As I’m collecting more information and building up my own opinions on food movements, I get really excited when I hear about the ways people are doing things right. It’s easy to critique and to recognize the environmental and social crises that the United States faces, but can be difficult to recognize a successful example of working against food injustice and environmental insecurity on a large scale. So when I was on a road trip to Maine this weekend, driving past McDonalds after Friendly’s after Burger King (just because I’m in a car doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat vegetables!), I started to think about the mass quantities of meat we eat and began to investigate trends in other parts of the world.
A correlation that’s important to address is the rise of meat consumption as a nation grows wealthier. One nation that’s responding to this unfolding crisis in remarkable ways is South Korea. On the one hand, as my Korean friend explained to me, it’s common for restaurants in Korea to give the consumer access to a wealth of information about where their meat comes from. She explained that going out to eat was accompanied by informed decision-making and attempts to raise consciousness about the choice to eat meat—citing fun facts like the farm that the animal was raised on, their diet, and even their name. This may sound like a scene out of “Portlandia” (do I really need to know the name of the cow before I eat it?) but represents a radically different attitude toward meat consumption. In my experiences as a meat-eater, a vegetarian, and a life-long American, it is generally unacceptable within our culture of consumption to think too hard about the fact that your steak once lived. Even acknowledging what tendons and other identifying body parts are taboo and can gross people out. In other countries I’ve visited and eaten in, such as Cambodia, people are happy to eat every and any part of an animal—organs and all. Americans use coded language and a careful set of justifying practices to turn raw slabs of cow flesh into appetizing hamburger dinners.
But Korea is working on more than just mindfulness about meat. Mark Bittman of the New York Times writes that one of the most significant and harmful aspects of the meat industry is the waste that the animals leave behind in mass quantities, and that Korea has been “experimenting with using animal waste to generate electricity” (Bittman, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler”). To me, Korea seems like a model for how to address the economic and sociocultural factors that are propelling the meat industry forward around the world.
And these efforts are certainly needed. The Telegraph reported in October of last year that China’s rate of meat-eating had doubled that of the United States. Doubled. In addition to all of the various ways in which the meat industry affects the United States detrimentally, the situation in China looks even more bleak. James Rice of Tyson farms remarks, “In China, there are 700 million people and there is no room to move them. The faster you move them to the cities, the more you increase pollution, and the more problems you have growing food” (Moore, “China now eats twice as much meat as the United States”). Providing for the rising demand for meat products would involve mass relocation, a level of suffering that we don’t have to face stateside (yet).
Now that meat has established itself as a core part of any meal for most Americans, what could be done to change the way people think about and understand the consequences of their daily bacon? One of the most compelling arguments I’ve encountered was Jonathan Safran Foer’s conviction in Eating Animals that vegetarianism is a “spectrum:” in order to make the idea of having a positive impact on the environment more accessible, one can engage in this arena of food activism by eliminating even one meal of meat a week from one’s diet. This is the dogma that I’ve embraced, my own food philosophy, and I feel I can balance restriction with active citizenship easily. As silly as this sounds, I think introducing more inclusive language and labels is crucial to appealing to the American public—something along the lines of “conscious omnivore” instead of the unfortunately politicized “vegetarian.” One of the most difficult battles in coming years will be fought through education, rather than by governments or corporations, and it’s time to introduce the necessity of cutting back on meat consumption.
Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.” The New York Times 27 January 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?pagewanted=all
Moore, Malcolm. “China now eats twice as much meat as the United States.” The Telegraph 12 October 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9605048/China-now-eats-twice-as-much-meat-as-the-United-States.html
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009