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Global Ideas

The unhealthy history of meat and mankind

Eating lots of meat was key to our ancestors evolving into modern man. But, says author Marta Zaraska, our relationship to meat has gone off the rails. In fact, we need to chew it over.

Honestly, how often a week do you eat meat? Your answer depends on where you live of course, and your type of diet. But statistically, people in industrialized nations consume about 80 kilograms of meat per capita each year. By comparison, people in developing nations are relatively frugal, consuming only a little over 30 kilograms of meat each year. But the gap is narrowing. The more developing nations catch up to their industrialized role models, the more global demand for meat rises and there are no signs of this trend abating, even as news spreads that producing meat is not exactly healthy for the environment and that it contributes significantly to climate change. Also: consuming too much protein is bad for our health. Some of us consume twice as much protein as we should, says Marta Zaraska. The science journalist and "kind of vegetarian" has written the book "Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5 Million-Year Obsession With Meat" to analyse our very special relationship with meat, historically and psychologically.

Global Ideas: Humans seem to have a close connection, almost an addiction to meat. Why did you make this connection the topic of your book?

Marta Zaraska: I started as a foreign affairs journalist specializing in Africa and I was writing a lot about things like natural resources, shortages of water, deforestation and conflicts that those things cause. And so in a kind of a natural way my interests drifted towards the scientific side of these issues and environmental problems. As you know, meat is a huge part of that. Many people don't realize it but meat eating is responsible for as much of climate change as all transportation combined. Driving a typical European car for about 500 kilometers has the same climate impact as eating just one hamburger.

meat market in China (Marta Zaraska)

China slaughters 10,000 dogs at Yulin festival but spends also 1,5bln on pet dogs

If we all would stop eating meat, the equivalent of all transportation would disappear overnight.

Over the years I became kind of a vegetarian and tried to find the answer to the question: why are humans so attached to meat eating? Why is it such an important part of our culture? We know that it's not good for us. But a vast majority of people do not want to reduce consumption. When you look at the statistics, meat consumption is even going up all over the world. If you talk to people, they say they just love meat, they say that they have to have it. So why do we have to have it?

Answering that question took me to a vast variety of different scientific fields. It was not just about the taste obviously but also about palaeontology and history, neurobiology, psychology or marketing. It's like a spiderweb, there are different threads connected to each other.

So, what is the reason? Are people addicted, or are they just unteachable?

As far as we know now there's nothing that is addictive in meat the way that nicotine is in tobacco. But there are plenty of good reasons why and I find that the social and cultural reasons are probably stronger than the taste reasons.

When our ancestors started eating meat 2.5 million years ago they didn't have a huge choice of foods to pick from. They were very often hungry and they ate things like grass or some types of fruit or tree leaves. So meat offered them a great package of nutrition, such as vitamins, minerals, abundant protein and fat. Many scientists even say that meat has made us human because it was such a nutritious food that allowed our brains to grow.

So during the evolution our taste buds got attuned to components of meat, for example the umami taste, which signifies generally that food is full of protein, or its fat component as well. There's also a thing called the Maillard reaction - that's something that happens when you grill a burger or fry a piece of bacon - and which creates flavors that we love. Humans evolved to look for those things.

kobe Beef kattle in Japan (Marta zaraska)

It's a myth that in Japan Kobe beef cattle receive massages and beer, according to the official website of Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association


People all around the world eat more meat, that's also the case in developing countries. They even seem to change their diets towards more meat. Is that because of higher income?

The connection between having more money and buying more meat is very straight. There are plenty of reasons for that. Most importantly, over human history meat symbolized wealth. Meat in human history was always something very hard to obtain, something that the rich were eating. Today, there is another layer. For many developing countries, in Asia for example, a meat-based diet symbolizes the West. People are aspiring to that lifestyle.

When I talked to young people in India, for example, they often said that for them, going out for a steak is a symbol that they are moving towards the international global community, away from the traditional villagers in India who had a vegetarian or even vegan diet and so the meat consumption there is skyrocketing.

When we look at our supermarkets, meat is extremely cheap and it's available in huge amounts. Would we have to make meat expensive and precious again to reduce consumption?

Definitely, it's been proposed many times by scientists and thinkers in general that a meat tax would be a very good solution. You know, there is a bit of a paradox here because if meat were to become expensive and rare again, it would also become a status symbol again and we would crave it more. But some countries, Denmark for example, are trying to introduce a meat tax right now.

When I was in Brussels recently I took part in the European Developement Days and we had a session exactly on how to discourage meat eating in the European Union. The European Commission should encourage states to introduce meat taxes which are similar to taxes we already have on alcohol or tobacco. Studies show that when prices pass a certain threshold, people just buy more vegetables.

But I also believe that you need to understand where the meat obsession comes from, and the smell of fried bacon that makes you crave it is the same that's produced by freshly-baked cookies or some toasted bread. If we understand those things, it will be easier for us to reduce consumption.

A double cheeseburger Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A double slab of meat - some of us eat twice as much protein as would be healthy for us.

Why do we distinguish between different animals, in other words, why do we have problems with eating horses or dogs but not with eating pigs?

It's a cultural thing. People don't like to hear it but it doesn't make sense if you're eating chicken or pigs - which are far more intelligent than dogs - while your heart is bleeding for dogs that are killed at that annual chinese dog meat festival. So it's purely cultural why some nations eat some type of animals or not. In Korea for example people do eat dogs, but more Koreans consider it wrong to eat a cow than consider it wrong to eat a dog. It has nothing to do with the question of which species is the smartest or if they are pets. Even in United States people keep dogs both for eating and as pets. The same goes for pigs in Indonesia.

If we look into the future, how will things change over the next 25 years?

I'm really hoping that things will change drastically because it's necessary for our environment. The fact is, if the whole world wanted to eat as much meat as Europeans or Americans do nowadays, it wouldn't be possible. Because if you calculate how much land is being used for meat production already and how many people there are going to be in 2050, we just don't have enough room on earth.

Another thing besides implementing meat taxes that gives me hope is plant based meat, like the Vegetarian Butcher in the Netherlands or Beyond Meat in the US. These foods are really becoming amazing, they are really tasty. People may hopefully want to switch because there's something available that basically taste the same but is made from vegetables.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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