On a research trip, I was at the airport of a major city and looking to find a light snack for the plane. Approaching the healthiest-looking deli counter, I scanned the options. The sandwiches were uniformly filled with conventional beef, turkey, or tuna. Even the salads, all four on the menu, contained a heaping portion of chicken, and one had bacon as well.
When did it happen that animal products became part of every dish? Today, even sandwiches and salads have been swept up in the meat binge. Our menus are in stark contrast to traditional suppers that consisted of a core food such as rice, a fringe item such as a sauce, plus a legume, according to food anthropologist Sidney Mintz [Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom].
Now, entire meals are often described only by the animal products, as in "we're having chicken for dinner; and by researchers as "M + S + 2V" which stands for "meat plus a staple plus two vegetables" When that equation applies to billions of people, it can add up to major problems for the environment and public health.
A Social Norm: Unwritten Expectation That Guides Our Behavior
Regular intake of meat is so pervasive a part of our culture that we take it for granted. Large-scale meat consumption is reinforced through grocery stores and restaurants, in cooking schools and food magazines, and in gourmet and "foodie" circles. And the reinforcement is not just because our meat-based diets are so interesting and varied. Many of us settle on a handful of favorite meals and eat them over and over. Today, many of those meals are based on animal products. It's become a social norm, one of those unwritten expectations that guide our behavior.
Yet we can establish new food norms that minimize the meat. Yes, we are genetically predisposed to enjoy fatty and high-calorie meals, but the evidence shows that most of us would enjoy better health with less. Yes, we like the sensory experiences we associate with meat, but some of those tastes come from sauces and spices that could just as well accessorize plant-based meals. Yes, we've been told that beef, pork, and chicken are necessary, but low-meat and plant-based diets provide plenty of nutrients and all we need for health.
Even long-held ideas on this are amenable to solutions. Flesh foods have historically represented virility and power and been perceived as important to human growth and progress [Sexual Politics of Meat]. Meat companies are hoping that's still the case, as I saw in a recent television ad in which a young man is seated in front of a plate-sized steak. He finishes it off to hearty congratulations from his friends, and an authoritative voice-over reminds us that beef ”makes men act like men.”
But recent surveys in Europe suggest such positive associations with meat may be in decline. Researchers Erik de Bakker and Hans Dagevos of the Netherlands Agricultural Economics Research Institute conducted a consumer investigation indicating "there might be a shift going on in the cultural image and appreciation of meat: that meat is less a token of masculinity" and less uniformly desirable than it used to be.
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Social Norms Can Change: Offering a Different Point of View
Social norms can change precisely because they're social. The beliefs and perceptions that drive the meat binge are not entirely inborn; they are amplified — and in some cases created — through agribusiness marketing, advertising, and lobbying. But alternative messages can be spread, and initiatives can offer a different point of view.
Project CHEF (Cook Healthy Edible Food) is one program in my hometown that does just that. Barb Finley and her staff give hands-on lessons at elementary schools, teaching children to prepare dishes such as granola, Greek salad, apple raita, and pizza with whole-grain crust and lots of vegetables. These educators use small amounts of cheese and a little chicken stock, but aim to introduce young people to healthy and environmentally friendly meals.
"We are such a meat-eating society; says Ms. Finley. "At Project CHEF we try to open children's eyes to the many other choices that are open to people.” It's a small example, but it's one being played out across the United States, Canada, and elsewhere as citizens look to eat in ways that are good for health and ecosystems.
Social Norms Can Change: From Resistance to Acceptance to a Forward Leap
Social norms can change, especially when a novel idea is evidence-based and powerful and people are exposed to it for a time. Even so, cultural shifts don't happen overnight or smoothly. According to one analysis of social movements [Doing Democracy], there is first a period in which critics publicly demonstrate the weakness of existing systems and face strong opposition from the populace and special interests. As the new idea spreads and slowly gains acceptance, conditions ripen for change and a single event can trigger a leap forward.
That's what happened when Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama in 1955 for refusing to move to the back of the bus, an action now viewed as catalytic to the subsequent progress in legislation on civil rights. It's what happened to the World Trade Organization when demonstrators so disrupted its 1999 Seattle meetings as to amplify public skepticism about its controversial agenda of worldwide liberalization of trade.
As author Malcolm Gladwell [The Tipping Point] has written, change can sweep across a population once a "tipping point" is reached. Ideas can act like viruses that spread and reach a critical mass, exploding into epidemics that infect whole communities. Even then, social change is often erratic and chaotic rather than a linear movement toward another way. Two steps forward, one step back, as they say. The "eat less meat" movement is at an early stage, still contending with deeply held beliefs and social structures that support industrial production and heavy consumption. But the norms are ripe for change.
©2012 by Boyle & Associates Sustainable Food Education Ltd.
All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat
by Eleanor Boyle.
Timely and compelling, this powerful book offers a modest, commonsense approach to a serious problem, suggesting strategies for all of us to cut back on our consumption of animal products and ensure that the meat we do consume is produced in a sustainable, ecologically responsible manner. At the same time, High Steaks describes progressive food policy shifts that will discourage factory farming and encourage people to eat in ways that support ecosystems and personal health.
About the Author
Eleanor Boyle has been teaching and writing for 25 years, with a focus on sustainable food issues for the past decade. She lectures, facilitates community discussions, and writes about food systems and their social, environmental and health consequences, and works with organizations aiming for better food policy. Eleanor initiated, designed and teaches a course on food and the environment the University of British Columbia's Continuing Studies Centre for Sustainability.