As the world rushes towards a state of environmental emergency, what does it mean to be an ethical carnivore? Does such a thing even exist?
Let’s get one thing out of the way up top: meat is delicious. A good bit of meat activates our brain’s pleasure centres in a way that vegetables just, well, don’t. Every truly memorable meal I’ve had in my life has been anchored by meat. It’s the stuff of family gatherings, long dinner parties and celebratory nights out. When I think about the concept of being an ethical carnivore or removing meat from my diet, it’s not the practicality that strikes me – I was vegetarian for three years in my early twenties – it’s the feeling of losing all of that: the community, the experience, the memory. Meat is emotional.
Yet for many of us, our meat-eating is cut through with a growing sense of wrongness. We’ve seen the abbatoir footage, we’ve read the articles about our ecological footprints and we’ve heard the warnings from global health authorities: being a carnivore comes with significant costs. Humans are famed for our powers of cognitive dissonance; that is, the ability to both know that something is wrong, yet to do it anyway. And when it comes to meat, we’re willing to overlook an awful lot in order to keep ourselves happy. But is there a middle road? A way of both eating meat, yet doing it responsibly and sustainably? And what impact might such a change have on our kids?
Despite what some vocal vegans would have you believe, humans are very much designed to eat meat. Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology suggest that meat played a vital role in human development; indeed, it’s quite likely that modern humans would never have come into being had our forebears not started scavenging bloody protein off carcasses that they found. When our Australopithecus forebears began consuming meat some 2.6 million years ago, they discovered a foodstuff that was far more calorie- and nutrient-dense than the fruits and vegetables they were used to. This meant we could drastically reduce the amount of time and energy we needed to expend in order to meet our base nutritional requirements. Over time, the theory goes, this led to a restructuring of our skulls, reducing the size and power of our mandibles, while simultaneously opening up the skull and neck, allowing us to both increase our brain size – an expansion we could only sustain thanks to energy-rich meat – and improve our powers of speech.
This is probably why we’re biologically wired to enjoy meat, and to eat it to whenever we can. Eating meat provided a strong evolutionary advantage, so our brain began rewiring itself to reward us when we consumed it. The more meat we ate, the better we felt. This neurological incentive system worked perfectly in hunter-gatherer societies where meat remained a sought-after rarity, but it’s markedly less helpful in a world where you can get a kilo of beef mince from Coles for less than ten bucks.
“With meat now, there’s almost this sense of entitlement,” says Ryan Alexander, co-founder of No Meat May, a not-for-profit that encourages people to give up meat for the month of May. “Like it’s our reward for working hard. But that blinds us to how much things have changed. I remember my grandfather telling me about being a butcher back in the day, delivering meat on a horse and cart. It used to be all about the Sunday roast. But now we believe that it’s not a meal without meat.”
This shift has been reflected in the prodigious increase in our collective meat intake over the past half century. Since 1961, the global meat industry has increased its annual output from 61 million tonnes to around 335 million tonnes. If you want to put that figure in more concrete terms, this equates to the slaughter of 65 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs and 300 million cows. So great is our collective appetite for meat that a recent study found that of all the mammals on Earth, 60% are livestock, 36% are human and only 4% remain wild.
Although much of this increase has been driven by the rapid increase in living standards in developing nations, where an expansion of the middle class has led to a massive uptick in the quantities of meat being consumed, Australia can still more than hold its own. While our rate of beef consumption is actually in decline, Australia remains one of the most beef hungry countries in the world, consuming around 25 kilograms of cow meat per person every year. (This is, remarkably, around half of what we ate three decades ago.) In total, we eat 110 kilograms of meat a year, with almost half of that now coming from chicken, a total that puts us third in the world behind only America and Kuwait.
“Culture is a huge factor,” says Alexander. “There’s this whole sense that Australia has been built off the sheep’s back and so we treat our farmers with a real romanticism. That’s led to this cultural obsession with meat-eating: if you don’t eat meat, you’re not man; if you’re not eating meat, you’re not getting your nutrients; if you don’t feed your kids meat, then you’re a bad parent.”
Alexander, a one-time “happy carnivore” experienced his moment of conversion while reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals. “It was like a sheet dropped from my eyes,” he tells me. “I went down this rabbit-hole of books and documentaries. And once you know this stuff, you can’t unknow it.”
The arguments in favour of a meat-free, or at least severely meat-curtailed diet are difficult to ignore. Excessive meat consumption is a key cause of many of our most pressing public health concerns: obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes. (The risks are particularly pronounced for red meats and processed meat such as ham, bacon and salami.) The environmental costs of producing meat are similarly catastrophic. Intensive meat farming results in shocking rates of deforestation, soil degradation, methane production, species extinction and water wastage. Meanwhile, the actual brutality of factory farming cannot be overstated. “Factory farming is about producing as much meat as quickly and as cheaply as possible,” says Alexander. “Our laws have been written so that the animals involved in that process are products. They’re not recognised as feeling pain, or as being living beings.” There’s even a strong equity argument to be made. Growing meat is so resource inefficient – it takes 7 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef – that the industry consumes more than 50% of the world’s entire grain supply, enough to feed an extra 3.5 billion people.
How’s your cognitive dissonance going?
I ask Alexander, now a vegan, if it’s possible to be an ethical carnivore. “I think it’s tricky in 2019, it’s tricky in a world of seven billion people. It definitely would result in consuming a lot less. A lot. And to know where your meat is coming from. There are some family farms out there that raise animals in a more traditional way, with freedom of movement and natural grazing. But they probably supply 1% of the market, so it’s hard.”
But really, he says, we just need to cut way, way back. “From an environmental perspective, eat less. From an ethics point of view, eat less. From a health perspective, eat less. All these things, they’re all pointing in the one direction.”
Irrespective, it’s hard to deprogram the part of our parenting brains that equates healthy, nutritious eating for our children with plentiful servings of meat. For some of us, even if we wanted to go vegetarian would be hesitant merely out of concern for our kids. Yet, these fears are largely unfounded says Louisa Matwiejczyk, a lecturer in Human Nutrition at Flinders University.
“The evidence is clear and goes back generations: kids who don’t eat meat grow up exactly the same as kids who do eat meat,” Matwiejczyk tells me. “They’re exactly the same.” Although, she adds, this is dependent upon those children being fed well-planned diets. “Meat is a great source of both calories and protein, which kids need for their growth and development. So, if you’re not having meat you need to make sure that these are being replaced somewhere else.”
Under current Australian guidelines, the nutritional pyramid places meat alongside eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes in the protein-rich segment. “When they talk about one serve of meat, they’re typically talking about sixty grams of red meat,” Matwiejczyk explains. “In protein terms, this is equivalent to a cup of baked beans, or a cup of chickpeas.” (She recommends the Healthy Eating for Children brochure on the Australian Government’s Eat for Health website for a more exhaustive list of nutritional equivalents.)
The only other thing that parents really need to pay attention to, Matwiejczyk says, is vitamin B12. “B12 is only found in animal products, but it is absolutely essential to the formation of our nerves and red blood cells. If it’s low at a very young age it can cause developmental delays and irreversible damage.” While meat is the most obvious source, B12 can also be found in eggs and dairy products, as well as breakfast cereal, where it is a government-mandated supplement.
While Matwiejczyk isn’t advocating for any particular diet, she definitely feels that in both quantity and quality our meat-based choices need improving. “We shouldn’t be eating meat more than once a day,” she says, “and even then the actual amount of meat we eat needs to be cut right back.” Sixty grams of meat is a lot less than you probably assume. She also suggests staying away from processed meats and resisting the temptation to eat the fatty parts of red meat. “That’s not what they mean by ‘lean’ meat.”
Despite the scale of the problem, there are some grounds to believe that plant-based diets are having their moment. Around 11% of people in developed countries are now thought to be vegetarian and there’s a growing global movement to try and convince governments to shift their nutritional advice towards plant-based diets. In January this year, Canada announced a massive overhaul to its nutritional guidelines to prioritise fruit and vegetables over meat and dairy. Although don’t expect a similar move in Australia any time soon: our meat industry has far too much clout.
Plant-based meat alternatives are also on the rise. In America, both McDonalds and Burger King have started serving plant-based burgers. Not the disappointing veggie patties we all know and tolerate: these are burger patties that in colour, texture and taste are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Two companies – Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – are driving the zeitgeist, and the uptake has been dramatic. The key to their success is that rather than targeting vegetarians, they’ve gone straight for the meat-eaters themselves, offering them the same experience of meat, yet with less deleterious effects on health, the environment and, obviously, the animal itself.
Looking further ahead, Alexander believes the next big trend will be vat-grown meat. “Essentially we’re talking about growing meat in a laboratory,” says Alexander. “You take cell cultures from cows and then grow something that’s biologically identical to a steak. That’s going to be a massive gamechanger. The technology is already there, it’s just a question of scaling it up.”
That future is perhaps not as far away as we think. In 2013, the first lab grown burger cost $330,000 to make, but an Israeli company has already reduced that to around $360, and they’ve got plenty of competitors nipping at their heels. It’s hoped that the price will reach parity with animal meat within a few years.
But while we wait for the future to arrive, the responsibility falls to us instead. “Know your farmers, know where it’s coming from, reduce your consumption,” says Alexander. “People talk about this being fashionable or a trend, but it’s not. It’s a global shift that’s happening, and we have to make that shift. So I think jumping on board and being part of it is the right approach.“
This story is from Issue 16. Want more brain food? Like how to talk to kids about climate change? Or how to zero waste your home? Order back issues from our Shop here.