The Sides of Beef: Humans and Meat Eating

For the purposes of preserving any status quo in the present day United States, nothing surpasses a strategy of any question or issue ‘cultural.’ This has the immediate effect of splitting even slight difference of opinion into hostile camps and deliberately provokes absolutist, visceral responses. Such exchanges, particularly in the sewer of social media or cable news shows fiercely competing with each other as much of this as can by squeezing as much as this as possible into a given timeslot, provoke further tribal response and so it goes until we have things like ‘Red States vs Blue States’, the ‘rural-urban divide’, and ‘flyover country’ vs ‘elite’ cities.

Hence the amount of political energy vested in what are considered cultural issues. Is the right to an abortion, with little or no restriction, an inherent part of women’s rights? Does the 2nd Amendment provide a citizen with a basically unlimited right to own and carry guns? According to opinion polls there are acceptable compromises that could at least mitigate these questions for a while. However such compromises inevitably run into militant factions strenuously defending their respective ‘cultures.’ Such a dynamic has an additional benefit of creating enough tribal feeling to evoke a group-think that spreads from issue to issue. Homo sapiens are always complicated, yet for many it is obvious that uncovering their view on abortion or guns one can gather much or all of the rest of their worldview. Thus the stalemate endures.

Perhaps nothing provokes cultural sentiment more than food. The act of experiencing a distinct culture often begins with its cuisine. Indeed as Italian historian Massimo Montanari put it, food is culture. The food consumed with family and friends at gatherings and holidays is not only culinary pleasure, it also could serve as an emotional link to the past or be the material expression of religion.

Given all that it was no surprise that after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced their Green New Deal proposal in February 2019, the Republican counterattacks aimed straight for the public’s stomach. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, made a point of holding up a hamburger during a news conference. Before taking a bite he railed, “If this goes through, this will be outlawed.” Sen. Josh Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Environment and Public Works, proclaimed, “Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches. American favorites like cheeseburgers and milkshakes would become a thing of the past.” Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, joked “Chick-fil-A stock will go way up” because Democrats are “trying to get rid of all cows.” Such attacks are obviously hysterical, the Green New Deal mentions nothing about banning beef (the only mention of beef from Ocasio-Cortez herself was: “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), but they are also obviously deliberate. While managing to leave out apple pie, can anything encapsulate American cultural mythology (certainly in it suburban post-World War II form, the root of much present day mythology) than burgers and milkshakes? What should stimulate a more militant cultural response than a policy that seeks their elimination?

Yet food must come from somewhere. Where there is food there is production and there an open mind finds a gateway to a labyrinth. With charges of banning cows came jokes about kooky fears of cow farts. In reality, gas discharges from cows, burbs more than farts, come in the form of methane. Methane warms the Earth up to 84 times faster than CO2 (the process is called ‘enteric fermentation’ — when cows eat grass the microbes in the rumen break down and ferment it making methane as a by-product). On a planet that contains many millions of cows for slaughter, this is a lot of methane. The EPA estimates that gashouse emissions from agriculture made up 9 percent of U.S. gas emissions in 2016. Globally beef production emits by far the largest amount of greenhouse gases of any type of food production (even more substantially if combined with dairy production).

Of course, global warming isn’t the only issue found in the production of meat. There is always the large question of animal rights. Perhaps a significant percentage of the population would insist that they pay no mind, or even resent, the question of animal rights, particularly when it comes to food. This doesn’t alter the reality that the question is omnipresent.

Even casual consumers of news come across their fair share of it. This past November New York City joined California in banning foie gras, the French dish made up of duck or goose livers that are fattened through force feeding. A steel pipe is inserted down the throat with the liver fattened to as much as 10 times the normal size. The ban is scheduled to take effect in 2022, over the objections of some prominent chefs (Chicago had banned the dish in 2006 only to overturn the ban two years later). In July 2019 Japan caused controversy by announcing that it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and resume commercial whaling. The IWC banned commercial whale hunting in 1986, though Japan continued whaling under the banner of scientific research (other countries also probably continued to some extent on an undercover basis). Within days of the hunt resuming, meat cut-offs from two minke whales sold for up to 15,000 yen ($140). In this same arena, those old enough in the late-1980s, can recall the tuna controversy involving dolphins being caught as bycatch. Public outrage led to the creation of the ‘Dolphin Safe’ label. Subsequent years have shown the label has been largely fraudulent, a recent study showed that dolphin numbers in the Indian Ocean have declined by 87 percent since 1980, however the public sentiment is real. Obviously this sentiment didn’t extend to the tuna destined for cans.

The whale and dolphin examples perhaps show what could be close to a collective consciousness: the more intelligent, therefore perhaps the more human-like, the animal, the less it is eaten or hunted. They also make the obvious point that tastes and standards change and in both directions. In colonial America, lobsters were so looked down upon they were eaten only by the poor and imprisoned. In fact, at a time when the words ‘prisoners rights’ were many decades from being a mainstream expression, several states had laws on the books forbidding the feeding of lobsters to prisoners more than once a week. Given their appearance, their sheer number at the time, and their habit of feeding on dead things, lobsters were seen in the same vain as rats or pigeons. Now not only is lobster chic, lobsters have the additional honor of being boiled alive before being consumed.

Picture a fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 80 kilometers per hour and able to navigate entire oceans, thousands of miles a month; a warm bodied creature that can practically maintain the body temperature of a mammal a kilometer below the sea surface; a fish so mechanically efficient that when scientists endeavored to build a mechanical fish this same fish was used as a model. A generation or two ago, Bluefin Tuna was barely food, at least for humans. Its only solid market was as pet food for dogs, cats, and horses or as game for fisherman to battle with then bury after the catch. Last year in Tokyo, a 612 pound tuna sold at auction for $3 million on its way to becoming Akami and Toro. The demand for Bluefin Tuna has grown so much the majestic fish is now threatened (the Atlantic Bluefin is listed as endangered, the Pacific Bluefin as ‘vulnerable’).

circa 1875: A group of men killing buffalo from the top of a railroad train. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

So it goes: Bison were hunted to near extinction on the U.S. Plains the 19th century after it was discovered that its skin made excellent belts for driving stationary steam engines and other machinery. Plus Bison being the pillar of the Indigenous people’s diet an unwritten policy was in effect of making Indigenous peoples dependent on the U.S. government for food. The bison’s docile nature made it very easy pray for hunters on horseback (often supplied by the military with ammunition). Skinners left bison carcasses whole to rot in the sun. Fast forward to the present and bison meat occupies a sizable and growing niche market.

Horse meat has a long, strange history. As the industrial revolution raged in Europe, the population expanding and the price of meat high, there was a push by elites to convince the masses to eat it. With thousands of workhorses dropping dead from exertion, their carcasses being turned in glue and leather, there was a ready supply of meat. The movement had more success in France than England. In the U.S. consumption flared briefly during the World Wars also when the price of beef skyrocketed. At times it was passed off as beef. ‘The last facilities in the U.S. for processing horse meat closed in the aftermath of the  U.S. House of Representatives passing the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Though it died in the Senate the 2007 Congress did include a sentence in the Omnibus Budget cancelling funding for commercial inspections for horse meat.  This was actually repealed in 2011 but the industry had a difficult time finding towns that had the stomach to host facilities and horse meat remains a very rare sight on American menus. In 2018 a ban on slaughtering horses for meat was renewed with bipartisan support. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, a Republican and co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus, proclaimed ‘The slaughter of horses for human consumption is a barbaric practice that must end.’ Meanwhile plenty of horses are still exported for slaughter and horsemeat continues to be eaten in many countries ranging from China, to Mexico, to several regions in Italy.

If all this is dizzying there is still the problem of pigs. Pigs have old reputations in popular culture. While it hasn’t been all bad, think ‘piggy banks’, ‘this little piggy’, and Charlotte’s Web (ironically Charlotte the spider saves Wilmer the livestock pig from slaughter), it has been mostly bad. There is a decent chance ‘pig’ is the oldest, most used childhood insult. After childhood, its uses cover every insult or negative description adults hurl at each other: eating too much, being overweight, dirty in an unhygienic sense (the Islamic ban on eating pork stems from this), dirty in a sexual sense, low class (‘happy as a pig in shit’), even outright evil (ask cops).

It is remarkable just how off this is in reality. Pigs are actually very clean creatures. If given enough space they will go out of their way not to soil the space they sleep or eat. There is no chance for anyone to ‘sweat like a pig’ given that pigs do not have sweat glands. The mud thing is what pigs do when they need to cool down (the resulting layer of caked mud probably serves other good functions as well including preventing sun burns and acting as insect repellent).

In 2015 the International Journal of Comparative Psychology published an essay titled “Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus.” The survey, which is available online, ‘identified a number of findings of pig cognition, emotion, and behavior which suggest that pigs possess complex ethological traits similar, but not identical to dogs and chimpanzees.’ Evidence strongly suggests pigs have good memories- experiments at the University of Pennsylvania from the 1990s trained pigs to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and use the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned this task as fast as chimpanzees. Scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands conducted an experiment that showed that pigs are capable of empathy (i.e. sharing the emotional response someone else is having) by reacting to the behavior, both pleasant and stressful, of other pigs. They are able to plan ahead and recognize other pigs as individuals. Lists along the lines of ‘The World’s Smartest Animals’ are bound to be simplistic clickbait, but such lists consistently rank pigs near the top.

The obvious parallel is dogs. Humans eating dogs has a long history. Hippocrates himself promoted dog meat as a source of strength. The main source of food for the Aztecs was Mexican hairless dog. Present day China still has the annual Yulin dog meat festival (racist rumors of dogs and cats being served in local Chinese restaurants under the guise of chicken or pork were once endemic in working class neighborhoods in the U.S.). Dog eating can be found in the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Korean Peninsula. About 2.5 million dogs are raised on farms in South Korea though a large majority of South Koreans don’t eat dog meat. Lest this be consigned as an Asian thing, a 2012 investigation by Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger uncovered the practice in rural Switzerland (it was outlawed officially in 2015). Dog meat is consumed to some extent in a number of countries in Africa (20 more or less) for pleasure and alleged medicinal purposes.

As for the U.S., a point made wittily well by Jonathan Safrar Foer in his book Eating Animals, there are mountains of dogs begging to be eaten. While the number has actually declined significantly over the past decade, the ASPCA estimates that 670,000 dogs are euthanized every year (1.5 million shelter animals if the 860,000 cats are added). That amounts to millions of pounds of meat discarded. That meat would even cover some progressive bases: humanely sacrificed and local. As Foer puts it: “It would be demented to yank pets from their homes. But eating those strays, those runaways, those not-quite-cute-enough-to take- and not-quite-well-behaved enough-to-keep dogs would be killing a flock of birds with one stone and eating it, too.”

Obviously such a plan will not come to pass. It is difficult to see a great majority of even the most committed carnivores digging into dogs. Dog eating figures to remain taboo in most circles in the world and become taboo in others as time passes. Given that pigs are as intelligent, if not more, is there a way to square the fact that pork has consistently remained the most consumed meat in the world?

In the present age, factory farming, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is where all these issues play out. When first published in 1987, Gregory Stock’s Book of Questions asked readers: “Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill a cow?” If that question is meant to provoke squeamish contemplation and discussion, what sentiment reveals itself with the question “Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill and/or dismember thousands of cows a day?” We call cow meat ‘beef’ and pig meat ‘pork‘, not as George Bernard Shaw suggested the ‘scorched corpses of animals.’ Is it possible to picture a food festival celebrating locally produced food that includes viewing the chickens or cows being killed as part of the experience? Make no mistake, if the word brutal has any real meaning, factory farming is brutal. The scale is of it is truly mindboggling. At the moment 70 billion animals now exist as objects for consumption, 60 percent of mammals on Earth. According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the American meat industry in 2017 processed 9 billion chickens (equaling 42.2 billion pounds of meat), 32.2 million cattle and calves (26.3 billion pounds), 121 million hogs (26.6 billion pounds), and 241.7 million turkeys (5.9 billion pounds- roughly 20 percent are eaten on Thanksgiving).

One need not be a card carrying member of PETA to have an uneasy feeling about what it takes to pull this off. ‘Debeaking’ boiler chickens due to the fact that maximum commercial efficiency requires very large populations of chickens to be confined in very tight quarters which could cause the chickens to go crazy and peck each other to death (needless to say the debeaking process is automated). The same kind of efficiency is at work in ‘docking’ hogs tails. Bored, crammed together hogs would be tempted to chew the tails off each other. Unless they are used for breeding, hogs are castrated because it makes the subsequent meat smell better (the odor, known as ‘boar taint’, does not affect the safety of the pork but the Department of Agriculture doesn’t allow it into the food supply).

Another practice that the industry can’t seem to get rid of is the use of gestation crates. These crates are where most breeding sows (female hogs) spend the entirety of their near four month pregnancies. The crates are roughly two-and-half-by-seven-foot, meaning the sows are unable to turn around, suffer decreased bone density from lack of movement, and often develop sores. Hens used in egg production face a similar life. Shoved into “battery cages”, roughly ten hens to a cage, 18 inches by 24 inches, the light in the houses is manipulated to maximize egg production and for a couple of weeks the hens are fed less to induce an extra cycle of laying. Hens in their natural environment lay 20 eggs a year. On a modern farm with a high protein diet and constant lighting manipulation they lay 500, all while living a small portion of their natural lifespan before dying of exhaustion. That’s female chicks. As for male chicks, egg farms for years have simply ground up or gassed them right after they hatch since they don’t lay eggs or grown big enough to sell for meat. That is many millions of chicks per year. The egg industry claims this practice at least is due to end this year.

Then there has long been the use of antibiotics, both to ward off disease, or better as a cheaper alternative to keep animals healthy, and to attain unnatural growth. Here there seems to have a spot of progress. The FDA issued a regulation on January 1st 2017 that antibiotics that are significant for human health can no longer be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency. According to an FDA report published in 2018, domestic sales of medically important antibiotics for use in livestock decreased 33 percent from 2015 to 2016, 28 percent from 2009, the first year the FDA started collecting data. Still a majority of antibiotics are used on food animals. At the current rate, worldwide by 2030 over 200,000 tons of antibiotics will be used on food animals. This raises big problems for people. It is a main source of the expanding crisis of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention report on Antimicrobial Resistance Threats reported that more than 2.8 million antibiotic resistant infections occur in the U.S. every year, with more than 35,000 deaths.

Add pollution to the mix. In a year on a typical factory farm cattle produce in the neighborhood of 344 million pounds of manure; pigs around 7.2 million pounds, chickens 6.6 million. This can only be estimated because factory farms are exempt reporting requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and no federal agency keeps consistent, reliable data. Generally, farms dispose of animal waste by spraying it as fertilizer and storing the excess in huge underground pits or open-air lagoons. The lagoons are full of chemicals like ammonia, methane, CO2, and hydrogen sulfide. Sulfur-eating bacteria often turn the mixture bright pink. Since cropland can absorb only so much, a good amount of the waste ends up in rivers, streams, and groundwater. Rain can cause overflow (the massive pork industry in North Carolina Factory, over 2020 hog CAFOs, regularly face the threat of hurricanes) and the tanks can crack. It is no surprise factory farms are the largest polluters of lakes and rivers in the U.S.

To top all this off there is simply land. According to data by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Bank statistics, glaciers make up 10 percent of global land; 19 percent of land can be categorized as barren, land in which less than one-third of the area has vegetation- deserts, rocks, salt flats. Given that we spent almost all out time among our fellow humans (or watching each other on TV) it is perhaps strange to know that things like cities, towns, and villages make up only one percent of the Earth’s land; as does fresh water (lakes, rivers). Shrub makes up eight percent, forests still make up 26 percent. Subtract animal feed and the land devoted to growing the crops we directly consume (fruits, vegetables) makes up seven percent. Do the quick arithmetic and find that there is 27 percent of the planet’s land remaining, the largest amount, that between growing food crops, grazing, and production it goes into producing meat and dairy. Or to consider it another way, livestock production consumes 58 percent of the biomass humans annually draw from the biosphere.

Again there has been some progress on this front in recent times. The FAO estimates since the turn of the century 74 million less hectares are being used for pasture. North America, Australia, and Europe have less pasture land now than in 1961. Some of this was no doubt offshored to poorer places in the world but more recently pasture area has begun to plateau in countries like China and Brazil (in Brazil this is under major threat by the Bolsonaro government’s policy toward the Amazon). This decline has occurred as meat production has increased. The cattle industry, by far the largest user of pasture globally saw meat and milk yields grow by 29 percent and 22 percent since 1961. The decline is due a steady increase in feed efficiency, the amount an animal produces per unit of food consumed, and more efficiently managed grazing. Needless to say given everything else that’s being explored here, any progress in land usage doesn’t inherently benefit the animals. If cattle aren’t allowed to graze in wide open spaces, they graze in tighter, nastier quarters.

Questions about things like land usage need not lead to anti-humanist sentiment. Geologists are increasingly calling for the current epoch to be renamed the Anthropocene to reflect the profound impact that humanity has on the Earth. This should be seen as cause for humble pride rather than a grim tragedy. Despite the delusions of some environmentalists there never was a ‘balanced’ nature before humans or outside of human activity. Extinction has always been omnipresent in nature. Earth’s history has featured five mass extinctions, defined as a period of time when a large percentage of known living species go extinct. Most famous is the K.T. Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. It just didn’t take the dinosaurs though — around 75 percent of species also went. One enduring result was the extinction of dinosaurs allowed mammals (like us), the largest of which during the time of dinosaurs was probably the size of raccoon, to eventually grow and expand given that there were no longer towering dinosaurs to hunt them.

The K-T Extinction wasn’t even the largest mass extinction. That honor goes to the Permian Extinction around 250 million years ago. An estimated 96 percent of species went extinct. It doesn’t just happen during periods of mass extinctions either. Shark Week addicts know that probably the coolest shark ever on the planet, Megalodon, went extinct for reasons that aren’t yet clear. A few million years after the dinosaurs fell, the fossils of the Titanoboa appear in what is now Colombia. Titanoboa was a snake 40-50 feet long weighing well over a ton that used constriction to squeeze the life out of its victims (the warmer weather of the Paleocene allowed for huge reptiles). Again, the only way we’ll ever see it is if we decide for some reason to try to recreate it. And that is the point. Glorious actions like preserving and returning land to forests or reintroducing species result from human action. The planet itself has no need to be saved from global warming. As Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1924 book Literature and Revolution regarding the future of human technology:

He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of rivers and he will lay down rules for oceans. The idealist simpletons may say this is a bore, but that is why they are simpletons…. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times.

In that spirit, and getting back to the issue of land usage, it is hard to imagine a global democratic decision would allocate so much land to meat production. Since meat production at this point takes up too much land, contributes a lot to global warming, makes tons of pollution, and is quite brutish to the animals it makes meat out of, the obvious question arising is should people be vegetarians. In the Western world vegetarianism always had its notable defenders. The Pythagoreans back in the 6th century BCE didn’t eat meat. Pythagoras is quoted as saying, “As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”1

If it would be ideal for humans to get their protein from beans, legumes, and soy, materially speaking we confront this fact: in 1970 the average American ate roughly 200 pounds of meat per year. Today the number is roughly 20 pounds more, not less. More significantly from where we sit now is the trend that has proven to be a truism worldwide: the more a country develops, the more meat its people consume. Meat consumption has skyrocketed in China in recent decades. Since 1990 it has nearly doubled in Brazil. Argentina and Australia rank near the top (the one partial exception to this has been India due to the influence of vegetarianism in Hinduism). This does not figure to change any time soon. For low-income countries meat is still of luxury. Luxuries being desirable they turn into necessities whenever possible. The FAO estimates that consumption of beef, pork, and chicken in Africa will all increase by at least 200 percent by 2050.

Perhaps with all that, it is inevitable to see meat consumption as natural for our species. After all there are plenty of backsliding vegans in the world. Vegetarianism could be a real challenge, at least at first. Practically the entire Western diet is based off dishes having a protein. Umami is one of the basic tastes to which are tongues are sensitive along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Scientifically speaking, Umami refers to the taste of glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate and it is prominent in animal protein. Hence the menus of vegetarian establishments are often full of dishes that directly aim to replicate the texture and taste of meat. The Impossible Burger’s success is directly due to its likeness to a real burger. Meat is packed with a wide range of vitamins, including b12 which is not found in plants, or at least in a form active to humans (vegans are often advised to take a b12 supplement). While anti-vegans have often overstated the importance of our teeth design for meat eating, our teeth are nothing compared with many of our mammalian cousins, there is no question that our bodies are evolved to process fats better than the other great apes.

Our earliest ancestors were at least largely vegetarians. Serious meat eating entered the picture about 2.5 million years ago. In her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Years Obsession With Meat, Marta Zaraska describes that this was at least in part due to climate change. Between 2.6 and 2.5 million years ago, the planet got significantly hotter and drier. As it did previously lush rain forests of Africa turned into grassland. Grassland had less of the green plants our ancestors were used to eating but more abundant grazing animals. More dead grazing animals laying in the grasslands meant more opportunity to experiment with meat.

One quite popular theory, first put forward by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler in 1995, known as the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis, posits that the switch to calorie-dense meat and marrow, with less bulky plant fiber, particularly after somebody figured out meat could be cooked with fire, allowed our ancestors to develop smaller guts (less need for a long digestive tract for processing plant matter). The energy freed up here was used by our brains to grow. Our brains, 2 percent of our body mass, use 20 percent of our body’s total energy, compared with dogs and cats 3-4 percent (other apes’ brains require 8 percent). If true then eating meat is indeed what made us human (it was not that our ancestors’ diet had to shift to meat per se for it to happen, meat was simply the available diet that made it happen). Like all theories this one has been challenged. Some scientists theorize it is our muscles, either in their size or distribution, which paid for our bigger brains. Others theorize that it was a combination of factors.

Whatever the case, we did evolve powerful enough brains that behavior need not be completely deterministic. A Financial Times headline from December 26, 2019 read, “Have we reached peak meat?” There is some evidence of a shift. The emergence of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, along with the hipster passion for almond and oat milk, has the meat and dairy industries fearful enough to be launching lawsuits to deny such products the label of ‘milk’ and ‘meat’ thereby relegating them to less trafficked market isles. On the other hand, while these companies have lit up the stock market and plant based burgers are appearing on big name fast food menus, their sales are still miniscule next to meat. If $800 million in U.S. plant-based sales in the past year sounds like a lot, the meat market in the U.S. was valued at $74 billion; globally $1.2 trillion. The number of outright vegetarians and vegans is fuzzy, but probably tops out at only 5 percent of the population. For years FAO has promoted eating insects as a sustainable source of protein. Being coldblooded they require less energy to stay warm- therefore less feed, thus making them more efficient. Insects make up 80 percent of the world’s living species and, safe to say, are thought of as most unhuman (though they can still be quite magnificent). In the case of eating probably alien to a fault. Look for places selling insects and they can be found in U.S. cities but at this point it seems Americans would still eat them more on a dare than a desire.

So if the planet isn’t destined to turn vegan, could it be convinced to at least eat meat at more sustainable levels? This has happened in the U.S. to some types of meat. Veal consumption peaked in the U.S. in 1944 at 8.6 lbs. per person. While veal is still popular in Europe, in the U.S. it is now at about 0.2 lbs. (‘Milk Fed’ veal, known as more tender and desirable than ‘Pink’ veal, is another poignant example cruelty. It results from deliberately giving calves anemia). Americans actually eat less beef than we used to; beef consumption peaked in the mid-1970s. From 2004-2015 it declined by nearly 20 percent (still it is 4 times the world average). Pork consumption has been more stable but has declined slightly from pre-1950 heights. It is chicken production and consumption that has exploded the past 40 years; paradoxically for being a low fat, healthier alternative to red meat and for being eaten as ‘wings’ covered with fatty skin and thick BBQ sauce or fried as ‘fingers’ (McDonalds unleashed the very influential McNugget in 1982, it has more fat than their hamburgers).

An EAT-Lancet Commission report argues that a transformation to healthy, sustainable diets will require a greater than 50 percent reduction in things like sugar and red meat, primarily by reducing consumption in wealthier countries. Any overt attempt to reduce meat consumption in the U.S. will run into a predictable ‘Don’t Thread on Me’ reaction. Whatever the virtues of such sentiment it suffers from an endemic shortcoming. While militantly declaring the right to choose from a menu it largely neglects questions of how and why the menu was put together in the first place.

For instance, the U.S. government owns and controls 640 million acres of land, a great majority of it in the West. On 229 million acres of this public land, the federal government, for a fee, allows livestock operations and cattle producers to use the land for grazing. These fees are much less than it would cost to graze livestock on private land, in fact, the fees are less than 7 percent of what grazing would cost on private lands. The costs lost to this boondoggle are covered by tax dollars amounting to $125 million a year.

Beyond that the federal government (not even including state and local governments) fund the agriculture industry to the tune of over $20 billion a year. These subsidies have roots going back to the Great Depression, an age when farming employed more people and there were simply more family farms, with the idea being to assist farmers through the uncertainty of farming (weather, commodity price swings) to ensure the food supply was stale. Nowadays the largest, richest farms receive the lion’s share of funding. From 1995 to 2017 the top 10 percent of richest farms got 77 percent of it (the top 1 percent pulled in 26 percent). For a long time there was direct payments to farmers, mainly those growing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. These were eliminated in 2014, however other subsidies were expanded. The EWG Farm Subsidy database calculates that from 1995 to 2019 a total of $391 billion worth of subsidies, including insurance, loans, and research has been paid out. Subsidies for corn artificially cheapen its price, enable overproduction, and allow very cheap feed for livestock.

In Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon estimates that for every dollar in retail sales of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, the industry imposes an external cost of $1.70. That comes to $414 billion a year. This would make the true cost of a fast food hamburger $11. While that is perhaps pushing it to far (the book incorporates health care costs into the estimate and it’s impossible to pin down the precise effects eating meat has on heart disease and cancer) the overall point remains. Making food producers swallow the full cost of production, including environmental costs, is a crucial reform.

Is there a way out of all this, for humans to have their meat and eat it too? The specter of lab grown meat has lingered over the industry for years. It first officially appeared in 2013. Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post, Chief Scientific Officer of Mosa Meat, unveiled what was billed as the first hamburger made by growing cow cells, rather than slaughtering a cow. The cost to produce it was $325,000. Costs are falling slowly but surely. The basic idea is stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal via a small biopsy under anesthesia. The cells are mixed with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and growth factor and left to multiply. That’s it. No greenhouse emissions, no slaughterhouses, and it figures a lot of land that could be used for more noble purposes or simply returned to forest where we can not only reintroduce species but witness the emergence of new ones. A slew of startups are working to bring it to market soon.

Questions will be legion. Will lab grown meat become culturally accepted immediately or will the label ‘Frankenmeat’ stick? No doubt there will be lawsuits by the industry over whether lab grown meat should even be classified as meat. On what kind of scale can it be produced? Any food system will be responsible for feeding a global population expected to stabilize at around 9.8 billion in 2050. Most importantly, will it taste as good as traditional meat? One can only hope the answer to all these questions is loudly affirmative. It isn’t difficult to imagine future generations looking back in disbelief and disgust at our epoch of factory farms, perhaps even in the same light to how we now view slavery. It should be our task by any means to become modern day abolitionists.

UPDATE (March 22, 2020)

The sentence “The last facilities in the U.S. for processing horse meat closed in 2007 after Congress passed the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Slaughtering horses wasn’t outlawed but funding for federal and commercial inspections was cancelled, shutting down the industry.” has been replaced and corrected to read:

“The last facilities in the U.S. for processing horse meat closed in the aftermath of the  U.S. House of Representatives passing the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Though it died in the Senate the 2007 Congress did include a sentence in the Omnibus Budget cancelling funding for commercial inspections for horse meat.”

  1. Attribution to Pythagoras by Ovid, as quoted in The Extended Circle: A Dictionary of Humane Thought (1985) by Jon Wynne-Tyson, p 260. []
Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian living in New York City. His book Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York will be published by Zer0 Books in Fall 2020. Read other articles by Joseph.