We need to talk about meat

Eating, ethics and ecology: Rob Percival’s new book explores the psychology and emotions behind our meat choices and the wider implications for politics and culture.

Rob Percival must have known his new book could cause a bit of a stir. His exploration of the psychological and emotional factors behind why we eat, or don’t eat, meat jumps straight to the heart of one of the great cultural battles of our time.

The hotly-contested, and highly-reported, battleground of meat versus no meat, framed either as vegetarian, or more recently vegan or plant-based, is not exactly known for its tolerance.

On one side, advocates would have it that animal welfare and environmental destruction mean there is no conceivable way for us to consume animal products; on the other, the debate ranges from the vital health benefits of animal protein, dietary freedom of choice to the ecological services provided by animals.

The reality, of course, is much more rational and nuanced. “Humans want a clean and simple answer to the question: should we eat animals?” says Percival, who researched and wrote the book alongside his day job as head of policy at the Soil Association, so he’s no stranger to the uniquely emotive debates around food politics.

“And we have a tendency to paint a caricature of the opposition. It’s convenient to think of vegans submitting to corporate capture. And it’s easy to paint a picture of omnivores eating factory-farmed junk. But actually most of us are somewhere in between and have much more in common than we think,” he says, adding that it’s often social media that creates that polarising atmosphere.

In any case, the question at the heart of the book is less an answer to should we eat meat, and more an explanation of why we feel the need to answer that question at all. And it began with the fairly “mundane observation”, as Percival puts it, that there are inconsistencies with meat and how we buy it.

Butchery
Many people buy meat without thinking further about its origin or impact.

It’s something we’ve probably all come across or experienced ourselves. You probably know by now the troubling animal welfare concerns around intensive farming, and you may even have come across the link between animal feed for these intensively-farmed animals and deforestation. And you’d have to have been living under a rock to have missed the loudly-advertised link between ruminant methane emissions and climate change.

And yet. It is still all too easy to pick up a meat-based sandwich on the go, order a late night takeaway or choose meat without knowing the source – all without thinking twice.

“Veganism and vegetarianism might be all the rage but we’re not eating any less meat, albeit a slight switch from red to white. While in the background there is a polarised debate and an ecological crisis,” says Percival, who says this split prompted him to look deeper into the psychology behind our relationship to meat.

What he found forms the title of the book, the so-called ‘meat paradox’ that sums up our traditionally omnivorous natures, and our powerful ability to empathise.

“How did we end up like this?” asks Percival, who calls it a “fundamental split in our character”. A non-vegan who “eats mostly plants”, he concedes vegans are onto something if you consider the horrors of standing in a slaughterhouse.

“It gives you an insight into the emotional forces shaping the debate and why there’s so much passion at each end of the spectrum. That perhaps hadn’t seen so obvious [before], so there is greater consciousness, and it puts it into a bigger context of human history,” he says.

There’s also a very real link between the effect of intensively-farmed meat on the environment, as a contributor to climate change and nature collapse. No longer just a case of protecting the environment, the urgency of the climate crisis has also taken on a moral perspective as the single biggest impact on most of our, and our childrens’ futures.

But farming meat in a less intensive way has very different results. “From an agroecological view to manage the land, meat does play a role,” says Percival, alluding to the practice of replacing harmful chemical fertilisers with animal manure, alongside a deep understanding of the role of diverse plants in soil fertility.

Lloyd Mortimore farm on Dartmoor
A small-scale mixed farm with no chemicals nurtures the local ecosystem.

There are many strands that begin to weave into this particular debate, not least food security and where we will produce the food we eat. Then there’s the worry about climate and how to reduce the impact of our lives and diets on the world. But despite these competing challenges, there is no answer to be found in simple solutions – a tension Percival’s book brings to the fore. 

“There are voices in the vegan movement that believe the quickest way to solve the climate crisis is to take all animals away and there will be no health implications. And it’s a similar story at the other end,” he explains. “But ultimately the world is a complicated place – we can certainly mostly remove animal products, but it’s not necessarily the case for everyone.

“There is value in reconnecting people with where their food comes from and getting people onto farms – all of that needs to take place within broader cultural narratives about meat,” he says.

While accepting this tension can simply make for a more tolerant approach to others, there are also potentially more insidious factors at play. Percival says: “There is a certain right wing train of thought that divide and rule is a good way to go about politics. If you polarise people, you can whip up political sentiment.”

Meat is very much at the centre of this in the US, he continues, where Republicans see meat as a symbol of freedom. Divisions also write their headlines, he says, talking about the media’s approach to meat and veganism in the UK.

Seen in this light, stepping back from the debate can be seen as a radical political act that promotes rational understanding and collective action on the things that really matter, like cutting fossil fuel use in any way possible, rather than a dangerous distraction and slide into division and populism.

“We would do well to make peace with the fact there is an emotional conflict there,” says Percival. “It feels like there are certain vested interests benefiting from this.”

Put simply, Percival’s main message from the book is “our relationship with meat, when seen in context of the meat paradox, is more complicated than previously thought.” But it also holds a much more powerful latent suggestion of an alternative, more nuanced, more compassionate world that could have far-reaching effects.  

The Meat Paradox: Eating, empathy and the future of meat by Rob Percival (£18.99, Little Brown) is out now.

10 Comments

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  1. Excellent article and I am tempted to buy the book. As Percival says, there are so many sides to this argument not helped. of course, by the inclusion of multinationals who are in the industry to make money no matter what the consequences and are prone to “entertaining” our elected members of parliament. It isn’t simple; plant based but not organic? Don’t eat fish? Air miles? Owned by who? There are so many questions, perhaps the word at the top of this debate should be “education”…….

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    1. Agreed, it is SO complicated. I think education, yes, but also it’s time for the government to intervene. We have a certain power as ethical consumers, and we vote with our wallets but big change is done by governments but the current one in power are simply not interested in transforming the food system and happy to leave it to the supermarkets. As consumers we have power, but we have far more as activists!

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  2. Each to his own, as they say. Research where one’s food comes from and choose food accordingly. Often depends on where one lives and what one can afford. As I have probably said before in a comment, I will continue to be an omnivore verging on the carnivorous, as long as I am happy that the meat is as ‘happy’ as can be and does not pollute land and water unnecessarily. One can’t always rely on the ‘British’ label on chickens for instance, when a large chicken farm in the UK, and owned by Americans, discharges copious quantities of faecal matter into a river. But there are farms which produce chickens in a much more friendly way, and I stick to one which I know does just that.
    Finally we need to educate people like one featured on TV recently, who said that she would always go for the cheapest chicken, and another who said she roasted the chicken whole, used only the breasts and threw away the rest; Words fail me!
    How do you educate people who have never been taught/shown how to cook? Forget Masterchef and bring on Delia and Mary B., but better – make cookery in schools compulsory.

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    1. Wow buying a whole chicken and only eating the breast! Never mind the fact that dark meat is the best bit, and what about a chicken soup the next day with the stock. When you spend more money on meat, there’s a clear & obvious motivation to use every last piece. It’s also hard to say that food needs to be more expensive when there are so many who struggle to put food on the table, something needs to change. We need to make healthy food cheaper and unheathy foods expensive! But how…

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    2. Jack – I should have said that the woman intent on buying the cheapest chicken was answering a question on whether she would pay more for a better reared product, ie organic, free range etc.
      I remember when we only had fowl meat on high days and holidays and dad plucking the bird in the kitchen and mother eviscerating it outside to blow away any smell, real or imaginary. In those days fowl really did have brown leg meat, and more distinctly brown than that called ‘brown’ these days. We almost fought for the legs!
      My uncle was a traditional pork butcher, and I learned a lot from him, still possessing his butchers’ handbook.
      I suppose the word chicken is better than the word fowl, but I have not been able to agree with its use. Chickens are small yellow fluffy beasties!

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  3. I agree that the most important thing, whether buying plants or animals, is for people to question where and how it is produced. Sadly very few people do this, and the main drive behind people’s choices seems to be price or convenience.
    Perhaps another problem that needs to be addressed is housing. We used to spend a much higher percentage of our income on food, but with the cost of housing being so high (because it has become a way to invest) most people work longer hours with less money to spend on food and time to cook from scratch. This leads to an people buying cheap poorly produced food or quick junk food with no thought to its origin. Marketing campaigns by supermarkets continually confirm the problem too

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  4. Agreed, and of course lifestyles. I remember back in the 1960’s when you had time to garden and grow your own veg, especially when only one parent needed to work. Now there is so little time to devote to growing vegetables with so many hours needed to be worked, especially when living on one’s own….

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  5. Surprised there is no mention of sentience, unless that is covered in the book. I believe animals are an integral part of our landscape, biodiversity, the health of the soil etc, and that some people struggle with health issues if they don’t eat meat (I know that experience for myself). So, I am glad that there are many people keeping animals with much more care, but i never hear anything about honouring animals at the time of them being killed. Perhaps that is the next thing that needs to be talked about….. And i wonder if our meat consumption would change if we had to do the killing ourselves.

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