A friend and I were recently lingering over a meal in a neighbourhood restaurant, picking at a dish listed as chicken on the menu but comprised mostly of red chili peppers, Szechuan peppercorns and gristle. While searching the plate for a worthwhile hunk of flesh like the last and least motivated Neanderthal, my friend made a bold prediction: Within 10 years, we'll all be vegetarians.
He's a smart guy who thought to invest in marijuana stocks before the last federal election, so I'm inclined to hear him out. His argument was that while we have found it easy to collectively ignore ethical arguments against eating meat, we will give it up when faced with enough economic pressure.
Slipping a morsel into my mouth, I chewed on chicken tendon and his idea.
He's right about the first part. Most of us still manage to avoid the moral implications of meat. Either by ignoring issues of animal cruelty and environmental waste or by finding ways to rationalize our actions, most Canadians eat meat pretty regularly.
He's also right that meat continues to rise in cost. Farmers' overheads aren't going down, and demand from the international market will continue to push prices upward. Since 2013, the price of bacon has gone up 26 per cent and stewing beef has risen 44 per cent. Only chicken remains relatively stable – why do you think every chef is opening a fried chicken joint?
Still, I just don't believe that Canadians will give something up because it gets too expensive. Did we give up our cars as gas prices rose? No. We just complained more. At best, when the price of our preferred fancy shampoo is jacked up, we may switch brands, but we're not shaving our heads.
Generally, humans will accept something of lower quality before we learn to abstain – and that's what I think will happen with meat, despite our stated good intentions. Instead of giving up meat because it gets too expensive, we'll just eat cheaper meat. Already, when we see the price of antibiotic-free or hormone-free meat (which costs the farmer more because the animal's growth isn't artificially accelerated), we kvetch or order something else.
Ask Andrew Farrell, chef de cuisine at the Halifax restaurant 2 Doors Down, who has a clientele willing to pay $17 to $18.50 for a good hamburger made of antibiotic-free, corn-raised and grass-finished beef from PEI. He can see from ordering patterns that there's a $29 price threshold for a dish of steak frites.
"I got some grass-fed strip loin from a local butcher – I was going to put a nice special on," Farrell said. "But after the food cost, I couldn't serve an eight-ounce version of that steak for less than $65 on the menu. So we had to return the meat."
Rather than strip loin, he uses less expensive cuts such as hanger steak. "We try to do a smaller portion, six-ounce, bump up the sides," he said. "Maybe put a nice béarnaise sauce – little upgrades that take the place of reducing the amount of beef on the plate."
Chefs can braise tough cuts or gussy up small portions with fancy sauces. Regular people, when faced with buying pricey ethical meat versus affordable, don't-ask-don't-tell meat, will choose what they can stomach paying for. When the bill seems too large and the portions too small, we blow off our principles like a promise to help a co-worker move.
So why not give up meat entirely, as my friend predicts? Well, why do he and I still eat it? While we're not addicted to meat chemically, we kind of are, in a social way. The only way we'll all stop eating it is if everyone else stops first. People knew for decades that cigarette smoking was a dumb idea, but it took shame campaigns, sin taxes and outright bans before it became socially unacceptable.
There are no social benefits to consuming ethical animal flesh. Menus are still composed around dubiously sourced meat, which, unlike cigarettes, can still be consumed indoors, in hospitals and theatres and around children.
And giving it up is more intellectually complicated than smokes because it's not a binary choice – meat or no meat. We still need creative solutions for dinner. And going vegetarian doesn't actually solve our moral and practical eating dilemmas, as pointed out in a bunch of new books, including The Reducetarian Solution, a collection of environmentally inclined essays in favour of reduced meat consumption, and Marissa Landrigan's memoir The Vegetarian's Guide to Eating Meat: A Young Woman's Search for Ethical Food.
Landrigan, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, charts her journey from vegetarian to ethical omnivore. While working at a grocery co-op in Idaho, she sees a chart of the major food corporations that own the small organic, vegetarian brands she prefers. Learning that her hippie granola made by "1970s back-to-the-landers" is owned by General Mills and that her veggie burgers are produced by the tobacco company Philip Morris, she realizes that the path to becoming an "activist eater" is not a straight line, but a maze.
"When I saw this corporate organic chart, I couldn't unsee it," Landrigan writes. She sets out on a journey of self-discovery – "I thought that working harder to get my food would make it automatically more ethical" – and, by the end of the book, is hunting elk in Montana.
The thoughtful eating approaches outlined in these books are admirable. But I still believe that accepting a product of lower quality is the option people will choose when faced with limited time, money or information. And when the meat industry attempts to feed our desire for foods that are fast and cheap, we will get what we ask for.
Producers, manufacturers and the big restaurant chains that influence the supply chain will find new, unfathomable ways to raise animals cheaply. Right now, that means pigs kept in pens so small they can't move and antibiotic-fed cattle giving rise to superbug infections in humans. A 2015 New York Times investigation exposed a federally funded research facility in Nebraska, where experiments in search of larger, more profitable litters created deformed cows and feeble pigs.
Continuing down this path could mean smoking bacon while it's still in a pig's belly or raising headless cows in jars, if that's what it takes. And we will look the other way, or at our iPhones, if it keeps the price of burgers and bacon stable.