The Morals of Meat: reconciling cultural symbolism with environmental awareness


“Where’s the beef?”

Meat… You’re right in liking it.”

“Indispensable in every household.”

“The yardstick of protein foods.”

Meat advertisements in the 1950s solidified the role of beef as a staple food constituting an integral part of the American identity. During World War II, the USDA promoted rationing and also subsidized the poultry industry in an effort to conserve red meat for soldiers fighting overseas. The true industrialization of the meat industry took place shortly after the war. As large grocery stores replaced local butcher shops and refrigeration technology became integrated into shipping practices, large quantities of meat began to be preserved and transported across the country. Gradually, small farmers were driven out of business by mechanized farming corporations with the ability to produce large amounts of meat with fewer resources. This industrialization formed the foundation for the development of a meat industry that has degraded global land and water resources and contributed to the unprecedented loss of biodiversity widely considered by scientists to constitute the sixth mass extinction. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and the stigma of meat as a tangible representation of societal ideals continues to permeate American culture. So the question we must ask ourselves now is how do we conciliate America’s perceived dependence on meat in the era of climate change?

In order to reason through this complex issue, we can begin by recognizing that Homo sapiens are omnivores. As a species, we have evolved in such a way that we have the ability to eat both meat and plants, both of which our bodies can utilize to yield the energy necessary for survival.  After all, our own anatomy is that of omnivores. Our short canine teeth stand in stark opposition to the large canines of vegetarian species. Unlike most plant eaters, our digestive systems do not have fermenting vats that allow for the destruction of harmful plant-dwelling microbes, and our intestinal surface area resembles that of other omnivorous species. Lean meat provides the human body with beneficial nutrients like vitamin B, iron, zinc, vitamin E, and magnesium, in addition to high amounts of protein. As a result, the earliest human civilizations adapted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which societies were sustained equally by the meat brought home by male hunters and by the berries and nuts collected by female gatherers. Meat provided these communities with the protein necessary to perform physically demanding labor and sustain a nomadic lifestyle.

Fast forward two thousand years and society has undeniably progressed from the survivalist mentality that prevailed in early civilizations. Our diet has metamorphosed alongside it and has become increasingly dominated by processed foods and genetically modified crops. Throughout much of history, meat has been a luxury only available to the rich. However, in the past century, the prices of fresh produce have risen exponentially, making locally sourced fruit and vegetables an expensive commodity not easily accessible to those living in poverty. This is because over $38 billion in subsidies have been allocated by the US government to the meat and dairy industries, which stands in stark contrast to the only $17 million granted to the fruit and vegetable industry. This has allowed the meat industry to evolve into a corporate giant wreaking havoc on the natural world. Further, advertising has made meat a staple in American culture. It has become intertwined with the image of the ideal American family, as well as with the idea of masculinity. We see it everywhere, from national hotdog eating contests to Ron Swanson, the epitome of an all-American man: “I call this turf n’ turf, a 16 ounce T-bone and a 24 ounce porterhouse… I am going to consume all of this at the same time because I am a free American.” In this way, the symbolism affiliated with meat has been integrated into the American mindset, making a radical transition difficult.

Yet, we are living in a pivotal time period in the determination of our planet’s future. Currently, even with advanced carbon sequestration methods, we will not be able to stall global warming for at least 100 years. This projection coupled with the fact that carbon continues to be produced at a higher rate than ever before reads as a sort of death sentence for the natural world. Animal food production is currently the largest single source of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, surpassing the contributions of electricity generation and the transportation industry. The sheer number of animals being raised for meat has increased by a factor of five since the 1960s. This increases the demand for land to raise the livestock on. Deforestation for the purpose of converting wooded areas to farmland contributes large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, greatly diminishing the photosynthetic conversion of CO2 to usable O2. As this land erodes, even more carbon is released from the soil into the atmosphere. It seems that humanity is digging itself into a hole that gets deeper with each restaurant order of filet mignon. Cattle have a very low energy return, with only a pound of beef produced for every 16 pounds of grain consumed. Thus, it is difficult to justify pursuing a carnivorous lifestyle when plants use five times less land to produce the same amount of protein in an equivalent quantity of meat. And if that’s not a convincing enough argument against meat consumption, 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agricultural irrigation, and it takes 25 times more water to produce a pound of beef than a pound of plant protein. Further, the cramped conditions that animals are raised in necessitates the preventative use of antibiotics to stop the spread of disease. Once antibiotics have entered the food supply, they are transported through the food chain, as well as in animal waste. This has led to an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria strains that are incredibly harmful to human health and have no known treatment. Watching a single documentary on the realities of meat processing is enough to make even a lifelong burger-lover consider vegetarianism.

There is no clear-cut answer to this complex issue. Much of it can be attributed to population growth and the growing demand for food that is affordable, which necessitates the development of new mass production methods. People in the developed world eat more animal protein than those in earlier generations, and the average American consumes 209 pounds of meat a year—well over the recommended amount for human health. Meat is integrated into American culture and the human diet in such a way that complete abstinence is an unrealistic goal. Yet, now is the time that a change must be made if we are going to save our planet. Meat intake must be minimized by replacing it with alternative proteins. One such form that has gained popularity in recent years is insect protein, specifically cricket powder, which can be produced sustainably and provides a significant amount of energy to the consumer for very few drawbacks. Even choosing more sustainably-produced meats can have a positive effect. Purchasing from small farms promotes humane animal practices and minimizes transportation emissions. These farms often raise grass-fed cattle, which have a higher energy return than the grain-fed cattle on industrial farms. Choosing poultry over beef has less impact on the environment and also leads to lower levels of the LDL cholesterol found in red meat, which greatly increases the risk of heart attack and coronary disease. In fact, this cholesterol is only found in food from animal sources, so it is non-existent in a plant-based diet. One person’s eco-footprint is reduced by more than a third through the adoption of a vegetarian diet. This has a greater environmental impact than driving a car each day. In order to make vegetarianism accessible to those with lower incomes, government subsidies must be taken away from the meat industry and allocated to the production of fruits and vegetables, thereby lowering the commercial prices of these commodities. By enforcing vegetarianism at a young age, people are more likely to adopt this practice for life without ever contributing to the degradation of the environment due to meat production.

Ultimately, a gradual shift to a human diet with less red meat and more plant protein will improve human health and reduce greenhouse gas contributions to the atmosphere. However, this requires a widespread adoption of new social norms that will likely take multiple generations to instill. Humans have adapted to eating meat, but the next stage in our evolution seems to necessitate a shift toward vegetarianism. It is important to educate people on the impacts of their dietary choices and to make fresh produce more readily available to all income-levels through government funding and land-allocation to the production of plant protein.  Most importantly, change starts with the individual, and a single person’s commitment to reducing meat intake could contribute to a movement that saves the natural world. We should heed the Warning to Humanity crafted by world scientists in the 1990s: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

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