What’s Behind The Growing Global Meat Consumption?

The world is eating more and more meat, specifically Asia. Why? Much of it seems to be tied up with the appeal of Western ideas, the power of the West and cultural imperialism. Europeans travelled the world and took their fixation with meat with them, transmitting the idea that meat equals power. The Dutch first arrived in Japan in 1600; in the latter half of the eighteenth century, there was an increased interest in Dutch ideas. These tall foreigners planted the idea that eating meat was good for human health. Along with the possibility of increased height, the Japanese associated eating meat with progress and moving away from a hierarchical, feudal society and it was thought meat could it boost the strength of the Japanese army. The Japanese had previously eaten very little meat, largely due to a lack of land on a small island – their diet was heavy in rice, vegetables and fish.

The British inadvertently imported an enthusiasm for meat to India in their attempts to retain power over the nation they ruled for nearly 200 years. Bengali Hindus were quick to learn English and take the opportunity to get a Western education. Equipped with an understanding of Western politics and philosophy, the Indians began to criticise imperial rule, deeming it hypocritical and demanded the right to participate in the ruling of their own country. The British claimed that the Indians were weak and effeminate, saying that the humid Bengali climate and vegetable rich diet made them ‘languid and feeble’ (Collingham, 2006). This was used as an excuse for racially discriminatory policies.

And so Hindus who would never have dreamed of eating meat began to do so, keen on the idea of gaining the strength needed to expel the British. Intellectuals became increasingly critical of India’s caste system, arguing that it was an obstacle to social progress. In the 1840s, university students rebelled by eating meat and drinking alcohol, considering it to be a mark of civilization. Even Gandhi believed that eating meat would give India the strength to overthrow the British. He and his friends took some goat meat on a picnic but he didn’t enjoy it and the goat haunted his dreams.

A Law student at UCL, Gandhi was not impressed by British food but often made porridge for himself while studying in London. He also encountered how puzzled the British were by his vegetarian diet. They believed that meat generated energy needed to keep the body warm in winter. Furthermore, they believed it aroused the passions and was therefore the perfect fuel for ‘strong, aggressive and manly Englishmen’ Collingham, 2006). It should not be fed to women or scholars – if the passions it aroused did not have an outlet, they would supposedly turn to introversion and illness.

Victorian attitudes to food were generally quite odd and fixated on protein. Justus von Liebig, a young German academic, became a professor in 1824. He is remembered as the father of fertiliser but was very keen on animal protein – he claimed that protein was the only real nutrient, with fat and carbohydrate only serving to react with oxygen to generate heat. His student Carl von Voit ‘calculated’ by observing people that workers should eat a whopping 150g of protein a day. (Current NHS guidelines recommend 55.5g for men and 45g for women.) The affluent middle class at the time were happy to go along with these ideas about meat, as they suited them.

Gandhi returned to India a stalwart vegetarian but believed in both the strength of the Indian people and the eradication of the caste system. Advocating peaceful protest and the promotion of vegetarianism and Indian culture & customs in favour of any Western influence, (he famously wore a homespun cotton dhoti,) Gandhi played a key role in India gaining independence from the British in 1947.

In Japan, meat consumption resurged as a result of the American occupation following the second world war. Den Fujita, head of McDonalds in Japan declared, ‘If we eat hamburgers for a thousand years, we will become blond. And when we become blond we will rule the world.’ It was however noted by the Chinese that heights increased in Japan after the Americans gave school children milk and eggs.

Historically the Chinese had largely been vegetarian due to a lack of land to grow feed for livestock and from the sixth century onwards, most Buddhists were vegetarian. The wealthy elite however ate meat (often of very unusual varieties) and as is often the case, the masses aspired to the diets of the wealthy. Pork is widely eaten in China and pigs were seen as a form of security against famine as they eat almost anything, even human waste. China’s leaders offer subsidies and favourable treatment to pig farmers, viewing the provision of pork as a mark of both success and modernity. Despite its already meat heavy diet, the government set about getting the nation to drink milk. Adverts on television in the 90s claimed it would make the Chinese strong, save the nation and equip them to better stave off competition from other countries. This was despite the fact that a very high proportion of the Chinese are lactose intolerant and that milk was traditionally ‘generally shunned as the slightly disgusting food of the barbarian invaders’ (Lawrence, 2019).

The Chinese rationale for drinking milk sounds very similar to the reasons why the Japanese and the Indians started to eat meat. (I can’t help but think about the theories I could have drawn up when I started school, aged nine. The only vegetarian in the class, I was taller and bigger than most of my peers, a more advanced reader who got higher marks on tests.)

I’m intrigued that animal protein has played such a role on the world stage of politics and power, used to inflame insecurities, both highlighting power imbalances and used to justify them. Now we seem to have shifted to a time when American cultural imperialism and its lethal food is invading the world. America eats huge quantities of meat, no doubt in part due to the powerful meat lobby and the meat industry which spend billions of dollars a year on making sure the American public keep eating meat, particularly beef. They work hard to keep Dietary Guidelines committees and the USDA from advising the public to eat less meat, with Zuraska describing the meat industry as the tail ‘wagging the dog of demand’ (2016).  In his 2013 book Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon calculated that the US spends $38 billion subsidising meat, fish, eggs and dairy. One dreads to think how high this figure is today.

Beyond the American meat industry, why is meat consumption so high in the Western world? (I don’t think we can explain this away by pointing at historically terrible food in the UK.) One argument is that it is natural and that we are meant to eat it. This is bizarre and contradictory in a world where we are so disconnected from nature. Ideas of natural tend to be inconsistent and cherry picked, usually used to justify what suits us or what we know. Canine teeth and cavemen are usually trotted out. The image of the masculine hunter caveman seems to appeal to men but holds little for women. This is perhaps because we know that wearing furs would not be as glamourous as the Destiny’s Child video for Survivor. We also know that not having access to contraception, pain relief or medical care would be sh*t. We have wombs and ovaries that release eggs every month but many of us will only use them twice in our lives, in our thirties. Do we need to use body parts because we have them? Should we eat meat because we have canine teeth?

Some claim that we have developed to crave meat. Access to calorie dense meat is credited for modern man’s large brain. Zuraska suggests that it, along with honey and tubers were responsible but also posits that peanut butter could have done the job too, as a calorie dense substance. Others credit the intellectual challenges supplied by learning to hunt and cook with boosting brain growth, along with the increased availability of nutrients from cooked food, rather than meat as a source of nutrients. Either way, it doesn’t seem terribly relevant to modern life. It strikes me as a bit like suggesting adults should drink breast milk as it facilitates a phenomenal rate of growth in babies.  

The main argument is that it is delicious. In what sense? There seem to be three main points: umami, the Maillard reaction and texture. Umami, a deeply savoury flavour, is classed as the fifth taste. Mushrooms, cheese, marmite and miso are all rich in umami – it is not exclusive to meat. The Maillard reaction is a complex series of chemical interactions which are agreed to make food taste better. If you’ve ever toasted nuts, caramelized onions, made toast or enjoyed the crispy bits on roast potatoes, you’ll know about the Maillard reaction.

With regards to texture, halloumi is often viewed as a good meat substitute as it offers bite, umami, salt and fat. Similarly, people often enjoy paneer as the texture reminds them of meat. I however do not feel it is normal to be so utterly fixated on chewy textures to the point that you need to have it at every meal. It strikes me a bizarre idiosyncrasy, a bit like the way Irish families always had a plate of buttered slices of bread in the middle of the table at lunch and dinner without fail. Or people who have ketchup or hot sauce on everything. The times I’ve accidentally eaten meat have left me wondering what on earth the big deal is. I thought the meat lust I’d heard of might take hold of me, that my pointy canine teeth would send a message to my pre-historic brain and something would take over, turning me into a sort of Incredible Hulk on a meat rampage. Instead I was left wondering how this underwhelming, chewy stuff justified the lack of cooking skills, the inability to cope with difference and all the stupid, defensive knee-jerk comments. (I periodically try meat substitutes that people swear have exactly the same texture as meat. I’m left thinking they aren’t really food, lacking any freshness, just lumps of brown. I’ve come to the conclusion that I value fresh and crunch more than chewy and umami.)

Fiddes, Safran Foer and Zuraska all talk about people’s concern about missing out on special occasions if they gave up meat. This is one I’ve struggled with, especially in a day and age where flexitarianism and reducetarianism are promoted and encouraged. ‘What about Christmas dinner?’ people ask, bizarrely focusing on one day out of 365. Even if you just ate meat on Christmas day, you would vastly reduce your meat consumption. ‘What about bacon?’ they ask, forgetting about the toast, the cereal, the porridge and the pastries they eat for breakfast most of the time. Saying the word ‘vegetarianism’ produces a jumbled sort of partial thinking in people. The every day gets mixed up with a Sunday roast dinner, as if that’s what they eat every day, the tomato soup and bread roll they grabbed for lunch that day forgotten, along with last week’s mushroom tortelloni with pesto or the jacket potato and beans from the canteen at work. (Safran Foer and Zuraska’s feeble ideas for creating new happy places make me think they are not cooks. For God’s sake, throw some calories, fat, sugar and salt at the situation. Get the deep fat fryer and the pakoras out!)

I suspect people worry their ‘happy place’ will be taken away if they gave up meat. What is your happy place? Part of it is what your mother fed you. The comedian Aisling Bea says her happy place is potato waffles because she ate so many as a child. My friend’s husband loves the rice and dal she makes because it reminds him of the food he ate growing up in a rural village in central Asia. I read an academic journal on attitudes to tofu – people in Vietnam commonly associate it with happy memories. One could suggest that you could feed children almost anything to create a ‘happy place’ memory.

I am however curious about the influence of fat, sugar and salt in combination with capitalism with regards to the happy places, as opposed to our mothers. Junk food seems to be an important happy place for people, the booming success of the Greggs’ vegan sausage roll being a good example. (Nasty greasy things. While my happy place is very much high fat, chewy and carbtastic – mattar paneer and puris –  the vegan sausage roll was too processed, too beige and brown for me, lacking any freshness.)

The hamburger, beloved by the West and exported to the rest of the world, is very high in fat as are the reconstituted potato fries that accompany them. The sauces are full of salt, sugar and vinegar and the fizzy drinks or milkshakes on offer are laden with sugar and fat, in the case of the latter. McDonalds could hardly be less subtle about their aim to get children hooked on junk food at an early age, with their Happy Meals that come with toys. Could we get anymore Pavlovian? One wonders what else could be achieved with a colossal advertising budget, high levels of fat, salt and sugar and operant conditioning. Can we literally sell people anything with the right messaging?

KFC has very successfully created a happy place in Japan at Christmas time where there was none, not just meeting a demand, but creating one. Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, a country where less than 1% of the population are Christian. Going to KFC at Christmas however has become a tradition – people queue around the block and jostle to book in an order.

We are looking back, holding onto old habits and childhood memories, while Asia rejects traditional diets in favour of Western modernity. I struggle to understand the appeal of Western food to the rest of the world and its associated image of modernity. (I appreciate that in some parts of the world, imported junk is cheaper than local ingredients which traditionally made up people’s diets.)  It seems that the items exported from the West take on a different value in other countries; items to which we assign little or no value may be seen as status symbols. For example, tinned vegetables are considered preferable in the Pacific islands and this has been the case since the nineteenth century. Pushpesh Pant tells a story about his local roti maker. Rather than feeding her son the rotis she made with finely ground wholemeal flour, she bought him expensive white bread as she wanted him to have a chance to try the food that wealthier people ate. (This made me feel sad. I consider my mum’s chapattis a key part of my happy place. Maybe Kaushalya the roti maker’s son loves both chapattis and white bread. )

Zuraska discusses the place of meat in modern Indian society. When the vegetarian brahmins occupied the highest status in India’s hierarchical society, being vegetarian was desirable and aspirational. Eating meat in India is still associated with modernity (as it was in Gandhi’s time); it is now seen as the mark of a successful professional who works for a large multinational corporation and travels the world for work. In short, those who have made it, eat meat. Zuraska’s book, published in 2016, discusses the portrayal of vegetarianism by the Indian media; she notes the promotion of the ‘protein myth’, a rather conspicuous lack of coverage of the health risks of a meat-heavy diet along with stories of male film stars eating meat to gain muscle.

I assume this must have since changed, given the changing dialogue around meat in the past few years in the Western world. I note Zuraska’s criticism of some of the content published in the Times of India. Given the recent hype around veganism, I’m curious to see how it is perceived in the world’s second most populous nation. A few clicks later, I find stories about the health risks of eating meat and articles about glamorous vegan celebrities, vegans enjoying a better sex life, much like the UK and US press. I also find something that delights me and makes me feel seen and heard on this topic. One article states that people may not want to eat meat due to ‘not liking the smell or the chewy texture’. Bingo.

In today’s day and age, who has made it? Instagrammers, one might argue and Christ, have they gotten us excited about the most unlikely things, going back to my point about being able to sell people anything. Photos of avocados suddenly became the thing to post on Instagram and people actually eat quinoa now! (I hate quinoa – although my friend made a lovely salad once for picnic. She toasted it first – that’s the Maillard reaction for you. My mother also tells me I carried an avocado stone around in a woolly hat for a day or two when I was four, well before avocados were cool. So there.)

I would argue that social media has in this sense been a force for good, promoting fresh, plant-based food and initiatives like Veganuary. We have no shortage of gorgeous, groomed, tanned women on Instagram, promoting West coast healthy lifestyles, with their cheekbones, highlights and toned bodies. These are not retired ex-hippies with long unkempt hair and ugly sandals. (They are of course promoting the exact same things as said ex-hippies. I was horrified by the expense of the items in Whole Foods, the very same items we bought in the Nutmeg health food shop in Belfast, before they inexplicably became cool.) (I appreciate I haven’t gone into the dark side of clean eating here – you can read Bee Wilson’s article here if you like but the point I’m trying to make is about what people can be sold with the right images.)

Who knows where we’ll go from here. We seem to have acknowledged that we need to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy. They seem to have been lumped in with tobacco, sugar and alcohol – vices that must be reduced. People no longer respond with, ‘I’ll eat meat if I want to’, an attitude which encapsulates capitalism, prioritising what you want over all else, regardless of the consequences.

Can we expect Asia to join the vegan/flexitarian/reducetarianism movement now that it’s associated with the fashionable, successful and glamourous American elite? Now that the UK is due to ban advertising of junk food before 9pm, will Mattel get into bed with vegetable producers? Will children’s television be full of broccoli superheroes who can be purchased as action heroes? Will these broccoli superheroes feature in multipart Hollywood film franchises featuring Megan Fox? I’m not holding my breath, but maybe… I still think people will go nuts for anything with the right images.

References

Barton, E. Why Japan celebrates Christmas with KFC BBC article available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161216-why-japan-celebrates-christmas-with-kfc

Blakemore, E. (2019) How Mahatma Gandhi changed political protest. National Geographical article available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people/reference/mahatma-gandhi-changed-political-protest/

Choudhury, C. (2016) The Chronicler of Indian Food. Aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/ajeats/2016/01/chronicler-indian-food-160104113715853.html

Collingham, E. M (2006) Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. New York: Oxford University Press

Lawrence, F. (2019) Can the world quench China’s bottomless thirst for milk? Guardian article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/29/can-the-world-quench-chinas-bottomless-thirst-for-milk

NHS Article on protein available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/body-building-sports-supplements-facts/

Ritchie, H. (2019) Which country eats the most meat? BBC article available at:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-47057341

Safran Foer, J. (2009) Eating Animals New York: Hachette

Wilson, B (2017) Why we fell for clean eating. Guardian article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating

Zurasaka, M. (2016) Meathooked New York: Basic Books