A new study purports to explain the primary reasons why people choose to include meat in their daily diets. And guess what? I anticipated the answers, oh, about 25 years ago.
As a columnist, when somebody steals your thunder, you’ve got two choices: Get angry and try to “re-take” your original concept, or applaud the “copycat” for being smart enough to get onboard with a great idea.
I’ll choose the latter route.
For the better part of a several decades now, I’ve been pounding the drum about a simple way of messaging the value of meat production and meat-eating, calling it “natural, normal and necessary.”
Meaning that meat has been integral to human history and physiology for millennia, it’s been central to diet and lifestyle in every era among every tribe, nation and civilization and it’s been both essential and beneficial to both human and planetary ecology.
Making the arguments that support those assertions has occupied much of my professional activities during those decades.
Now, along comes a study in a British journal called Appetite that purports to have “discovered” what motivates people who embrace meat-eating.
According to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, when asked why they ate meat, survey respondents identified four primary reasons, which the researchers called the “Four Ns:” Meat-eating is natural (“humans are natural carnivores”), necessary (“meat provides essential nutrients”), normal (“I was raised eating meat”) and nice (“it's delicious”).
Turns out that the talking points I’ve been suggested are right on target — well, three out of four. I subscribe to the notion that three is the maximum number of info bits we can process at any one time, and I didn’t include “nice” because that’s pretty much a given.
Even people who’ve gone full veggie generally acknowledge that tucking into a perfectly broiled steak or barbecued brisket is pretty nice.
Of the four reasons identified by the British researchers — from the University of Lancaster, by the way —can you guess which one was cited most by people to explain meat-eating?
“Necessary” was the No. 1 response. Which makes sense.
But the researchers were determined to dig deeper and find something disturbing in the data.
Searching for guilt
First of all, the people who endorsed the Four Ns were more likely to be men. As if that’s a problem.
Second, meat-eaters felt that “cows were less likely to experience feelings like sadness and joy,” the researchers stated.
“People love animals and are genuinely concerned about them,” said Mirra Seigerman of the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, who is also a committed vegetarian, by the way. “But they also eat meat so there’s a paradox here, and we were interested in finding out how people resolve it. We think that the Four Ns are a way to alleviate feelings of guilt.”
Why the guilt? Seigerman contended that because meat production is out of sight, people are less likely to “make friends” with chicken, pigs or cattle. “We also have a different vocabulary for meat — we eat pork and beef instead of pigs and cows.”
Indeed, we have become divorced from the realities of animal husbandry, butchering and meat processing. No question.
And unless we happen to work in that particular industry, we’ve also been removed from pretty much every other commercial and industrial process that produces the food products, household goods and other “stuff” comprising our consumerist lifestyles.
That’s a product of technology, not a trigger for guilt.
Plus, more people are aware of and concerned about farm animal welfare than at any time in my lifetime, so the idea that we’re burdened by overwhelming guilt — as if that will eventually force people to become veggies — is misguided, at best.
Yes, it’s true that we have the luxury of choosing a vegetarian diet that is as healthy and nutritious as one that include animal foods. That’s a product of modern science and technology, and available to ordinary middle-class people only because of the conventional agriculture, food-science R&D and automated manufacturing that purist vegans love to hate.
The authors of this study offered other reasons to quibble with the Four Ns. But ultimately, their counter arguments were as weak as a day-old kitten. They basically boiled down to, “Hey, plant-based foods are good, too.”
But when they’re the only items on the menu, that’s neither natural nor normal.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator