Does meat make the meal?

Rural Australia, not renowned for subtle language, generated a bumper sticker a few years back. “Eat more meat, you bastards!”, it read. “Ten thousand dingoes can't be wrong!”

Crudely put, but the farmers had a point.

However, much vegetarian literature insists that the human digestive system is fundamentally different from that of meat eaters like dingoes.

With their much shorter bowel (for rapid expulsion of putrefying meat), stomachs with up to 10 times as much hydrochloric acid (for processing saturated fats) and sharp elongated canines (for tearing flesh), some animals are supposedly born to eat meat. Humans ,we are told, were created with plant eating in mind.

If this is a rigid law of nature, then we have been breaking it for thousands of years without major physical consequences to ourselves. While there has been some research associating high protein consumption (usually from meat sources) with some cancers, such as that of the colon and pancreas, there is a lack of information about the specific effects of animal as opposed to vegetable protein in this regard. Contrary to some people's view of pathology, meat is not a toxic substance.

On an animal and vegetable continuum, both quantity and quality of protein vary. Soybean flour is over 40% protein but that in fish is more useable by our bodies. Regardless of their fat content, eggs and milk supply protein of the highest quality.

The value of any diet is not a product of preordained categories, but a totality in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is no Chinese wall separating vegetable and animal sources of protein that would warrant the latter's prohibition. Other factors must apply.

One justification for vegetarianism is that it promises to remove the ferocity of human nature. The poet Shelley thought meat eating was “the root of all evil”, and his fellow vegetarian, William Lamb, insisted that if we all “gave up eating meat there would be no more wars.”

This same social logic permeates the modern macrobiotic movement. One of its leaders, Michio Kushi, blames high dependence on meat eating for the increase in violence and family break-ups in the world. The intrinsic qualities of foods are reputed to impact on our emotions. “If you want to paint very sensitive pictures”, he said recently, “you should eat fresh vegetables and fruits. But an aggressive businessman should add some animal fat.”

A similar attitude is shared by some eco-feminists who attribute male aggressiveness to a biological penchant for meat. Unlike men, women as earth mothers should have a natural sensitivity to all living things. For this outlook, the marketing slogan, “Feed the man meat”, says much about gender.

The meat and emotion argument, if valid, not only classifies the personality of individuals by way of their diet, but surely must apply to the collective character of ethnic groups or, indeed, whole nations. Thus Eskimos, with a diet overwhelmingly made up of animal flesh, must be truly savage. In fact, the opposite is the case. In research conducted nine years ago, Eskimos were found to be without anger, for instance. They don't merely suppress it; they apparently don't feel it at all.

The catalyst for the current popularity of vegetarianism is a desire for harmony with the ecological order. While the whole of nature may be one great slaughterhouse, there is an embarrassment about meat eating because it breaks the perfect interconnectedness of all things.

This holistic view rejects a vision of reality centred on humankind. As the T-shirt says: “Animals are my friends. I don't eat my friends.”

But such a code encourages people to close in on themselves and their own bodies. As a purely personal step, it is little more than a righteous gesture. Being meatless and guiltless seems seductively simple while environmental destruction rages around us.

Even among advocates of organic farming, the ecological logic of this is questioned. Bill Mollison, the founder of the complex food system of permaculture, insists that vegetarianism drives animals from the edible landscape so that their contribution to the food chain is lost. For instance, yams, which keep poorly, are stored inside pigs, and today's rotting apples attracting fruit fly are tomorrow's bacon.

But the promise in vegetarianism is that, for many, it is the beginning of a political journey. A new vision takes form in striking simplicity -- global meatlessness. This potential was taken up by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi in their Book of Miso -- a standard text on soy products. “The child wasting in the forgotten village is our child”, they wrote. “Thus do we realize that we are all brothers and sisters. We must bring food. Watch in the years to come how selflessly soybeans offer themselves to help feed a hungry world.”

While it has the potential for misuse, a change in eating habits can be a first step in the rational use of our world's agricultural resources. Viewing the world through food, it suddenly becomes clear that an economic system must be judged upon how it produces and uses its food resources.

This belief in vegetarianism as a political doctrine is the most persuasive of its rationales. Francis Moore Lappé advocates this convincingly in her book, Diet For a Small Planet. Written over 20 years ago, it should be essential reading -- and not only for vegetarians.

“A change in diet is not an answer”, she wrote. “A change in diet is a way of experiencing more of the real world, instead of living in the illusory world created by our current economic system where our food resources are actively reduced and where food is treated as just another commodity on which to make a profit -- a profit on life itself.” Lappé's simple question asks: Why hunger

in a world of plenty?

Lappé is right. You cannot take eating for granted. The single physical act has an immense array of social and individual meanings. Particular objectives (“I am hungry. I want food!”) can change into universal principles (“We all have a right to eat!”) -- principles with the power to move people deeply.

This was written in 19993 and published here

Filed in: ecology, food