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Why the ancient love affair with meat continues today

The Huffington Post this week features a long ode to Netflix-streamed Japanese anime spotlighting the emotional challenges of eating animals. New York food and pop-culture authority Fabio Parasecoli hopes his tender biography of Hachiken, the lonely meat-ambivalent hero of the Silver Spoon series, will lead more "young urbanites" to reflect on the source of their meat.

Today's social climate finds many of your meatcase shoppers--even in meat-loving Nebraska--similarly confronted by what one social scientist calls the “meat paradox:" Even as they enjoy this staple of your business as a staple of their diet, the constant criticism of farm-animal production surrounding them may leave them morally conflicted by the thought of using animals for food. Meat eating is still the norm in the United States, even though many people consider vegetarianism to be morally admirable – even meat eaters themselves, according to some research.

How can consumers hold such opposing attitudes, often happily? Here are the four general reasons that always bring shoppers back to meat, guilt-free and ready to buy, according to research:

1. It's natural. Social psychologist Melanie Joy, author of Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows, first introduced the concept of the "the three Ns" for resolving the conflict in meating-eating in 2010. The first of those appeals to man's natural craving for meat. Socialization teaches consumers that meat-eating is in our biology, that the craving is natural and that man evolved to eat meat and that, by extension, eating an all plant-based diet is inherently unnatural.

2. It's necessary. Meat-eating is needed for survival or, at least, to maintain full strength and vibrance for healthy individuals. The necessity argument is reinforced by the belief that humans can't eat enough high-quality protein or get sufficient vitamins and minerals from a strict plant-based diet.

3. It's normal. Strident veganism aside, most of our shared social channels, from family members to churches to media and organizations reinforce the widespread belief that eating meat is what most people in civilized society do and what most people have come to expect. The flipside of this reinforcing belief is that it's still the abnormality to not eat meat.

Reasons for eating meat4. It's enticing. Beyond Joy's three Ns, British moral psychologist Jared Piazza adds an important and often under-appreciated last N to the list in his recent article in the journal Appetite: "Nice." Meat is enticing because it uniquely satisfies omnivore cravings. He believes the enticing aspect of meat eating has largely been ignored by theorists because it's a weak moral defense. However several lines of evidence suggest the simple enjoyment people get from eating meat is a major barrier to reducing meat consumption or encouraging them to adopt vegetarianism. He and his research colleagues conducted a series of six studies that demonstrated it's an important element in justifying people's meat eating.

Both Piazza and Joy, a vegan and animal-rights activist and speaker, position the four Ns as a moral defense mechanism that supports denial of underlying guilt. However, the justifications also function as reinforcement to encourage your conscious shoppers' choice to eat meat, and the four-N scale serves as a thrifty and efficient method of categorizing them that fits generally.

What the food waste controversy really means

English comedian John Oliver's 17-minute monolog trashing America's food wasting binge on his HBO series Last Week Tonight earned more than 2 million YouTube views and renewed praise from food activists who see this issue as the tip of our wider food-system problems. “The amount we throw out has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s," Oliver ranted. "At this rate, in 40 years when you order pizza from Domino’s, they’ll just deliver it straight to the nearest dumpster. As they should–but that’s not the point here.”

Recognizing the risk in taking a professional comedian at his word that he's trying to make a serious point--even though we are assured by media commentaters that half of today's Millennials consider political satire shows a frequent source of political news--Oliver's send-up of our food waste problem may have bitten off a little more than he can chew by raising some serious questions:

Why food? Following Oliver's mouth-agape revelation that some fruit is left to rot in the fields because it won't grade high enough to be worth the cost to pack and ship it, in fairness one could wonder when we'll see a similar bit about the waste of perfectly fresh jokes that didn't make it out of the writer's room to be broadcast. Shouldn't America's comedy-starved be permitted access to second-rate comedy, even if it is a little muddy, fumbled and forced? It again raises the age-old question: Why is the food system, and its members like commercial grocers, singled out for unique criticism as a cultural touchstone and political issue? Notwithstanding a few flimsy attempts to demonstrate something unique about food because it intimately touches us all, no cultural commentators have really identified why the food system--and in some cases, the food system alone--warrants such heavy scrutiny.

Where's the cloud behind this silver lining? In sharp contrast to Oliver's grinning gloom-and-doom, economics scholars like Robert Hahn of the American Enterprise Institute argue critics have it precisely backwards when it comes to waste: Waste, repugnant though it may be, is a sign the system is succeeding, not failing. ''The primary reason so much gets tossed is that America has the cheapest food in the world," Hahn has said, capable of giving even the poorest the opportunity to waste.

Better still, studies show the vast majority of food that gets wasted--nearly two-thirds of it--gets wasted by the consumer, not the production and delivery system, precisely because it's fresh and perishable: Most of the 154 pounds wasted by each person per year, according to research firm Garnett, consists of fresh fruits, vegetables and salads---exactly the type of healthier food the food movement urges people to have more access to and is the mark of a healthful food chain.

Give us liberty, or give us blemished apples? Like so many of today's food issues, the food-waste question is a question of consumer freedom. “Consumers typically demand a wide variety of high-quality, cosmetically appealing, and convenient foods,” a USDA report on the issue said in 2014. “As a result, blemished, misshapen, or wrong-sized foods are often discarded to meet minimum quality standards.” A widely cited Natural Resources Defense Council report guessed that out of all the produce that’s thrown out, 10 percent to 30 percent gets wasted simply because it looks bad.

On a deeper level, that type of encouragement of food beautification by culling the substandard does not sit well with much of today's political left, which uses food to find wider cultural meaning. “It’s time we had a reality check in terms of how the food is grown,” according to Dana Frasz, founder and director of Oakland's Food Shift, which politically advocates for waste prevention. “The culture of perfection is so ingrained in our society, whether you’re talking about human bodies or your houses or your food."

That type of "food shaming" is a small manifestation of the wider environmental activism that abandons economic logic for belief in a more religious fundamentalism, writes economist Steven Landsburg, author of Why I Am Not An Environmentalist:

"After my daughter progressed from preschool to kindergarten," Landsburg writes, "her teachers taught her to conserve resources by rinsing out her paper cup instead of discarding it. I explained to her that time is also a valuable resource, and it might be worth sacrificing some cups to save some time. Her teachers taught her that mass transportation is good because it saves energy. I explained to her that it might be worth sacrificing some energy in exchange for the comfort of a private car. Her teachers taught her to recycle paper so that wilderness is not converted to landfill space. I explained to her that it might be worth sacrificing some wilderness in exchange for the luxury of not having to sort your trash. In each case, her five-year-old mind had no difficulty grasping the point. ...We do not recycle. We teach our daughter not to recycle. We teach her that people who try to convince her to recycle, or who try to force her to recycle, are intruding on her rights."

Where's the fine line between "should" and "must." The largely unspoken truth about such a reality check is that if the free market isn't imposing it as strictly as critics like Frasz would have it, then it's going to have to eventually be imposed by political and regulatory systems. Think it can't go that far? Retailers in France now face new legislation that forces them to donate any food they can't sell to charity or face possible criminal prosecution. Forget the reality that the supermarkets themselves will be compelled to absorb the cost of distributing that charity, never mind the statistics showing only a small percentage of the waste is directly caused by the retailer, the legislation's sponsor, Arash Derambarsh, told the London media the push must start with them. "My only problem," he countered his critics, "is that these [88 pounds of food each retailers waste per day] will not go to the garbage, but will go to the plates of poor people."

Have market forces just become too messy? It's the system, not the individual shopper, who is to blame for our waste problem, according to critics like the aptly titled Green Left Weekly. "Limiting personal consumption is a good idea where possible. But it hardly scratches the surface of the ecological problem, which lies in how our stuff is made and distributed," writes editor Simon Butler.

Much of the criticism of food waste, including Oliver's, is a revisitation on a theme that has been rehashed for centuries, writes food historian Warren Belasco. "For millennia," Belasco writes, "food has meant unrelenting drudgery, not just for cooks, but also for all food workers--farmers, field laborers, butchers, grocers, clerks, servers, and so on." But standing amid today's supermarket cornucopia of "too many food choices" (as some advocates voice their longing for a simpler system), it's easy for us to forget one of the aims of the early 20th century liberal Progressive ancestors of today's Food Left. Their goal was to make the food system not less efficient, as often becomes the practical goal today, but to make it more efficient. The Progressive aim was to, in effect, he says, "disappear it" and its never-ending hunger for labor, capital and the kind of day-upon-day demand in human toil that literally wore out producers like my grandmother.

Spent-on-food1aThat's all good news, save for one problem: The aim was accomplished not by the public service, shared sacrifice, intellectual guidance and omnipotent hand of government that exemplified the ideal social model of the '60s left. The world was fed better, faster and cheaper by the selfish, messy, profit-driven capitalism of John Deere, McDonald's, Continental Grains, and Kraft Foods. The average American blue-collar laborer has been freed more thoroughly by a food system that allows him to devote over 90 percent of his income to something other than feeding his family than all the anti-globalization marches that voice support for a localized food system. In that sense, the conflict going on between the free-market economies of American agriculture and the planned economies of the local community food security movement is an old, old fight reconfigured.

Today's insistence on viewing the food-waste problem through the lens of a "socially just" and "sustainable" capitalism ignores the fact that the root cause isn't too much food. It's too little prosperity. Recycling bread loaves past their "sell by" date doesn't end hunger. Improving the economic opportunity to buy them fresh from your shelf does.

Or, as the American Enterprise Institute's Haun succinctly puts it, ''If you want to feed the poor, give them food stamps."

Alternative food systems are not sustainable

To save California from its current devastating drought, writes Los Angeles Public Radio commentator Sonali Kolhatkar, "we must change the nation's food system." She echoes the sentiment of others like global hunger activist Marc Van Ameringen, who wrote in an earlier Huffington Post, "In the face of climate change, our basic food systems have to be reimagined...."

Winston Churchill famously once said, "There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction."

When it comes to dreaming up a new food system, known in academia as "alternative food networks," are the visionaries like Kolhatkar and Van Ameringen moving food production and delivery in the right direction, or simply in the direction of change? A new study in the March issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values, took an exhaustive look first at the general claims across such alternatives as farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, farm shops, consumer food co-operatives, specialty food retailers, organic agriculture, fair trade, and foods with a geographic origin, and then, second, the demonstrable accomplishments of such alternative systems. Much as they appear to favor the alternative network over the traditional supermarket-centered one, researchers Sini Forssell and Leena Lonkoski nevertheless posed some gaurded warnings about the true "sustainability" of such systems.

"While there is some empirical evidence supporting the potential sustainability impacts...," they write, "there are also a great number of studies, empirical and theoretical, suggesting that the impacts may not be so straightforward."

The alternative food network falls short in three broad areas, they say:

First, the promised results haven't materialized. Several studies Forssell and Lonkoski uncovered in their review show the expected impact attributed to alternative networks have either simply not materialized or have been insufficient. In some cases, that failure comes from confusing one charactaristic with another. Case in point: "Local." Automatic association beyond food produced at a local scale and sustainable production often occurs unjustifiably. One is not automatically the other. Other examples of this blurring of sustainability promise vs. performance include a demonstrable failure of fair trade to increase farmer prices beyond a token boost toward anything resembling living wages, and the very real possibility that consumers approach Community Supported Agriculture programs as a one-off proposition. That is, they may be willing to share risk with an individual farmer for a single season, but they willingly abandon him after the first year. In the long term, that does nothing to reduce the farmer's risk, which is the most significant "sustainability" selling point of a CSA. In fact, several studies they cite show the increased value promised by local food networks don't get to the farmer on the production end, and other studies show it does nothing to provide more affordable food to the consumer on her end. Even when measured by the more spongy goals of "increasing the democratization" of the food chain, alternative systems have been shown to underperform, they warn: Fair trade, for instance, has been criticized as a top-down governing system imposed on farmers, and CSAs, which in theory are inclusive and participatory, in fact often struggle with lack of consumer participation.

Second, unintended consequences abound. Any sustainability impact alternative food systems may promise are often accompanied by possible counter-effects, the researchers found. They cite the now-classic example: Organic production. Although organic promises a reduction at the individual farm level of adverse environmental impacts in terms of soil health, biodiversity, water and air contamination, and animal welfare, it results in such smaller yields by that individual farm that more farms are needed to maintain the same level of production. As a result, the sustainibility impact per product doesn't change and, in fact according to some research, may actually increase when compared to the conventional food system.


...direct selling requires farmers to assume the retailer's burden of resources, time and energy for distribution and merchandising, all of which reduce his net value.


In other examples, they caution that local's claim to fame of reducing food miles may not bring net environmental benefits because the environmental impacts of food production differ in different locations with different growing conditions, and because small-scale local food distribution may actually be more wasteful in its inefficiency. Plus, while some case study evidence supports the prominent argument that a shorter food chain may result in producers capturing a greater share of the value, that net benefit at the end of the day has been questioned by studies that suggest direct selling requires farmers to assume the retailer's burden of resources, time and energy for distribution and merchandising, all of which reduce his net value. "Profitability in the end may not live up to the theory," Forssell and Lonkoski note.

Any time a consumer chooses to "support a local farmer," they note, the consumer is choosing not to support a farmer somewhere else, meaning alternative networks that seek to protect and promote hand-picked farmers may simply lead to a system where producers of specialty foods simply end up "competing against each other for finite niche markets." And even alternative networks' more abstract goals of preserving food cultures may fail if labeling and protecting "local food" requires standardization and homogenization in order to qualify for labeling--the precise opposite of diversity.

And finally, they note that all such "value added’’ products may benefit the producer but be out of the reach of lower income consumers. "Indeed," Forssell and Lonkoski characteristically understate, "there seem to be tensions between the goals of producer livelihoods and access to affordable food."

Third, is any of it relevant? Finally, the researchers note that certain sustainability impacts linked to alternative networks have also been criticized in the literature on grounds that much of it simply may not matter. When it comes to reducing transport-related pollution, for example, simply cutting the number of miles a food travels may not be as significant as how that food travels. Transportation also generally contributes only a small part of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of food. Even the cherished notion that shortening the physical distance food travels makes that food fresher and more nutritious as it reaches the consumer has been challenged, once you weigh other factors like transport time and availability of refrigeration equipment. "The claim about natural, unprocessed foods being healthier could be considered simplistic," they write, "as the healthiness of a diet can only be considered as a whole."

Does moral food really taste better?

A European study coming in the August issue of the journal Appetite poses a paradoxical question: Why do consumers rush to pay relatively high prices to buy organic, fair-trade and local food in the name of saving the environment, while they stubbornly refuse to substantially participate in other, often cheaper, forms of achieving the same goals, like recycling and charitable donations to overseas relief efforts?

Apparently, morality alone doesn't explain the growth in spending on "moral food," the researchers write. So what does?

The researchers combined a large-scale 2005 survey of more than 4,000 shoppers examining attitudes towards organic tomato sauce with follow-up in-depth interviews and taste-testing using university students. The resulting complicated models they developed show that labeling food as of "ethical origin" in fact makes it subjectively taste better. In addition, though, the researchers teased apart the experience of consumers who believe moral food should be purchased purely because it's morally produced from the experience of those who arrive at the same buying conclusion through a longer process that says moral food makes them feel more moral, which in turn makes them expect the food to taste better, which then leads to actually experience the food as better tasting. By that process, they showed the odds of buying such moral food inceases substantially for the latter.

In fact, such pre-determined taste expectations may be the only criteria identified that can reliably motivate consumers to buy moral food, they showed. From the six variables they included as predictors of the subjective taste experience, only the expectations consumers carried into the experiement had a significant effect. In other words, consumers could only be reliably predicted to say ethical food tasted better when they expected it to taste better. Those expectations were consistently shaped by their expectations that eating the food would make them feel morally superior. "The only significant path through which the experimental condition influenced buying intentions was through moral satisfaction, taste expectations, and taste experience," they conclude.

In addition, the studies demonstrated--as you might expect--that a consumer's preconceived values about ethical food affects their ability to be influenced to believe the food tastes better. Only the experiment's subjects who endorsed altruistic values in the survey derived moral satisfaction from consuming fair trade vs. conventional food, and only people who endorsed environmental values derived moral satisfaction from consuming locally produced vs. imported foods. As a result, only those who expressed those values experienced the affect on taste. The positive effect on taste is grounded in the individual's value system, the researchers write.

What causes the effect? The European research team left that question for future research to answer. But they offered two plausible suggestions: One, the moral superiority ethical eaters experience creates a "halo effect" which makes the food taste better by association. Second, there could be an as-yet not understood neurological effect in which feeling morally superior actually activates the reward centers of the brain, creating a sense of well-being that influences taste.

Why consumers really want to grow their own vegetables

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr's LB544, introduced into the legislature in late January, would allow community organizations to establish community public vegetable gardens on vacant public land. Harr said the measure "would help address food insecurity in communities across the state."

Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, told the legislature's Agriculture Committee it was the state's role to encourage citizens to grow more food locally in order to prevent hunger. “The farther we get away from our food supply, the more food insecure we are,” he said.

But Harr and Rinne's conclusions assume a reality that may not necessarily hold true, according to study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In it, French and Canadian social scientists conducted in-depth interviews of 25 gardeners in Paris and 14 in Montreal working in collective gardens across those cities. The aim of the  questionnaire was to assess how important actually producing food was to the gardeners.

The found that of the 39 gardeners interviewed, 33 did mention the possibility of producing food as one of their motivations. However, only about one-third--14 of the 39--said growing enough food to eat at an affordable price was a motivating factor in working the public gardens. That handful of gardeners who said they considered the public garden economically beneficial said so for one of two reasons:

  • They ate only the produce they grew themselves and learned to live without fruit and vegetables they couldn't raise themselves.
  • They chose to produce the most expensive produce themselves and then to buy the cheaper products in supermarkets.

 More than half of the gardeners interviewed considered that the garden was not economically advantageous, the researchers reported. In fact, some gardeners considered that the vegetables produced at the garden ended up costing more than those bought in shops. It's also noteworthy that although "sharing" the bounty of the public garden with other people was one of the food-related reasons for participating, the check-box on the questionnaire for "food bank"--an option city officials advised the research team should be included because it was a common destination for public-garden produce--went unticked on every respondent's questionnaire.

So why do they garden? In contrast to the production of food, users of the public space to garden cited these "multifunctions," according to the research:

  • It gives them a "social place," where they can meet and interact with people and foster a sense of community.
  • It improves their physical health through physical activity and their mental health by improving self-esteem.
  • It permits them a natural space that makes them feel free of the city's confines. "It’s a consolation for not having a house with a garden," in the words of one respondent.
  • It puts them in more direct contact with nature.
  • It allows them a formalized place to learn and teach.
  • It provides a leisure activity.
  • It improves the city and its landscape--a benefit mentioned only by the public garden's authorities but not by a single citizen who used the garden space.

Although production of food is often rooted within those other functions, the research team noted, in the relatively affluent northern hemisphere, self-production of food doesn't typically have a subsistence function, as it does in the relatively less affluent southern hemisphere, "where food-producing urban agriculture has a very important role in the food supply.’’

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