If Meat is Murder, What is Vegetarianism?

food ethics december issue cover

The good people at the Food Ethics Council have run a piece I did on the politics of vegetarianism. It appears in December’s issue of Food Ethics magazine.

If Meat is Murder, What’s Vegetarianism?

With all the evidence that industrial meat production is bad for the environment, cannot be sustained equitably for the planet, is a profligate waste of resources, accelerates global warming, and is a vector for all kinds of nasty disease, we might be tempted to enjoin everyone to go vegetarian. And there’s much merit to the idea.

Research shows that vegetarians and vegans have a smaller carbon footprint than their carnivorous counterparts. In the United States, where about 2.5% of the population is off meat, there’s a marked difference between the annual CO2 output of vegetarians and the average population. One recent study found that an ordinary US diet contributed nearly 1.5 tons more CO2 than a vegetarian one – and that switching from meat-eating to vegetarian could cut US national greenhouse gas emissions by up to 6%.

Vegetarians can also feel smug about their health. A range of studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower chance of dying from stroke and heart disease than the average population. One of the largest studies of its kind was carried out in the UK, where 33883 meat eaters were compared with 31546 non meat eaters. In that study, meat eaters were more likely to smoke and to be more overweight. But, and this should give us pause, a range of studies also conclude that in other diseases, vegetarians and similarly-health conscious meat eaters fare equally well.

It’s the ‘similarly health-conscious’ that ought to set off alarm bells, because it suggests that vegetarianism isn’t spread randomly through society, that being vegetarian is associated with other kinds of health-increasing behaviour. This is borne out by the evidence.

In the US, recent survey data find a link between occupation and diet. Manual workers tend to eat more meat, and beef in particular, than their counterparts in service or professional occupations. Further, eating less meat is linked to higher levels of education thought not, strikingly, with higher levels of income, which suggests there’s something cultural going on.

This leads to an interesting twist to our thinking about meat and its absence. Certainly it’s true that becoming vegetarian can improve your life chances, other things being equal. But precisely because other things aren’t equal, the commandment to be vegetarian isn’t one that all of us can follow with equal ease. There is a host of social obstacles that stand between the majority of the population in the Global North, and sustainable eating patterns.

We already know, from studies in California for example, that the amount of time you spend commuting and your level of obesity are directly related. We know that poor people are less able than the rich to live near their places of work. We know, further, that 14% of US fast food meals – dense in animal meat – are eaten in cars. This comes not from a particular national fondness for the interior of cars as dining venue, but because for many of America’s working poor, the only chance they have to eat a meal is en route from one job to the next.

Further, it’s much harder to be vegetarian if you don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. If you live in a poor neighbourhood in the United States, you might be subject to ‘supermarket redlining’, a phenomenon named for its similarity to the practices of banks, where red lines would be pinned onto local maps to denote the areas within which the bank would make no loans. Supermarket redlining is like this, but with food. It is an increasing feature of American geography that low income neighbourhoods are overwhelmingly less likely to have fresh food markets, and far more likely to have fast food outlets and convenience stores. The consolidation of supermarkets means that in Boston, more than half of fifty big chain supermarkets have closed since 1970, and the number in Los Angeles County has fallen by almost 50% as the markets concentrate in only the well-to-do areas.

The choices that each of us makes, then, aren’t made freely. And there are some profound obstacles that prevent society’s poorest from choosing a healthy diet. In the Global South, being vegetarian is a de facto state simply on the grounds of income. In the Global North, vegetarianism is the prerogative of the middle class.

So what changes, then, would be required to move all of us in the Global North towards a more sustainable diet? For a start, we ought to dispense with the idea that there’s a magic bullet. No one intervention can unpick the morass of culture and class that pushes poorer people to unsustainable eating habits. In moving towards sustainable eating, it is important to jettison the kind of thinking that reduces diet to individual choice. Instead, a range of policies are needed, from encouraging fresh fruit and vegetable markets in low income areas, to increased government-sponsored social housing nearer places of work, to building cities with walkable environments and green space, to living wage legislation, to a reduction in the length of the work day, to some fairly serious investment in education and healthcare to stamp out the injustices that accompany our differential access to food.

It is impossible, in short, to talk about meat in America or elsewhere without talking about class. And if we want to eat sustainably, that’s a conversation we can put off no longer.