As you will see, I haven’t really posted in a while. It’s been a busy time, and as always, writing a weekly blog slowly shifts into writing a fortnightly blog, then monthly… etc. So, why am I breaking my period of blog hibernation?
Honestly, I just want to rant.
The media is an incredibly powerful tool, which can excite, inspire and compel people to act effectively to better our food and agricultural system. However, it can also be a whirlpool of abstract claims and contradictions, leaving the reader confused and often at a loss.
Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me an article from The Independent called ‘Five things that would happen in everyone stopped eating meat’. This article has taken an incredibly important and well-researched topic – reducing our meat consumption – and ridicules it with generalised (often misguided) claims:
1. It suggests that cutting out meat is a ‘simple change’ that “people in the west still won’t make…[but]…could change the fortunes of the whole world”.
The choice to eat meat, or not eat meat, is anything but simple. Meat consumption linked to emotion and psychology, to economics and politics, environment, taste. Also, not all meat is equal. Meat comes from different animals, has particular seasons and ecosystems (if wild), and different cultures have developed diverse tastes and cuisines over millennia.
The notion of giving up meat being easy for most people is exactly why processed, mass produced ‘meat alternatives’ such as Quorn are successful. They make a profit out of the idea that becoming vegetarian is a ‘simple’ and ‘convenient’ change in which you can simply replace meat with something that tastes, feels and looks exactly like meat.
It is also not just a case of ‘opting for a beet burger instead of a beef burger every time we sit down to eat’, as the article later suggests. That would not only have considerable blood pressure and laxative effects, but it completely dismisses the fact that becoming vegetarian is not a ‘substitution game’ but a lifestyle that can deliver foods diversity, enjoyment and culinary exploration.
Also, yes ‘people in the west’ need to change eating habits, but what about other regions of the world?
Research into world agriculture by 2050 shows that there is a rapidly growing demand for livestock products, such as meat and dairy, in developing and emerging economies such as Brazil and China. China is particularly fond of pork, increasing sevenfold since the late 1970s. As a Futures Centre article states: ‘The nation now consumes over 500 million pigs annually, equal to approximately half the pigs in the world”.
So, let’s stop with this Bob Geldof style ‘Let us, the west, change fortunes and feed the world’ narrative. It’s so 1980s
2. The article fails to look at inequality and distribution, suggesting a logic of ‘eat no meat’ + ‘save more land and human-edible soy and grains’ = “the world’s hungry would no longer be hungry”
The author draws on the important fact that 97% of the world’s soya crop is fed to livestock. In other words, we are feeding human-edible protein to livestock, rather than humans. You can read a whole lot more about the animal welfare, environment and health costs of feeding grains and soy to livestock in the fantastic book Farmageddon, or on the FCRN article Livestock, Feed and Food Security.
Glossing over the fact that we actually do have enough food to feed everyone (in fact, in 2012, we produced enough food to feed 1.5x the world’s population) and move on to the point that the reason why people are still hungry in a food abundant world is to do with distribution and inequality when it comes to who produces and controls food. By not eating meat in the west, we will not somehow magically cause the soy grown predominantly in the U.S. and Brazil to be shipped across to the ‘world’s hungry’.
To alleviate any global hunger, we need to tackle the underlying power structures that continue to entrench a economic and political gap between the world’s over- and under- nourished, and stifle equitable distribution of food (and a diversity of it, not just soy/grains).
3. Images speak a thousand words, so make sure they are the right ones
The main article image is of a cow in a grass fed field, with the caption “Livestock are responsible for consuming the majority of the world’s grains and soy crops”. Yes, that statement is correct and it is a major issue (read Farmageddon, or the FCRN article Livestock, Feed and Food Security for more info), but images speak a thousand words.
At least give an appropriate image of livestock in darkened feedlots being pumped full of soy, not one that just reinforces the global imaginary of what ‘animal farming’ looks like and the fallacy of meat production.
4. It uses provoking rather than positive emotional words
The author uses statements throughout that automatically create a moral binary between vegans (the ‘healthier, kinder, greener’ person) and meat eaters (the ‘criminally wasteful’ and ‘unconscionable’ murderer). If you look at the comments section, one of the most recent ones states: “I hate reading articles like this for one simple reason – they make me feel, rightly, incredibly guilty for being a meat eater”.
This is a great example of just how emotionally and morally loaded the ‘meat debate’ is. The risk of this is that it simply divides us as eaters, and as part of a society that should be campaigning and working together to proactively change our food and agricultural systems.
Overall, this leads me onto final reflections:
First, the answer to the ‘meat debate’ lies in the middle, in moderation and responsible eating behaviours. We need to not rely on ‘all or nothing’ swings between extreme eating, between guilt and righteousness, and shaming different diets. This applies to the ‘meat debate’ but also to all foods, as Michael Pollan suggests in his ‘National Eating Disorder’ article.
Second, I do believe that reducing meat consumption is an imperative if we want to mitigate dietary greenhouse gas emissions, our water, land and climate footprints. Also, reducing meat and dairy consumption will arguably improve our health (as will reducing the over-consumption of many foodstuffs).
However, this will be a sacrifice to many, and we must not shame people for this. It will take time and energy to read the evidence (and decide what inspires you and compels you to act). It also requires you to know your body (are you actually needing a large steak? or is it just a cultural symbol?) but also our ecosystems (what are the seasons of meat, vegetables, fruits, pulses? which meat is more/less climate, water and energy intensive?).
Be responsible, intelligent, and most of all take a personal investment in food choices, rather than relying on an abstract ‘top five’ that arguably stifles your own creativity and pleasure towards food than catalysing it.
OK, rant over.