The arguments for reducing meat consumption are so compelling that one would think politicians would be less embarrassed to do so. Yet, as campaigners warn with growing urgency that global animal production is accelerating climate degradation and causing devastating damage to nature and human health, governments remain reluctant to tackle meat consumption.
It has been shown time and time again that factory farming systems designed to extract ever greater commercial value from farm animals depend on cruelty to animals and the armies of workers who process them.
The reality is that if we eat meat we have to eat less and better raised products. This kind of product costs a lot more. With food poverty such a huge problem in the UK and other developed economies, not only for welfare recipients but for those in low-paid work, offering anything that would make food more expensive has become politically impossible.
Our attitude to meat consumption goes beyond economics and the rise of “precariat” in the 21st century. The desire for meat is deeply rooted in Western culture. A hierarchy of proteins has been established over the centuries. Pieces of meat, and especially beef, were what overlords ate and grew up through the ages, and what those below them in the pecking order aspired to. Beans and bones were the stuff of peasant cooking.
Foods of animal origin have long been touted as superior as a source of “complete” protein, containing in one package all of the amino acids we need for the building blocks of the body. Plant foods that contained only some of them, or had to be eaten in combination to get them all, were considered inferior.
Protein deficiencies are rare in developed countries and most of us, including vegetarians, eat a lot more than we need. Yet cultural preferences persist.
Food is also a matter of class. Few welcome a conference of wealthy political elites on removing cheap chicken and burgers or milk porridge from breakfast cereals.
George Orwell worried about the quality of the diet of the English working class in the 1930s. “A man dies and is buried, and all his actions are forgotten, but the food he ate lives after him in the healthy or rotten bones of his children, ”he writes in his depression-era book The Road to Wigan Pier.
But he berated those who told them to spend their money on healthier food. “A millionaire can have breakfast with orange juice and Ryvita cookies; an unemployed person doesn’t… When you’re undernourished, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull, healthy foods. You want something a little “tasty”. There is always something nice and inexpensive to tempt you. Let’s take three pennorth of crisps! Or translated into today’s culture: make mine a quarter pound with fries!
There is also a strong nationalist tendency at work here. The roast beef is an age-old symbol of John Bull and British freedom. Hogarth summed up the notion in his 18th-century paintings and prints, titled O the roast beef from old England. Hogarth was a member of Sublime Steak Society, who gathered for ritual meals of rare beef accompanied by the singing of songs mocking the weak and shabby French, who ate instead of miserable frogs. The sentiment was alive and well in the 21st century. Until the crash, a group of financiers specializing in “structured finance” – that is, large-scale tax evasion schemes – met regularly for ritualistic food crises under the name of “Cow Eating.” Club ”.
The meat, preferably red and still bloody, is always a symbol of power and machismo. And an unlimited supply of cheap meat for all – thanks to new trade deals – is one of the benefits of our Brexiters-promoted exit from the EU: British freedom once again tied to meat.
But it is all upside down. The meat on offer today is not so much John Bull as the ubiquitous American hamburger or South American fried chicken. These are highly processed foods that are linked to a range of diet-related illnesses. Our liking for meat in the form and quantity in which it is currently consumed is shaped by the power of advertising and subsidies.
Fast food companies are among the biggest advertising spend. Beef and dairy production are not only among the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but also the main beneficiaries of subsidies. Not a lot of free market or free choice there. A new UN report estimates that almost 90% of the 540 billion dollars (400 billion pounds sterling) a year given by governments in subsidies to farmers is harmful to the climate, to our health and to ecosystems.
What looks cheap is cheap in large part thanks to taxpayer dollars and the declining share of GDP that goes in the form of wages. Cultural associations of meat consumption may be traced back through the ages, but the habits of mass consumption are recently acquired. There is another way.
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