Meat: Our old friend and our new enemy

As we become more and more aware and concerned with the amount of carbon dioxide that is being emitted out into the atmosphere, countless fingers are being pointed at the livestock industry, which is responsible for 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions and which utilizes 70% of total agricultural land.

Specifically, red meat is incredibly energy intensive. It requires an enormous amount of resources and  livestock grazing contributes to soil erosion, desertification, water pollution, and loss of biological diversity. We have lost millions of acres of tropical forest in Latin America to cattle grazing.

Our Complex Past

The human relationship with grazing animals for consumption began around three to four million years ago, when our ancestors began to walk on two legs and move out into grasslands, allowing for their diets to change from plant-based diets to include meat for the very first time. Now, this doesn’t mean that we were carnivores. We have always been omnivores, or, as one author terms it, “adaptavores”. We simply adapt to eat what we must.

But we are not our ancestors. Around 10,000 years ago, we transitioned to agriculture, and we changed. We used fewer calories in a day and we consumed less meat. Our bodies became smaller and, to some extent, frailer. Today, most of us privileged enough to be living in the developed world aren’t worried about getting enough calories. A majority of people are actually eating too many calories per day, with obesity rates doubling over the past two decades. And the real kicker is, most people are getting more protein than they need also, except for a small portion of us who are extremely athletic.

Meat and Money

There has been a direct correlation seen between an increase in income and increase in meat consumption. It creates a sense of power. Even my own grandparents remember a time in which meat was a luxury and a status of wealth. Just in the past hundred years, it has gone from an expensive treat which would be consumed on holidays and celebrations to a staple in every meal. This can be seen especially in the American diet: sausages at breakfast, deli-meat at lunch, and a burger for dinner. Low income countries that have experienced recent economic growth like China have seen large increases in total meat consumption, with the average person more capable of buying expensive meat.

Our Bodies

The excess of fat and protein in meat which was so beneficial for our distant ancestors has proved to be disastrous in our own diets. Figure 2 shows the increase of risk in a plethora of diseases that are related to the consumption of red meat consumption. The high levels of fat and cholesterol have had a hand in making heart disease the leading killer of adults in the United States.

So why are we so stuck on meat?

Until fairly recently, a large portion of the world ate very little meat, and our diets revolved around vegetables and grains. Today, meat is likely related to the top killer of Americans, and people are getting far too much protein than they actually need. Why are we so stuck on meat? Why is it that public school lunches have a focus on meat and dairy and medical professionals cannot seem to decide whether or not meat is beneficial for you? It might be related to the enormous meat industry that is present in the United States and around the world. The production of meat in the United States is heavily subsidized. When the news first broke that meat was bad for hearts, the meat industry scrambled to find scientists to stir up doubt surrounding the science, and test the consensus. The meat industry is an area with an enormous amount of power.

So what is the alternative to a diet that revolves around meat? I am not trying to argue that the entire human race should cut out meat completely from our diets. Meat consumption has strong cultural, emotional, and even spiritual implications in many communities. However, there is a better way to consume meat.

Putting the label ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ on things tends to strike fear into people’s hearts. Hearing words like that tends to make people imagine that they would never be able to have their favorite BBQ ribs or pot roast ever again. That is not the reality of the future we need to create.

I think it is important to note here that the concern about heart disease and the concern for the environment has had a notable impact on meat consumption in the past few years. Strides have been made and our culture is slowly changing, but it is not happening fast enough.

We need to create a society in which people understand that meat should not be the center of their plate, nor the center of their societies. American society, which stereotypically revolves around barbecues and hot dogs doesn’t have to be completely disbanded, but maybe we can start to look at meat in the way that humans did only half a century ago. We don’t have to start boycotting Christmas hams or the classic American Thanksgiving turkey. But we should start growing to appreciate vegetables and grains, and considering that the less meat we eat, the better we are doing for our hearts, and the better we are doing for our world.


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7 thoughts on “Meat: Our old friend and our new enemy

  1. Thank you for your blogpost! I agree with you that we should strive for a society where meat is not the center of ours meals. That being said, how do you see us moving in that direction? Personally, I believe education and advertisement can play a big role in this. However, this is easier said than done. A different approach would be subsidizing vegetables and grains or an increased tax for meat. But this will face a lot of resistance from the meat industry and probably also from a lot of consumers (at first at least). Curious what you think of those two options and whether you see other possibilities to move towards a society with a lower meat consumption


  2. Nice blogpost! I agree that a big part of the problem is that meat has become really cheap. I think a possibility other than Frank mentioned could be to reduce or terminate the subsidies on meat production that you write about in your blog post. Policy should maybe focus on lowering the revenue of producing meat, alongside making meat more expensive for the consumer. However, this might be hard to achieve, especially considering the power of the meat industry.


  3. Thanks for your insightful post! I couldn’t help but notice the parallel between your description of how the meat industry, in the face of negative media coverage, threw doubt on the science to save their image, and the fossil fuel industry, which basically did the same thing with global warming. I imagine this must also be linked to their similar power and influence in (especially American) politics. To what extent do you think there’s lessons to be learned from this parallel, especially when trying to dismantle the influence of either one (if there’s any hope for that at all in the near future)?


  4. @FrankSchippers98 I completely agree that education is incredibly important in this issue, especially in teaching the general public that a meat-free life has the potential to be just as healthy (and in many cases, healthier), than a meat-filled life. It is interesting that you mention subsidies, because the meat industry is actually getting a lot of subsidies, specifically indirectly in the United States (see this article, through the substation of corn. It would be interesting to see how a removal of these subsidies would change the costs of meat, and it will be especially interesting in this pandemic to see how the increase in the price of meat will affect the consumption patterns, I think that would give us a lot of insight into what the world would look like with fewer corn subsidies in the United States.

    @Bramauc great point about the parallel between the fossil fuel industry and the meat industry! They are both indeed very large industries with a lot of leverage in the American political system. I think it is definitely important to recognize the way that industries like that operate and the role that the general public must play in directing politics, when politics in general (in my opinion) tends to swing towards these corporations. I think we could also tie it to the tobacco industry in the United States a few decades ago. The success that we have seen in the fall of the tobacco industry in the United States came from a massive campaign from government sponsored advocacy groups and a change in the perspective in the general public. I think both the meat industry and the fossil fuel industries could learn from the fall of the tobacco industry.


  5. Hi Liz, great post! I’m also interested in the (problematic) ways that American culture is sometimes so revolved around meat consumption. Other than subsidies, another potential remedy could be to increase animal welfare standards because other than the humanitarian benefits, it would also inherently increase the price the meat, making plant based alternatives more competitive and also perhaps encourage the idea of meat as a “side dish” rather than the main dish.


  6. While I agree with your points, I went to check if there was already a decrease in meat consumption in the USA, and it seems like there is, therefore, I think that change is already happening, and not “only starting now”. Furthermore, please note that not all of of “us” live in the USA, hence why you cannot generalise this issue for everyone or associate it to “society”. This does not make your points less valid, but in my opinion it might be a bit simplistic to associate everyone with the USA’s way of consumption. Other countries like NZ or Australia are also huge meat producers and eaters, but you don’t seem to talk about them for some reason.
    Maybe make an article fully dedicated to the USA’s way of consumption but be careful about generalising everything. If you did not want to generalise it, please make it explicit in your title that you use USA as a case study.


  7. I do think this is a fully Western issue. I always feel a bit uncomfortable when it is made global in any way. For the majority of the world, population meat is still a luxury that they should be able to have guilt-free. I mean, I eat meat. Not as much here as back home because the meat here tastes like actual rubber but I do eat meat.

    I am in agreement with Giorgio, it is hard to generalize this topic because there are huge discrepancies between about 10 countries and the other 180+. I believe India has the third-largest population in the world but its meat consumption is practically non-existent compared to its population. Obviously, that is large because of religion. We see the same in the smaller Asian nations as well that practice Buddhism. In Sub-Saharan Africa, to not eat meat is literally to bring death upon hundreds whose entire livelihoods revolve around the trade of cows, goats, chicken, and fish. It would be an ecomic disaster-likely even collapse if everyone who can afford to eat meat stopped doing so or even cut back.

    I believe that the cause of the issue should address issue within their borders. Everyone else seems to be managing their meat consumption pretty well. In fact, that goes for the majority of the world.


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