Kazakhstan has been a hydrocarbon exporting economy. But with oil pricing going down the biggest country in Central Asia has been trying to diversify its economy and some now see agriculture as a new petrol. Though the number of family farms is only 20,000 now, according to the “Angus chamber ”, a meat industry lobbying organization, the ministry of Agriculture expects to grow their number fivefold in ten years. 

Meat and nomadic culture

“If a stranger passed, even if they didn’t have meat, the Kazakh would always slaughter a sheep for them,” told Galiya Apay, a cook of traditional cuisine who works at “Huns”, a recreation centre 35 km away from Almaty. Here, where the mountains seem too close, tables are set up near Kazakh yurts, so that local tourists can enjoy the view. Everything is set to revive the atmosphere of nomad times. 

At that time people couldn’t imagine their lives without horses and sheep, which used to provide them with milk, wool, and then, one day, their meat. This product is still present in almost every traditional dish. The famous “beshbarmak” is finely chopped mutton and horse sausage with noodles and onion. “Kuurdak” is made from roasted mutton, onion, and fat. For “mantis” Kazakhs wrap minced meat in the dough and for “syrne” they slightly marinate it.

Today Kazakhstan is a multicultural country: Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek and Uyghur dishes, containing cereals, vegetables, and, of course, meat, are also popular among the population. 

“I don’t believe people in Kazakhstan can give up meat,” said Turganzhan Abdulov, a young cook who works in a local steakhouse. During the spring lockdown, his restaurant received a big number of phone calls from people who wanted to order steaks and shashliks.

Official figures say that during the first part of 2020 citizens of Kazakhstan even raised their meat consumption compared to 2019. Every week, an average Kazakh family goes to a local market to buy beef, lamb, horse meat, or chicken. The average Kazakh ate around 79 kg of meat in 2019. 

However, times are changing. “Vegetarians, of course, come here too and we prepare beshbarmak and mantis for them, but we use only water and vegetables,” specified Galiya Apay, who tries to do her best for her guests to experience Kazakh traditional cuisine.

Local farmers would be afraid if these new trends took more serious dimensions. “The new fashion of refusing meat can certainly hurt animal farming and its economy. If there is no demand, farmers will suffer losses, ” told Arman Abildayev, farmer and agroblogger. 

But, still, for the economist Aizhan Mukhyshbayeva, the number of vegans and vegetarians in Kazakhstan is very little to influence the meat market.

Beshabrmak is chopped mutton and horse sausage with noodles, onion, and sometimes potatoes. Photo: Danara Ismetova.