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Why Meat? by Theresa Donovan Brown

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

A brief history of America's love affair with meat Let's start with a fact: The average American consumes 210 pounds of meat and 15.5 pounds of seafood annually. That puts us at the top of the carnivore chart among nations. Livestock production (its breeding, feeding, slaughtering and distribution) is an inefficient way to get protein in our diets. Animal protein demands far more of our scarce land, water and energy resources than does plant protein. Moreover, raising animals for meat increases the clear-cutting of forests for pastureland and feed-crop cultivation. An even more malodorous fact is that livestock production contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gases. Intellectually, it's pretty easy to see that we should eat less or no meat since we can obtain every essential amino acid that our bodies need to thrive from plants. And yet, only about 2% of Americans identify as vegetarian, and of these, five out of six will become ex-vegetarian flesh-eaters – perhaps consumed with guilt, but consuming animals nonetheless. The question is, why? Part of the answer may relate to biological hard-wiring that predisposes us to carnivorous cravings.

Our meat-centric history Our human ancestors ate meat 2.5 million years ago. Paleoanthropologists have evidence that our relatively large brains and small guts evolved because we had access to calorie-dense meat. In evolutionary terms, abundant animal protein causes people to mature earlier, and to reproduce earlier and more often. The aromas and flavors of cooked meat, particularly well-browned, fatty meat, get the saliva flowing, even in the mouths of dedicated vegetarians. It's that old survival-of-the-species thing. Today, however, our species is surviving all too well, with a burgeoning global population and strained food-production resources. And, we know we can thrive on meatless diets. So, why don't we use our big brains to overcome our desire for meat? The answer lies in the food system that we have built.  The Pilgrims brought with them from England the idea that meat-eating signified the wealth and privilege of the upper classes. Americans have carried this idea forward, associating copious consumption of meat with "the good life." Up until about 1840, everybody in the United States ate meat like a locavore, meaning it was produced very near their homes. More than 90 percent of the population lived a rural life, where meat was as close as the side-yard pigpen. Then, as industrialization took hold, people flocked to new urban centers. City dwellers demanded meat, but they soon became tired of the herds of meat-on-the-hoof trampling through their neighborhoods. Slaughter was local, but animal waste and offal rotted in heaps and tainted waterways everywhere. City officials soon realized that meat production needed to be centralized. Savvy brokers and, eventually, railroad investors, rallied around this idea. The Meat Trust was born. Even with the horrors of the meat trade exposed in 1906 by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, consumers could not imagine a diet that was not meat-centric, and industrial suppliers were eager to provide it. Meat as the main course was further rooted in American attitudes with new marketing techniques employed by the meat industry, including the convenience of refrigerated pre-cut meats, and frozen fish and meat in grocery stores. Then came McDonald's, along with the other fast-food franchises, and the rest is well-known, fast-food-nation history.

How can we segue from the dominance of meat in the American food system to a more healthy, environmentally sustainable diet?

  1. Move meat off the center of the plate. Think of meat as an embellishment – a side dish or ingredient that heightens the flavors and textures of a meal.

  2. Cook high-flavor, high-texture, multi-colored, budget-friendly meals. These are easier to prepare than most people realize. Recipes abound that offer quick, inexpensive ways to put good nutrition and less meat on our tables. Here is a link to some great, accessible meal sites on SOUL Food Salon's website

  3. Look for selections that offer meat as a side or garnish when you eat at restaurants or order take-out or home-delivery meals. Such options are increasingly available, and we can vote with our eating-out dollars.

  4. Steer workplaces, schools, hospitals and retirement homes toward meals that do not rely on meat as the centerpiece. Top-down initiatives such as Menus of Change (a collaboration between the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard's School of Public Health) hold promise. By teaching culinary leaders to innovate away from meat-heavy meals, models like this will begin to take hold in the culture. We don't have to be high-end chefs to promote cultural change around food and lifestyle decisions. We can support initiatives like The Teaching Kitchen at the Stanford Medical School. This program teaches medical students (with their crazy, stressful schedules) how to cook simple, light-on-meat meals so that they can draw on their own experience to counsel patients toward healthy lifestyles.

  5. Seek out sustainable, cruelty-free, local options. Search the web for community-supported fisheries and farms in your area. Shop your farmers’ markets, if this is an option. Yes, these sources of meat and fish can be more expensive than the industrial feedlot or caged-chicken cuts, but you will be using far less of them, and eating environmentally friendlier, economically viable, nutritionally sound and delicious meals.

It's the way forward for America's food system.


Theresa Donovan Brown

Theresa Donovan Brown is the author of numerous books, both nonfiction and fiction, most recently co-authoring The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship. Currently, she is working on a social history of America's foodways. Her current work marries her years researching nutrition and healthy lifestyles with her experiences as a trader and strategist in the financial sector and as principal of her own company. She developed a curriculum for teaching food science and nutrition to middle-school students, and taught nutrition for several years to students at high risk for Type II diabetes. She holds a BA from Stanford and an MBA from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

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