Meat (and its absence) is a hallmark of cultures all across the world. Hindus don’t eat beef, Muslims don’t eat pork, and a number of Dharmic religions make vegetarianism a centerpiece of their faith. However, meat is not only a religious and culinary subject; it is also a political one that shapes our institutions and sociocultural relationships. In the United States, meat is consumed not as some sort of religious habit but in large part as a nationalist and political one. Meat is commonly thought of as a culinary pillar of “being American,” and its consumption–and common overconsumption–is quietly celebrated and enshrined through subtle overtones in television, pop culture, and media.
Meat exists in American politics on two levels: on the explicit surface level, where vegetarianism and the consumption of meat has, in several ways, become political. On a more subtle level, the consumption of meat is often glorified as a masculine, patriotic activity that solidifies the “manliness,” or “American-ness” of individuals. For many in this country, eating meat is associated with, or rather an affirmation of, “strength”. According to OECD figures from 2016, Americans consume more meat per capita than citizens of any other country, averaging about 97.1 kilograms per person per year. In contrast, the European Union averages about 69.2 kilograms per person per year, China’s average is about 60 kilograms per person per year, India’s is just 4 kilograms per person per year, and Turkey’s is 30.39 kilograms per person per year. America’s relative wealth may explain its uncharacteristically high meat consumption, but this trend is likely cultural; America was already consuming between 68 and 90 kilograms of meat per person per year, higher than most countries today, at the time of the American Revolution. Many speculate that the cause has to do with the fact that America was settled by immigrants who came from European nations where meat was a luxury generally reserved for nobles and aristocrats. Such backgrounds would be extremely conducive to those immigrants taking advantage of their newfound freedoms and wealth to consume as much meat as possible. Additionally, for centuries and even today, many states and regions within the U.S. depend heavily upon cattle ranching and the meat industry as a whole for economic sustenance, and these tend to also be the most conservative parts of the country, building upon the conservatism-meat link.
This obsession with meat is now often associated with notions of masculinity and patriotism. Hot dogs are a baseball game tradition, turkey practically defines Thanksgiving, and there are even holidays such as “Hamburger Month” and “National Hamburger Day”. A study by Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart found that men in the U.S. who were exposed to a “masculinity threat” expressed greater attachment to meat consumption. Masculinity-wise, meat advertisements are very much focused on men as an audience and can contain extremely sexist overtones. One Burger King ad features heavy sexual imagery that was clearly intended towards men, and a Hummer ad features a white man feeling so emasculated by his purchase of Tofu after seeing the guy behind him purchase racks of pork ribs that he has to go buy a Hummer to “restore the balance.”
Regardless of its origins as a staple of American dinner tables, meat as a political instrument is used widely by political groups both conservative and liberal. Amongst conservatives, it is often a very explicit source of pride, but even more it is a fear mongering tool by which conservative leaders warn that progressives–with plans such as the Green New Deal–will attempt to take away Americans’ “right” to eat meat. This notion is best encapsulated by Trump’s tweet in February of 2019, where he claims that the GND would “permanently eliminate” cows. Marc Thiessen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also appeared on Fox News claiming that “The Democrats…want to take away your hamburgers.” Of course, nobody in American politics is actually trying to ban or eliminate meat consumption in the country, though the meat-centric campaigning against environmental policies, given its notoriety, reveals the use of meat consumption as a proxy for freedom in conservative circles. A recent study by Ruben Sanchez-Sabate and Joan Sabate found that the majority of those surveyed in the U.S. and across several European countries massively downplayed or were ignorant of the environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption and altering animal husbandry methods. This messaging takes advantage of conservatives’ views that Democrats and progressives are “anti-American,” and that their supposed attacks on meat are an attack on traditional American values. As a matter of fact, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, liberals were more than 5 times more likely to be vegetarian when compared to conservatives; liberals were also far less likely to go back to eating meat once they chose to give it up.
Among liberals and especially among progressives, meat is more an environmental issue than a cultural one. This is evident in the Green New Deal, which has received a lot of criticism for its approach to meat, and also clear through the amount of attention given to meat’s detrimental effects on the environment in American liberal platforms. Liberals are also much more likely to support vegetarianism as a means to mitigate their own negative impact on the environment. Though most of them still widely enjoy meat, they don’t share the view of it as a definitive piece of “America” as strongly as conservatives do. As a result, growing firms across the country have taken advantage of these desires to make unique food-based commercial products that are meant to specifically appeal to liberals and all those who seek a meat-based solution to environmental issues.
Many firms are developing non-policy means for people to still enjoy “meat” without causing as much environmental damage. These companies produce and engineer plant-based foods meant to mimic meat, and they do so with surprising fidelity. The most famous of these companies are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which have already introduced their products into fast food chains, grocery stores, and dine-in restaurants. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper has already made its way across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and Whole Foods already sells Beyond Meat. Although plant-based meat still holds less than 1% share of the U.S. meat market industry, its sales have grown 40% between 2017 and 2019, and there is no evidence that this trend will stop anytime soon.
Once plant-based meat companies across the world are able to produce cheaper meat alternatives that are indistinguishable or even better-tasting than the animal meat, there is little doubt that many societies across the globe will experience a dramatic shift in consumption of plant-based meats. However, given an imminent climate crisis and an indeterminate horizon for such a critical point in plant-based meat development, it is worth noting that plant-based meat companies ultimately perpetuate a consumer-based, demand-side environmental approach that places the responsibility for solving climate and environmental issues on individual consumers rather than on laws and institutions. At a time when just 20 firms are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions and just 90 firms are responsible for two-thirds, it is far more effective to regulate firm behavior rather than to wait for individuals to voluntarily pick up new culinary habits or make other changes to their lifestyle. While these efforts are not mutually exclusive, the media dominance of the latter messaging can detract from attempts to push the former, because people may internalize and individualize climate responsibility and hesitate to hold firms accountable for their contributions.
These externalities aside, the development of plant-based meats is largely inevitable and positive because its taste will eventually be either equal or superior to real meat at a lower environmental and financial cost. It is certainly interesting, though, that the largest and most famous plant-based meat firms are American companies and have few competitors worldwide; that is, few other nations are investing as much capital or even pursuing the market as fervently as America is. This is, ironically, likely a result of America’s overconsumption of and cultural focus on meat, such that even the solutions for solving climate problems are inexorably anchored around meat itself.
Photo: Image via Unsplash (Francesco Gallarotti)