Sides of Beef: Homo Sapiens and Meat Consumption

Photo by Kyle Mackie

When combing through the annuals of modern satire, it won’t be long before one notices that one of its regular targets has been the left-wing political activist.  This has taken several different variants. There is the ‘limousine liberal’ that was so pilloried by Tom Wolfe in his essay Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s. These are the wealthy well-meaning types who advocate for allegedly wasteful, destructive politics while having doormen and private planes to buffer them from any nasty results. Then there is the scrawny, self-righteous, bookish, glasses-wearing type who bores everyone in his/her vicinity droning on about obscure thinkers and a new cause every month. Scrawny because more often than not one cause that is espoused is veganism or vegetarianism.

Yet all effective satire comes from somewhere and certainly there are plenty on the Left who, for a host of reasons, look down upon meat consumption. In a recent book, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics, Tony Vettese and Drew Pendergrass envision a future world of universal veganism where people appear to live in mostly smallish districts which require most people to farm a few hours a day. The ‘degrowth’ movement in general is hostile to meat, particularly beef. In his latest book Regenesis, George Monbiot looks forward to a world where animal farming is extinct and protein is provided by microbial proteins (i.e. bacteria) grown in vats.

A backlash to this kind of vision seeped into the political arena with the introduction of the Green New Deal. Who could forget Donald Trump rambling at a rally in Iowa about the ‘madness of the totally sick left’ that ‘The Green New Deal, which will crush our farms, destroy our beautiful cows. They want to kill our cows. You know why, right? Don’t say it. They want to kill our cows. That means you’re next.’ Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, made a point of holding up a hamburger during a news conference. Before taking a bite he railed, “If this goes through, this will be outlawed.” Sen. Josh Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Environment and Public Works, proclaimed, “Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches. American favorites like cheeseburgers and milkshakes would become a thing of the past.” Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, joked “Chick-fil-A stock will go way up” because Democrats are “trying to get rid of all cows.”

For the purposes of preserving any status quo in the present day United States, nothing surpasses a strategy of making any question or issue ‘cultural.’ This has the immediate effect of splitting even slight difference of opinion into hostile camps and deliberately provokes absolutist, visceral responses. Such exchanges, particularly in the sewer of social media or cable news shows, provoke further tribal response and so it goes until we hear of things like ‘Red States vs Blue States’, the ‘rural-urban divide’, and ‘flyover country’ vs ‘elite’ coastal cities.

Still there remains the question of meat. Certainly it is easy to find reasons to sympathize with such anti-meat sentiments. These range from the environmental to animal rights. After all, not too many things can be called more gruesome than factory farming. When first published in 1987, Gregory Stock’s Book of Questions asked readers: ‘Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill a cow?’ If that question is meant to provoke squeamish contemplation, what sentiment revels itself with the question “Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill and/or dismember thousands of cows a day?” Is it possible to picture a food festival that includes a viewing a bunch of chickens or hogs being butchered as part of the experience? Not likely. Make no mistake, factory farming is brutal if the word “brutal” has any meaning. And the scale of it is truly mind-blowing. At any moment 70 billion animals exist as objects for consumption, 60 percent of the mammals on Earth. One not need be a card-carrying member of PETA to have an uneasy feeling about what it takes to pull this off. ‘Debeaking’ chickens (otherwise chickens in such conditions would instinctively peck each other to death), ‘docking’ hogs tails (for the same sort of reason), gestation crates.

As for the environment, in a year on a typical factory farm cattle produce in the neighborhood of 344 million pounds of manure; pigs around 7.2 million pounds, chickens 6.6 million. Since cropland can absorb only so much, a good amount of the waste ends up in rivers, streams, and groundwater making factory farms the largest polluters of lakes and rivers in the U.S. And on a planet that contains millions of cows destined for slaughter burping on the pasture, that’s a lot of released methane which warms the Earth 84 times faster the CO2. According a landmark study in the journal Science, on average every kilogram of beef adds a massive 99.5kg of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases to the environment.

At the current rate, worldwide by 2030 over 200,000 tons of antibiotics will be used on livestock when 2.8 million antibiotic resistant bacteria already occur in the U.S. every year, with more than 35,000 deaths. A recent study published in The Lancet tallied 1.2 million deaths from infection in 2019. That is more than deaths caused by malaria or HIV. A 2019 joint report by the UN, WHO, and World Organization for Animal Health stated that drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050.

To top all this off there is simply land. According to data by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Bank statistics, 27 percent of the planet’s land, the amount of any land classification, goes into meat and diary production. Or consider it another way, livestock production consumes 58 percent of the biomass human annually draw from the biosphere. There has been some progress on this front in recent times. Since the turn of the century the FAO estimates 74 million less hectares are being used as pasture with North America, Europe and Australia having less pasture land now than in 1961. The downside here is decrease the land and at least somewhat increase the brutality. If cows can’t graze in open spaces they are stuck in closed spaces.

So is a vegan planet a more moral one? Perhaps. However this counter-fact must also be faced: despite the efforts of animal rights activists and some environmentalists the past generation exposing all of the above, the number of outright vegans and vegetarians tops out at about five percent of the American population. Then there is what is known as Bennett’s Law, which posits that the consumption of protein and fat (i.e. meat) rises with people’s incomes. It has proven to be a truism thus far. Meat consumption has skyrocketed in China in recent decades. Since 1990 it has nearly doubled in Brazil. This does not figure to change any time soon. Luxuries being desirable, they change into necessities whenever possible. The FAO estimates that consumption of beef, pork, and chicken in Africa will all increase by at least 20 percent by 2050. According to the World Resources Institute, demand for ruminant meat- from cattle, sheep, and goats- will grow worldwide by 88 percent by 2050.

It is worth noting that serious meat eating goes back a long way. It entered the picture about 2.5 million years ago. In her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Years Obsession With Meat, Marta Zaraska describes that this was at least in part due to climate change. Between 2.6 and 2.5 million years ago, the planet got significantly hotter and drier. As it did previously lush rain forests of Africa turned into grassland. Grassland had less of the green plants our ancestors were used to eating but more abundant grazing animals. More dead grazing animals laying in the grasslands meant more opportunity to experiment with meat.

One quite popular theory, first put forward by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler in 1995, known as the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis, posits that the switch to calorie-dense meat and marrow, with less bulky plant fiber, particularly after somebody figured out meat could be cooked with fire, allowed our ancestors to develop smaller guts (less need for a long digestive tract for processing plant matter). The energy freed up here was used by our brains to grow. Our brains, 2 percent of our body mass, use 20 percent of our body’s total energy, compared with dogs and cats 3-4 percent (other apes’ brains require 8 percent). If true then eating meat is indeed what made us human.

What are the ways out of this conundrum?  Insects can be a sustainable source of protein. Being coldblooded they require less energy to stay warm- thus making them more efficient to breed. Look for places selling edible insects and they surely can be found in U.S. cities. But at this point it seems Americans would still eat fried crickets or silkworm soup more on a dare than a desire.

There is plant-based meat, currently embodied in the companies Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. This option had a moment as the COVID pandemic took off with sales spiking 45 percent in 2020. Beyond Meat’s IPO in 2019 was at the time the most successful IPO since the 2008 financial crisis. A flurry of deals with major fast-food chains were announced. However, the stock price has dropped over 90 percent from its peak, supermarket sales of refrigerated planet-based meat plummeted 14 percent by volume in 2022, and the McPlant was discontinued last August due to slow sales. While plant-based milks are having more luck, by 2026 a projected 30 percent of all milk sales will be soy, almond, coconut, and oat, plant-based meat’s share of the market now tops out in the very low single digits, like 1.3 percent in the U.S. Clearly, plant-based meat is not replacing, or even putting a dent in, the real thing any time soon.

Theoretically more promising is lab-grown or cell-based meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently authorized the sale of lab-grown meat making the U.S. the second place to do so after Singapore. On paper lab-grown meat offers a silver bullet: meat grown from living cells without bloody slaughterhouses, antibiotics, or polluted waterways. Gram for gram, animals are a wildly inefficient vehicle for producing edible protein. By some estimates, cattle consume roughly 25 calories of plant material for every calorie of edible protein they produce. Even chickens, the most efficient form of livestock from a feed perspective, eat 9 to 10 calories of food for every calorie of edible protein produced. In theory, scaled-up lab grown meat industry could eventually achieve a ratio of only three to four calories in for every calorie out- not as efficient as just eating plants themselves but an improvement.

However, while the Big Three start-ups in the field- Believer Meats, Eat Just and Upside Foods- have raised over $1.2 billion in venture capital funding, lab-grown meat faces massive scalability issues. Since not many will fork over $50 for an order of chicken nuggets, production costs will have to come down substantially. It is an open question whether this is feasible in the short or medium term. Projected designs for production facilities are extremely complex, precise, and energy-intensive. Virus can also present a problem. Then there is the questions about whether the public will trust meat grown in a lab; no doubt the traditional industry lobby will fund plenty of stories about ‘Frankenmeat.’ Big Meat is already deploying an army of influencers to get lab-grown meat labeled something other than just ‘meat.’ That may be kindle for yet another future culture war.

So where does all this leave us? Clearly neither the global working class, nor simply the American one, will be giving up meat. In at least the short-term, none of the proposed alternatives offer a serious alternative. Certainly things can change. Beef consumption in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1970s and has had a tendency to decline since while chicken consumption has skyrocketed.  Some initiatives at reducing meat consumption, like reforming the wasteful subsidies to the meat industry in the U.S., are noble but getting too far out front of the culture in that effort certainly risks a harsh backlash.

Meanwhile we can work towards making lab-grown meat doable, making plant-based meat better, and on improvements to make the industry more efficient and less polluting. There is nothing overly romantic about that but recall that when running for president in 1928, Herbert Hoover promised a ‘chicken in every pot.’ This not only alluded to the dull way chicken was cooked back then but also its scarcity for the working class. Chicken is omnipresent in the U.S. now but for a lot the global working class such a vision still rings true.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).