The Victorians caused the meat eating crisis but they might help us solve it

Solutions

Increasing consumption of meat rich diets throughout the world in the 21st century raises pressing concerns about human health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. Too much mass-produced meat is bad for us, bad for the livestock we eat, and bad for the planet on which we live.

If we want to understand how the world arrived at this point, as well as how we might change it for the better, we should look back to the Victorian period, which laid the foundations for modern globalised meat production and consumption.

Concerns today about what has become known as the “global meat complex” focus on the technologically driven overproduction and consumption of livestock. There’s a recognition in particular that “the middle classes around the world eat too much meat”, as a 2014 Friends of the Earth report put it. But the root of this problem can be traced to 19th-century Britain, when global meat markets emerged as a revolutionary way of dealing with a mid-Victorian “meat famine”.

Famine and feast

The famine was caused by a mismatch between a fast increasing, urbanising population and a levelling out in domestic meat production. What helped stave it off was the groundbreaking development of preservation and transportation technologies that enabled the British to eat livestock that was reared, slaughtered and processed in the Americas and Australasia.

As a result of these innovations, products such as chilled and corned beef, frozen mutton and meat extracts including Bovril and Oxo became staples throughout British homes. Per capita meat consumption increased dramatically, rising from about 87lb per year in the 1850s to 127lb annually by 1914, despite the fact that Britain’s population nearly doubled in this period.

Cost was the major factor driving this change. When one can get a half-price leg of mutton from the other side of the globe, remarked one prominent food writer, one sets aside “all sentimental considerations in favour of the roast beef of Old England”.

Mass marketing campaigns alongside positive media coverage also helped promote these new forms of meat. Victorian commentators celebrated frozen meat’s capacity to feed the “energetic, flesh-fed men” required to sustain British industry and imperialism. Meanwhile “beef tea” was widely advertised as a life enhancing force in Britain’s fights against alcoholism, influenza, European rivals and imperial perils.

Meat remained a luxury for the very poor in Victorian Britain. But as the 19th century came to a close, and as more and more British consumers grew accustomed to imported beef and mutton, the idea of meat – the more the better – as an essential part of everyday meals became increasingly popular among working-class as well as middle-class meat-eaters.

As global meat markets revolutionised the dining habits of the British nation, they also changed the face of the planet. Vast tracts of American and Australasian land were reshaped as pasture that supported the British breeds of cattle and sheep that Britons preferred to eat. And selective breeding programmes meant the bodies of these animals fattened faster and could be stored more easily in refrigerated holds: animals were bred with their carcasses in mind.

Boiled babies

The globalisation of Victorian meat eating was revolutionary, then, but it was also highly controversial. Advocates of the canning and refrigeration industries championed their capacity to deliver healthy, wholesome, inexpensive and sustainable meat supplies from Britain’s colonies and the “new world”. But home-reared meat was seen to be of better quality and safer, especially early on in the development of these industries.

Many potential customers were put off by scandals involving putrefied meat, as well as scare stories surrounding the meat’s origins. Metropolitan meat eaters feared that overseas farmers were feeding them offal or meat from diseased animals. In my archival research, I’ve even discovered concerns that boiled human babies were entering the food chain.

It wasn’t just that the British were wary of eating long dead animals from far flung parts of the world. Overseas competition provoked demands to protect British agriculture, both to preserve traditional ways of life and to guarantee food security. Animal rights campaigners too were concerned at the increasingly intensive farming methods and assembly line slaughter techniques associated with developing meat markets.

And at the same time, Britain’s growing vegetarian movement was promoting the economic, health and ethical benefits of a meat free diet. Writing in the 1880s, the prominent vegetarian and socialist Henry Salt predicted that “future and wiser generations will look back on the habit of flesh-eating as a strange relic of ignorance and barbarism”.

A new start

Salt would be horrified by a 21st-century world struggling to cope with an ever growing demand for cheap, plentiful meat. Horrified, but perhaps not entirely surprised. The unhealthy, unethical and unsustainable way that the “global meat complex” operates today is the greedy, brutal and environmentally devastating extension of what his meat eating contemporaries did to the world.

But this Victorian history can also help ongoing efforts to change the way our planet produces and consumes protein. First and foremost, it makes clear that there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about the way meat markets take shape. Hundreds of millions of people eat meat in the way and the quantities they do, not because they’re inherently designed to do so, but because of a global system set in motion by British imperial power.

And we should keep in mind that this system’s development was an incredibly controversial process, marked by fierce debates as well as dramatic dietary change. At a time of year when many of us are thinking about how to transform our lives for the better, the prospect of giving up meat, or of eating insects or lab-grown meat, provokes widespread scepticism, hostility and disgust. We’d all do well to remember, therefore, that not so long ago the prospect of eating frozen lamb from the other side of the world provoked a similar range of reactions among the Victorian population.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Paul Young, Associate Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at University of Exeter. Read the original article here.

More Stories

  • Climate change is a matter of international security

    Obstacles

    When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.

    Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.

    Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.

    In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security”  — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”

    In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

    Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.

    Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.

    And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.

    En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.

    As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.

    However,  while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future.  At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once  again, climate changes' effects are already underway.  

    This story features:
    Read more
  • The U.K. government should grant charitable status to public-interest news media

    Solutions

    A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.

    Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.

    The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.

    However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.

    It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”

    Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.

    Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.

    As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.

    However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.

    A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.

    Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.

    Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.

    One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.

    But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.

    I’m thinking of Vox’s vertical Future Perfect or The Telegraph’s Global Health Security initiative, founded respectively by the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundations.

    Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.

    Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?

    These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.

    Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.

    The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.

    Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.

    This story features:
    Read more
  • Go vegan because of mass exploitation, not because eating animals is wrong

    Solutions

    With veganism on the rise and entire supermarket aisles now dedicated to veggie and vegan food ranges, it’s a good time to consider what motivates people to go vegan.

    There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.

    However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.

    Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.

    Such views are often bolstered by powerful moral arguments framing animals as subjects of a life, able to experience pain, and as leaders of complex emotional lives.

    Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.

    Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.

    By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.

    Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.

    Ecological Animalism

    "Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."

    This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.

    Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.

    Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.

    If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.

    The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.

    The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that

    "For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."

    Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Heather Alberro, Associate Lecturer/PhD Candidate in Political Ecology in Nottingham Trent University. Read the original article here.

    Read more