This article is part of REMEDIA‘s Charismatic Substances series
by Josh Berson
Humanity is eating more meat. Between 1960 and 2010 meat consumption in the developing world more than doubled per capita. Total demand for meat could double again between 2010 and 2050, a rate of increase twice that forecast for rice and cereals. By 2006 estimates, livestock production requires some 30% of the earth’s dry surface area and accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. When we ask how we are going to feed a world of nine billion people, what we’re asking is how we are going to feed a world of nine billion carnivores.
Meat, we hear over and over, more than any other kind of food, is characterized by income elasticity — when people have more money, they eat more meat. The global growth in demand for meat and other animal source foods, along with other income elastic foods — in particular, refined sugars and starches and highly processed foods — and the concomitant growth in metabolic syndrome and obesity, is referred to as the nutrition transition.
Coupled with income elasticity is the fact that cities offer better market access to meat producers, since one of the concomitants of urbanization is the intensification of livestock production, i.e., the shift from extensive grazing to “landless” modes of stockraising use industrially produced feedstocks often composed, in large part, of the waste products of livestock “processing”; that is, slaughter.
At present more than 50% of stockraising worldwide happens under “landless” conditions, a shift sometimes referred to as the livestock transition. In the case of chicken and pigs, the animals’ entire lifecycle can be confined to concentrated feeding operations, and in fact this is one of the factors, in combination with breeding, improved feedstocks, and the addition of antibiotics and growth hormones to the water supply, that has contributed to the phenomenal rise in feed conversion ratios (the ratio between the mass of food consumed by the animal and the mass the animal puts on). The time it takes for the animal to attain its maximum weight has dropped dramatically too. A modern broiler—a chicken raised for its meat—confined to a battery and fed on improved feedstocks, reaches market weight in five to seven weeks, less than half the time required 70 years ago, at a feed conversion ratio of 1.9.
Already we might be inclined to question the income elasticity story. It seems like market access could play a bigger role in explaining emerging habits of meat-eating than is generally accorded — that is, there could be a push from the livestock transition to the nutrition transition rather than just a pull from pent-up demand for meat. The problem is, it is difficult to perform a rigorous factor analysis — to say, for a panel of possible explanatory factors, here is the proportion of the variance in the case-by-case demand curves for meat accounted for by income, by market access, etc. In part, it is difficult to operationalize market access in sufficiently precise terms, more difficult still to get reliable data.
So we are left with a situation in which livestock agronomists invoke income elasticity to explain growing demand for meat, as if meat’s intrinsic appeal could bridge the gap in data between aggregate income and aggregate meat consumption. The idea that there is anything to explain about the positive (aggregate) correlation between income and meat-eating gets no traction in the agronomic literature. To be human, we hear over and over, is to be a carnivore — i.e., the adaptation to a diet rich in meat is implicated in practically every dimension of hominin anatomical and behavioral modernity. Geographer Vaclav Smil, an authority on the macroenergetics of meat production and consumption, sums it up this way:
There is absolutely no doubt that human evolution has been closely linked in many fundamental ways to the killing of animals and eating their meat… We are, indubitably, an omnivorous species with a generally high degree of preference for meat consumption, and only environmental constraints and cultural constructs of preindustrial societies led to lower meat consumption, a shift that was reversed in all modern affluent societies.
Smil’s position captures a good part of what you find in mainstream agronomy. This position rests on questionable assumptions, about the evolutionary basis of human carnivory and the nature of affluence. Among these is the premise that even among foragers meat eating makes economic sense.
Consider, for instance, the observations of Rebecca Bliege Bird and Douglas Bird on hunting in the Western Desert of Australia. Among the Martu, gendered differences in foraging strategy index different attitudes toward the risks and benefits of foraging, “with women more often foraging to gain the benefits of consumption and men more often foraging for food’s social utility.” In terms of the expected return to the individual in food energy, you’d be better off staying in camp and waiting for the women to come home with goanna, grubs, and bush tomato than going out to hunt bustard or kangaroo. So hunting mobile prey must serve some other purpose. “Because the distribution of high-variance prey ends up being costly to the hunter, it can serve as a more honest signal of a hunter’s absolute generosity and motivation to work for the public good.”
Of course there is a danger in forming inferences about Pleistocene economy on the basis of contemporary foragers. But even if earlier foragers ate more meat than those attested in the ethnographic record, it is starting to look like the much vaunted human need for meat represents a combination of contingent practicality (varying availability of different kinds of foods, vegetable and animal) coupled with peacocking. If that is the case, could we not imagine alternatives to meat?
Of course, meat has been shown to promote a network of epigenetic and metagenomic shifts in human bodies that, coupled with its more immediate physiological effects—the satiating properties of long-chain fatty acids, the energizing effects of highly bioavailable heme-bound iron—make it likely that once you learn to appreciate meat you will continue wanting to eat it. Above all meat is nutrient-dense. It offers, as one reads over and over in the nutrition literature, a “concentrated packet,” of micronutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, vitamins A, E, and, of course, B12, as well as macronutrients, in particular protein.
My argument is not with meat’s appeal but with the tacit assumption, running through the agronomic literature, that meat’s appeal is determinative of our collective dietary future.
The most common scenario for how meat made us human is that it supported encephalization, the phenomenon in which humans came to have brains that are, given our body size, much bigger and more energetically demanding than they should be. Humans lie way off the lean body mass–brain mass regression line for mammals, and even that for primates, prompting the question, Where do we get the energy to support our big brains? Famously, Aiello and Wheeler hypothesized an evolutionary tradeoff between two kinds of expensive tissue: cerebral white matter and splanchnic—gut—tissue. Encephalization, the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis goes, demanded a compensatory reduction in the size of the gut, and this in turn demanded a higher-quality diet—energy-denser, more bioavailable—than that typical of other primates. This is often taken to mean a meat-based diet.
Aiello and Wheeler were careful to frame the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis as a hypothesis, but you would be amazed how often their paper has been cited as expert authority for the fact that reduced splanchnic mass in extant humans, as compared to extant other-than-human primates, testifies to the decisive role of meat-eating in human evolution. Whatever the sources of higher-quality diet in human species past, a careful investigation, using 191 animals from 100 species, including 23 primates, has shown that the brain–gut tradeoff does not hold—not for eutherians, not for primates. Nor does this kind of tradeoff hold for any other internal organ.
Does it even matter what role meat-eating played in human evolution? We could just as soon talk about the role of open grasslands. Yet you do not hear agronomists and planners fretting over how to convert the emerging urban agglomerations that are to be the setting for so much meat-eating to something like the Plio-Pleistocene savanna. The history of agriculture is the history of a shocking divergence from the subsistence strategies of the preceding 1,600 generations.
Agriculture marks the emergence of a novel trend in economic strategy—the transformation of the biosphere, at the cost of massive investments of energy, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus, into a reservoir of biomass to be drawn off for human needs. Smil writes that affluence has “reversed the shift” brought about by “environmental constraints and cultural constructs” in agrarian societies, leading to the surge in meat consumption of the past 200 years. By implication, there was a point in time when meat-eating was humanity’s modal feeding strategy.
But the positive correlation between rising aggregate income and rising aggregate meat consumption tells us nothing about how income elastic meat is. It simply serves as a reminder how little we know about household provisioning: “Market-based models assume a price-oriented supply response that does not reflect household priorities and decision criteria. … On the demand side, reliance on income elasticities of demand for consumption projections may similarly be misinterpreting development processes.”
The idea that you cannot paper over the gap between aggregate demand and household behavior simply by imputing smooth elasticities to household commodities should be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to explain the contents of her kitchen to a friend. To specify the relationship between aggregate demand and household behavior we’d need a lot more data about how people—especially marginalized communities who tend to be invisible in household food budget surveys—procure food, prepare meals, and eat.
Among the things we would want to know more about is who is buying, growing, and preparing food. In many parts of the world, food work has been women’s work. As women enter wage labor outside the home, they face an increased burden of time and space poverty, especially for food preparation and other kinds of work that generally have to be done at or near home. Meat takes a lot more energy, water, etc. to produce, calorie for calorie, than rices, cereals, or storage organs, but it often requires less time, space, equipment, and effort to prepare. You do not even need a cooking vessel.
Ultimately it is the way meat’s material properties fit with precarity—a heat-stable gel that needs no container, industrial feed conversion ratios that make cost-effective for consumers, highly bioavailable and satiating—that is turning the world’s increasingly urban poor into regular meat eaters. Proponents of veganism, myself included, talk a lot about the violence done to other-than-human animals in the production of meat, practically never about the violence done to humans in the creation of new markets for livestock products. But chickens and pigs (not to mention carp and tilapia) are not the only gregarious vertebrates packed into the margins of the new global city. Until we recognize that marginalized humans and other-than-human animals raised under industrial conditions occupy coordinate roles in a single system of violence, we will make no progress in identifying, let alone unworking, the sources of meat’s charisma.
Josh Berson is an anthropologist and design researcher. His work asks how our ways of using and caring for our bodies coalesce into registers and how we construct our environment to support particular registers of bodily life. He leads the project Cartographies of Rest at Hubbub Group, London and the design research studio Assemblage and is visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
 Mario Herrero, Petr Havlík, Hugo Valin, et al., “Biomass Use, Production, Feed Efficiencies, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Livestock Systems,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (2013): 20888–20893.
 Vaclav Smil, “Eating Meat: Constants and Changes,” Global Food Security 3 (2014): 67–71, at 67.
 Rebecca Bliege Bird Douglas W. Bird, “Why Women Hunt: Risk and Contemporary Foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal Community,” Current Anthropology 49 (2008): 655–693.
 Leslie C. Aiello and Peter Wheeler, “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution,” Current Anthropology 36 (1995): 199–221.
 Ana Navarrete, Carel P. van Schaik, and Karin Isler, “Energetics and the Evolution of Human Brain Size,” Nature 480 (2011): 91–93.
 Derek Baker and Dolapo Enahoro, “Policy Analysis and Advocacy for Livestock-based Development: The Gap between Household-level Analysis and Higher-level Models,” Food Policy 49 (2014): 361–364, at 363.
Cecelia Tacoli, with Budoor Bukhari and Susannah Fisher Urban Poverty, Food Security and Climate Change. Human Settlements Working Paper No. 37 (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2013).