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.
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.
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.