Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing the Green New Deal, part of which would aim to reduce meat consumption. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Stalin was, in fact,
full of admiration for the American burger, going so far as to send his minister of foreign trade to the US on a fact-finding mission (the result, the so-called Mikoyan cutlet, would remain an affordable Soviet staple for decades). But theyre taking our meat is as evocative a rallying cry as theyre taking our jobs or theyre taking our guns it conveys the same sense of individual freedoms being menaced by external forces, a birthright under attack. Ted Cruz (wrongly) alleged that his Democrat rival Beto ORourke planned to ban Texas barbecue if elected senator in his place: like the personal firearm, animal flesh has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachments of progressivism, something to be prised from your cold, dead hand. Mens rights advocate Jordan Peterson is famed for following a beef and salt diet; Donald Trump is renowned for his love of fast food and well-done steak with ketchup; there is even a subset of libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts who call themselves Bitcoin carnivores.
In the internet age, the consumption of meat is visibly aligned with a certain kind of conservative alpha-masculinity. Before he found infamy eating raw flesh, Gatis Lagzdins was best known for hosting a YouTube channel peddling racist ideology and rightwing conspiracies about the Illuminati. Among the alt-right and affiliated circles online, the derogatory term soy boy has been adopted along with other terms such as cuck and beta as a way of mocking so-called social justice warriors for their perceived lack of vigour. This echoes a finding in the MacInnis/Hodson study, in which respondents from a rightwing background, who seek to uphold traditional gender values, see something alarmingly subversive and worthy of derision in any man who prefers tofu to turkey.
This loaded use of food-derived epithets cuts both ways. In the UK, the term
gammon gained currency in the early 2010s as a pejorative apparently inspired by the puce skin tone of enraged, middle-aged middle Englanders. Food has always been bound up in personal identity, and thus inextricable from politics. In their etymology, common terms such as diet (Greek for way of life) and regime (Latin: rule) are metaphors for a struggle over what it means to lead ones life correctly. The very concept of orthorexia (whose sufferers obsessively exclude foods from their diet that they consider harmful) has at its root a corrupted idea of correct eating. It is impossible to talk about diets without also talking about the implied inadequacies of those who do not follow them; to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, tell someone what to eat and you tell them who to be.
The vegan conversation, then, is a stand-in for much bigger things. When we talk about veganism we are talking about environmental and social change; we are also contemplating the erasure of tradition (Texas barbecue! The Sunday roast! The sausage roll!). We are also tabling a long-overdue referendum on how our food choices affect us and the world around us. And as much as its popularity has been pumped up by concepts like flexitarianism, ultimately veganisms goal is a world in which the annual per-capita consumption of animal products is precisely zero. No wonder things have got so heated.
ood can be a powerful conduit for our anxieties, too. Half a century ago, a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine described a terrifying new condition whose symptoms headache, sweating, heart palpitations were associated with a common ingredient of dishes served in Chinese restaurants: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. The flavour-enhancing additive was so demonised that it was banned in some US cities. Despite multiple studies conclusively proving otherwise, the belief in so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome remains widespread today: Asian-American chefs still find themselves having to justify the use of MSG despite its widespread use in non-Asian foods too. It is a neat example of the persistence of food-related urban legends. There was no doubt a racist element to the way the MSG myth spread; those involved in its dissemination were also motivated by a gnawing fear of obsolescence as a new threat to their existence began to gain popularity. F
Those opposing meat-eating have a struggle ahead of them. It is clear that what is at stake here is not steak, but identity. A movement that preaches such wholesale change is bound to stir up anxieties, chief among them the sense that vegan dishes such as the Greggs Quorn sausage roll are being positioned not as alternatives but as replacements.
With a few notable exceptions most of them religious meat has retained its primacy in cultures across the world. It originally became a status symbol because it was harder to obtain than plant matter even a small animal could run away, and if caught, was capable of inflicting wounds that could prove fatal in a world before antibiotics. As society became hierarchical, there was no greater token of status than the ability to eat meat on a whim. In her 2016 book Meathooked, Marta Zaraska records the discovery of Egyptian tombs in which the pharaohs had been buried alongside meat mummies, baskets of beef and poultry that had been embalmed in preparation for the afterlife. Our fetishisation of meat has not lessened on the contrary, forecasters predict rapid increase in meat consumption in developing countries over the next decade. As a ready source of protein, meat remains the great aspiration, the surest proof of prosperity.
As Carol J Adams wrote, the words we use shield us from the moral consequences of carnivory: we eat beef, not cows, pork, not pigs, while a cabbage remains just a cabbage wherever it is in its life cycle. Our language ennobles meat at the expense of veg: strong, muscular types are beefy, lazy people are couch potatoes, unresponsive ones vegetables. Turning our back on meat-eating is not as simple as changing from pork to Quorn: it requires us to reject some entrenched values.
Already, there are signs that a great migration is underway. The UK university caterer Tuco recently
reported that record numbers of canteens are going meat-free, describing the adoption of vegan or vegetarian diets among students and staff as a mega-trend. On the high street, too, there is a growing recognition that vegan ranges are not just opportunistic cash-grabs but potential best-sellers. After the success of Greggs vegan sausage roll, Tesco announced it would be increasing its range of dedicated plant-based products by nearly 50% to keep pace with demand.
Sales may be growing fast, but they are barely making a dent in the $1.7tr global market for animal-derived protein. Certainly, a change of culture will not happen without the involvement of government, industry and science; as the past few years have shown, widespread change is also unlikely to happen without a fight. This makes the current field of conflict an unfortunate one in the real world, we can practise moderation, emotional flexitarianism. Online where many of the vegan wars most intense skirmishes are currently being fought we do not find compromise or even look for it. The internet has made communication highly charged and polarised; the only way to be heard in such a screaming vortex is to shout louder.
But the body of evidence suggesting that we eat too much meat is approaching the point where it becomes undeniable. This summer, a UN report
identified destruction of forests and emissions from cattle and other intensive farming practices as major factors driving the climate crisis towards a point of no return.
Some are proposing urgent action, such as the QC Michael Mansfield, who recently suggested (in a speech given at the launch of the Vegan Now campaign) that meat-eating could become illegal. He drew a parallel with the smoking ban, and it is indeed eminently possible that in time meat (especially red meat) becomes the new tobacco a vice enjoyed by a small number of people in full awareness of its negative health consequences.
But in coining the term ecocide and classing it as a crime against humanity Mansfield framed the debate in different terms. We might portray the current moment as a precipice, and the growing interest in plant-based diets as the surest way back to safety. In this interpretation, the war on vegans is the act of a doomed majority fighting to defend its harmful way of life. Vegans might well be vociferous and annoying, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied and evangelical. But as their numbers grow beyond the margins, perhaps the worst thing they could be is right.
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