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The Politics of Meat

Source: Flickr.
Source: Flickr.

The Paris Climate Summit has brought about discussion of the various methods to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the importance of this summit in helping reach a global consensus and promoting accountability in minimising global emissions, the issue of livestock and meat consumption has largely been under-addressed.

Meat consumption is currently estimated to represent 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions, making its contributions outweigh all forms of transportation combined. Furthermore, the entire meat production cycle is estimated to contribute around 51% to total global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the clear role that meat plays in climate change, only 21 out of the 120 nations have pledged to reduce livestock emissions and none have pledged to reduce meat consumption. So, why are so many countries overlooking this issue?

Although simple in theory, the political application of such a policy is far more complex. In the US, where animal agribusiness is worth $125 billion, the industry is controlled by a small group of large corporations who hold heavy political influence. The situation is similar in many OECD countries and, as a result, governments perceive that any action taken to reduce meat and dairy consumption will likely result in significant backlash from these corporations. This would not only prevent policies from passing but also potentially taint the career of any politician who attempts to take action.

Moreover, many governments within the OECD are even subsidising animal agribusiness. Livestock is the most subsidised sector of the agriculture industry and beef and dairy, the heaviest emitters, have around $33.3 Billion in direct subsidies from OECD governments. These subsidies have helped to keep the price of meat and dairy unnaturally low while the prices of other foods have inflated over time. The resulting affordability of the meat prices helps to keep its consumption increasing as more families see it as a cost-effective source of nutrition. This trend is predicted to continue with an estimated 76% increase in meat consumption and a 65% increase in dairy consumption by 2050. A report released by Chatham House just before the summit’s commencement has spawned discussions about the introduction of a ‘meat tax’ as a possible solution. The proposed tax will increase the cost of meat and therefore reduce its consumption globally. However, the feasibility of such a policy remains to be seen in the face of a politically strong agriculture industry.

Source: Meat Atlas.
Source: Meat Atlas.

Making the situation more difficult, the public’s perception of meat is largely positive. There is low awareness of livestock’s role in climate change. Furthermore, any association that does exist is perceived as being low compared to other sources because emissions are seen as largely disconnected from the livestock process. The typical images shown are industrialised areas with factories or cars releasing smog, things that are seen as unnatural whereas livestock is associated with the opposite.

Furthermore, meat itself is no longer seen as just a food but has become culturally ingrained as a necessary component of a meal. The cultural significance of meat is even more entrenched for men who, on average, consume twice as much meat as women. In a University of Pennsylvania study, meat was demonstrated to be seen as a male food with hamburgers being assigned male 93.4% of cases and steak 76.3% of cases. More importantly, the study’s respondents perceived male meat eaters to be more masculine than non-meat eaters. They better fit the stereotypical idea of the “strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male”. In this way, meat has become more than food but a symbol of the ideal of strength.

It’s clear that our governments face an uphill battle if they want to reduce meat consumption. Raising awareness and changing public perception are the first of many steps to helping make this possible. With this, alternatives must be available to make this change easy and holistic solutions must be looked at, from changing the food served in public organisations to increasing the focus on meatless options. Lastly, price reform and perhaps the introduction of a meat tax must be addressed so that when we buy meat we fully see the environmental costs we are contributing to. By doing so, we can change the awareness gap that currently exists particularly in the link between meat based diets and climate change. This will help create an environment where political actions by governments will be more readily received and successful.

Yvonne Xu

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