Vegetarianism and veganism have attained a kind of rarefied status, counting Mike Tyson, Betty White and Miley Cyrus as adherents. Yet, as science journalist Marta Zaraska reveals in her new book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat, the rate of practising meat-abstainers isn't much higher than it was 50 years ago.
The Globe and Mail spoke to Zaraska about why we persist in being carnivores, despite knowing that it's terrible for the environment and not great for our personal health.
What was the germ of the idea for this book?
Meat is a very emotional subject. I wanted to investigate precisely why.
What did you discover along the way that you didn't expect?
The main thing is that giving up meat is much more difficult than I previously assumed for most people and that there are good reasons for that. There are reasons rooted in our genetics – some of us actually have genes that make us more likely to eat a lot of meat – as well as in our culture, in history, in our psychology, in the way our minds operate, in marketing of the meat industry … so many different ways meat keeps us hooked.
Is there something biological about our craving?
Studies have shown that if about 15 per cent of calories in our diet don't come from protein, we start craving it. Although, of course, there are perfect plant sources of protein we could use to satisfy these cravings, most people still think of meat as the one and only source of "real" protein. That's a myth that goes back to 19th-century Germany and that just refuses to die.
What about the power of the meat industry?
A "check-off" is the tax-like levy that farmers have to pay, for example, per head of cattle. In Canada it's $1 per head of animals sold. The beef industry uses this money to promote meat-eating – to run ads and sponsor research and so on. From the perspective of the consumer, it means there's a lot of money to be used for advertising.
The American [meat] industries often sponsor research studies. These then get picked up by journalists, whether from the United States or from Canada, who write stories and headlines based on such research, assuming it's trustworthy and impartial. But that's not necessarily the case.
What do you make of the more meat-heavy Paleo diet trend?
There wasn't just one Paleolithic diet. Some people close to the North Pole ate enormous amounts of meat, while some others, some hunter-gatherer tribes, ate barely any meat at all. Which Paleolithic was more Paleolithic? That's the first and foremost thing for me. And then why not other times in our species history? We've evolved for a very long time, so why Paleolithic? And then next, contrary to what many Paleolithic-diet gurus say, our bodies actually have evolved since the industrial revolution and we are evolving faster than we have evolved before.
This caveman talk brings me to the subject of the correlation between meat and masculinity.
One of the very powerful reasons humans eat meat is that it's closely tied to masculinity, power and wealth, [which] goes back to our hominin ancestors 2.5 million years ago. It's a food unlike any other because it comes in very big packages that you don't get very often but they spoil very fast … it's the perfect food for sharing. If you have something to share that other people want, it gives you power.
Now, if you think about what it means to buy meat, in terms of bravery, it's the opposite because you've essentially contracted out a hit man to kill the cow.
Yet even a very recent ad done by Meat and Livestock Australia for their Australia Day lamb campaign shows a vegetarian as someone very cowardly and weak: A manly, strong flame-thrower, a lamb-eater one presumes, breaks into the vegan's apartment and torches his bowl of kale. So the symbolism still carries on.
You draw a scenario in the book of a dinner party where there's a vegan, a vegetarian and a carnivore. I expected that, at this dinner party, it would be the vegan who got picked on the most, but it wasn't.
No, it was the vegetarian. Most people like animals and if you like animals and you eat meat, you suffer from cognitive dissonance. When the meat-eater faces the vegetarian, it activates this cognitive dissonance. It reminds the meat-eater of the feelings he is trying not to feel. A vegetarian is worse than a vegan because a vegetarian is closer to the meat-eater, more like himself. When a meat-eater meets a vegetarian, he may ask, "What about your [leather] shoes? What about your handbag?" Because this strategy is to show that the vegetarian is not morally superior in some way.
Are you orthodox in your vegetarianism?
I believe it's much better not to be extremely orthodox unless it's supereasy for you. It's more encouraging. When people hear "you may never, ever, ever touch milk or cheese again in your life," it scares them. It's much better to tell them: You can try to limit this. Eat one piece of bacon a year and eat a lot of vegan food and it will be better for the environment than if you were a vegetarian who eats lots of eggs and milk and cheese.
What do you hope to happen as a result of your book?
Humanity is trying to solve our global-warming problems in many ways and many of them are very difficult, technologically – we are trying to invent solar-powered cars and planes. Yet meat-eating is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the transportation combined. If each human on Earth said from tomorrow, I'm not eating any meat at all, that's equivalent to all the transportation on Earth disappearing. But we don't want to do that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.