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We human beings deeply love animals, however we additionally love to eat them. Almost one in 4 American adults tells pollsters they’re reducing again on their meat consumption — whereas the nation units new information for per capita meat consumption. We abhor the remedy of animals on manufacturing unit farms, the place 99 p.c of meat within the US is produced, but we dislike vegans. And even these of us who say we’re vegetarian or vegan are sometimes stretching the reality.
There’s a time period for humanity’s fraught relationship with meat and the animals slaughtered to produce it: the meat paradox.
Australian psychologists Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam, and Brock Bastian coined the time period in 2010, defining it because the “psychological conflict between people’s dietary preference for meat and their moral response to animal suffering.” We empathize with animals — in spite of everything, we are animals ourselves — however we’re additionally hardwired to search calorie-dense, energy-rich meals. And for many of human historical past, that meant meat.
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The push and pull between empathizing with animals whereas additionally consuming them creates a cognitive dissonance that may trigger us to ignore how they’re handled on industrial farms, or outright deny their sentience, intelligence, and capability to undergo.
The meat paradox can be the topic and title of a brand new ebook by Rob Percival, head of meals coverage on the Soil Association, a UK-based nonprofit that advocates for natural farming practices, larger animal welfare, and decrease meat consumption.
I needed to communicate to Percival as a result of he’s a strolling embodiment of the meat paradox. He spends his days campaigning towards industrialized animal agriculture whereas insisting animals ought to nonetheless play a job in our farming and meals system, albeit a a lot smaller and extra humane one.
Percival is sort of sympathetic to the vegan trigger, going as far as to name animal slaughter “murder,” however isn’t a vegan himself and doesn’t hesitate to criticize the vegan motion’s eccentricities and exaggerations. And he’s gravely nervous about what’s going to occur to the world if humanity can’t determine how to resolve the meat paradox. The West’s meat-heavy food plan is a serious accelerant to the local weather disaster that exhibits little signal of slowing, and that food plan is already being exported to the remainder of the world.
So in an effort to unravel the meat paradox, Percival talked to farmers, anthropologists, psychologists, and activists to higher perceive humanity’s messy, difficult, and millennia-deep relationship to the animals we hunt and farm for meals.
The meat paradox in ourselves
Percival discovered that the meat paradox isn’t only a product of modern-day industrialized animal farming, however a psychological battle that goes again to our earliest ancestors. Those animal carvings and cave work made tens of 1000’s of years in the past? They could also be greater than mere caveman doodles.
“It’s partly speculative, but the case has been made by various scholars that these provide evidence of a ritual response to animal consumption which may well have been rooted in those dissonant emotions, that conflicted ethical sense,” Percival mentioned. “There’s a profound moral dilemma posed by the killing and consumption of animal persons.”
But the meat paradox has intensified within the fashionable age. One of the founding research of the meat paradox literature, Percival advised me, was the one printed by Loughnan, Haslam, and Bastian in 2010. They gave questionnaires to two teams, and whereas the topics crammed in solutions, one group was given cashews to snack on whereas the opposite group was given beef jerky. The surveys requested members to charge the sentience and intelligence of cows and their ethical concern for a wide range of animals, equivalent to canine, chickens, and chimpanzees.
Some animals are extra equal than others
The members who ate the meat jerky rated cows much less sentient and much less conscious — and prolonged their circle of ethical concern to fewer animals — than the group that ate the cashews.
“The act of thinking about a cow’s mental capabilities while eating a cow had created these dissonant emotions beneath the surface, which had skewed their perception in really important ways,” Percival mentioned.
Even publicity to strict vegetarians or vegans can elicit a “heightened commitment to pro-meat justifications,” Percival says about one examine. This would possibly clarify why we see per capita meat consumption rise in tandem with charges of veganism and vegetarianism.
One of the funnier and extra telling passages of the ebook particulars a gathering Percival had with Charles Way, the top of meals high quality assurance for KFC within the UK and Ireland. After Way tells Percival how proud he’s of KFC’s animal welfare requirements, Percival asks Way, “If you knew that you were going to be reborn as a chicken, would you really prefer to be born onto a farm in KFC’s supply chain, more than on any other farm in the UK?”
Way asserts the corporate’s requirements are above the business norm (which isn’t saying a lot), however then says it wouldn’t make a distinction, “so no.” Percival tries once more: “If you knew that you were going to be reborn as a chicken, do you think you would eat less chicken?”
By Percival’s telling, Way merely doesn’t reply.
When confronted with these dissonant feelings by experiences on the cruel actuality of manufacturing unit farming, we strive to deny them, dissociating the meat on our plate from the animal that produced it, and in doing so, denying animals of their sentience and intelligence.
We make myths to justify our relationship with animals, too. One of the extra in style ones is the “ancient contract,” which works one thing like this: Animals give us their meat, and in trade, we give them domestication and thus a chance to evolutionarily succeed. This idea was coined by science author Stephen Budiansky in 1989 and has been touted by meals writers Michael Pollan and Barry Estabrook, in addition to iconic animal welfare scientist Temple Grandin.
Pollan and Estabrook don’t condone modern-day industrial animal farming, and Estabrook says it’s a violation of this historic contract. However, “there is a glaring deceit at the heart of our ancient contract,” Percival writes: “No individual animal has consented to the terms of the deal.”
We additionally use language to obscure; one examine discovered that changing “slaughtering” or “killing” with “harvesting” lowered dissonance, and that changing “beef” and “pork” on restaurant menus with “cow” and “pig” generated extra empathy for animals. Adding a photograph of an animal subsequent to the dish additional elevated empathy, whereas additionally making vegetarian dishes extra interesting to examine members.
Percival says the meat paradox may be discovered throughout cultures and time durations, and that “there is no culture in which plant foods are problematic in the same way.”
The meat paradox in our establishments
The meat paradox is simply as energetic in our establishments as in ourselves.
Percival’s ebook opens with a tour of the Natural History Museum of London, the place reveals inform the story of animals’ habitat loss and the results of local weather change on wildlife. But then while you go to the museum’s restaurant, “you might be served food which directly contributed to all those crises,” Percival mentioned. (Meat manufacturing is a number one reason for habitat loss, as massive swaths of forest are cleared to develop soy and different crops to feed farmed animals.)
Eventually, the museum modified up its menu — providing plant-based dishes, higher-welfare meat, and natural meals — after a strain marketing campaign from Percival.
That story had a contented ending, however I fear the meat paradox will solely harden in ourselves and in our establishments as meat turns into extra grist for the tradition conflict, as when some Republicans freaked out over a made-up story that the Green New Deal would lead to a “burger ban.” To overcome that, Percival argues, we want to stake out a center floor within the meat debate.
“We need progressive farmers and omnivores to be trying to defuse the tensions with vegans and animal activists, and we need the vegans who say, ‘Okay, step one is let’s phase out the industrial systems and focus on higher animal welfare,’” he advised me. “And if you can get a large enough demographic to claim that middle ground, then we might see some progress.”
The center floor is a tough place to be in an more and more polarized world. But there are indicators of progress: Whenever voters are given the selection to ban cages for hens or pigs, they vote sure, and plant-based meat has gone mainstream lately.
And since extra daring regulation, like a meat tax, could be politically poisonous proper now, the change has to begin with us.
“I’m not of the view that individuals can fix all this on their own or that it’s the sole responsibility of consumers to fix the food system,” Percival mentioned. “But at the same time, I am of the view that our own choices are influential. They help set social norms. And you need that sort of mass mobilization before political change becomes viable, before you can force businesses to change.”
And to get there, we first want to mirror upon the meat paradox inside ourselves, which might enable us, he mentioned, to “see our sort of complicity and entanglements in all this and understand what it might mean to begin to disentangle ourselves.”
Changing how we eat is likely one of the simplest actions we can take for the local weather, however it’s additionally one of the crucial private, as evidenced by the deep-seated affect of the meat paradox. But liberating ourselves from its dissonance actually might assist us claw our means out of a few of the crises we discover ourselves in — if we’re prepared to confront it.
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