A lot of ill has been laid at the hoof of the meat industry. As the Maclean’s investigation into the meatless movement explains this growing phenomenon has been largely driven by complaints from the activists upset by the environmental, health and moral implications of eating animal protein.
Given the mountain of evidence mustered against meat-eating, it might seem as if it’s an activity soon to go the way of the roasted passenger pigeon. And yet, claims that human carnivorism is set to become extinct seem foolish and implausible. Meat eating may have its challenges—as Maclean’s writers Katie Engelhart and Nicholas Köhler point out in considerable detail—but it finds its roots deep in human nature. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.
To begin, it is a physiological fact that humans have evolved to eat meat as well as vegetables. We are by nature omnivores. Our stomachs, for instance, produce large quantities of enzymes specifically designed to break down meat. And while human incisors may be of little use in killing prey, we notably lack the ability to ruminate. We are designed to eat a variety of foods.
Meat is a necessary component of the global diet, comprising approximately one-third of all protein consumed. Without meat on the plate, it would be impossible to compensate for all that missing nutrition. Meat is also a vitally important supply of micronutrients. This is particularly so in less-developed countries. Adding even small amounts of meat to the diet of those who are malnourished can provide a tremendous health benefit.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, meat is the ultimate consumer good. Throughout time it has been intricately linked to growing incomes and stability.
While meat consumption has been relatively flat throughout the developed world, a growing middle class in developing countries has led to tremendous increases in global meat demand. The doubling of meat consumption in China over the past 15 years is a clear example of the basic human desire to update one’s diet at income rises. As economic circumstances improve, this trend will only continue. An International Food Policy Research Institute report on the explosive growth in demand for meat and milk products noted: “Whether it is a good thing is not the issue; it is a phenomenon that will occur.”
And despite the gloom of anti-meat crusaders, meat does have its benefits. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the report cited by Sir Paul McCartney as proof of the evils of meat, provides ample evidence of the advantages associated with meat production. It notes, for instance, that nearly one billion poor farmers earn their income by raising livestock. “It is often the only economic activity available to poor people in developing countries,” says the study from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It also allows for food production on otherwise marginal land.
Finally, given that meat consumption is so strongly associated with growing incomes and wealth, there is room for considerable optimism that the admittedly real and, in some cases, pressing problems associated with producing meat can be solved through appropriate pricing and incentives. If people are prepared to pay more for meat—and this has been the case for centuries—then the important issues of water-use, feed, land and waste will ultimately find a solution. This is in fact the conclusion of the FAO report that so concerns McCartney.
Eating meat is an essential and established part of human physiology, human nature and human history. It is not going to drop off the menu any time soon.