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The Future History of Meat — December 2, 2020

The Future History of Meat

How our attitude to meat will change in the 21st century

Knowing how much Americans love kings and the French, Herbert Hoover looked to Henri IV for inspiration in his 1928 campaign to become president. A chicken for every pot was his promise. And though the electorate would soon revile him as one of the worst presidents in American history, he did go on to be president.

When Henri wanted to signal a change from the religious conflicts that had plagued his predecessors, he promised that every peasant would have meat for their Sunday dinner. His relatively peaceful two-decade reign and policies that benefited the everyday person made him one of France’s most loved kings. Bridging the 16th and 17th centuries, Henri bribed nobles instead of battling them, bringing peace to his war-wracked kingdom. The early revolutionaries of 1789 saw Henri as a model king for their desired constitutional monarchy. At least before it got to the head-chopping off phase.

Si Dieu me prête vie, je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon royaume qui n’ait les moyens d’avoir le dimanche une poule dans son pot! — Henri IV

Despite a gap of centuries, and contrasting popular support, both Henri and Hoover recognised something that united common people across their ages. Meat meant wealth, prosperity and satisfaction.

Economics boasts very few universal predictions. But one fact held fast for centuries. As people got richer, they ate more meat. Hunter-gatherers valued the delicious, calorie-dense meat of the game they killed. There are relatively few such societies left. One is the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Here, hunters bringing back a freshly killed antelope or other prey are insulted and mocked. This is not because they are fiercely vegetarian. Rather, they recognised that the ability to provide meat could raise a person to power and undermine the egalitarianism they prized. Meat is status.

The Roast Beef of Old England

In the stratified world of Britain during the height of its empire, the meat on a family’s table showed what class there were in. Venison, available only to the landed nobility, sat at the top of this hierarchy. Next came beef, belonging to the middling class. Poultry, lamb and pork followed. As expansive deer parks gave way to pastureland, beef became more of a staple. Rearing cattle was an important way to make money. Beef, especially roast beef, quickly became a national symbol of Britain and one of its few culinary treasures.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

In the 18th century, the agricultural revolution boosted yields of livestock and cereals. Through selective breeding animals became larger and fatter. New farming techniques grew enough extra feed to keep whole herds alive during the lean months of winter. In earlier times, pigs and fowl would have been slaughtered on St. Martin’s Day, 11 November, so as not to compete with humans for the winter’s stores.

The agricultural revolution changed all that. It was just in time too, as workers began to leave the land and head to the great industrialising cities of northern England. Not that their diet was great. Meat was still scarce. But it wasn’t as rare as it had been. When there was a joint of beef on the table it was the man of the house who had most of it.

This association between meat and masculinity still exists. The barbecue is often the domain of a man, while quotidian meals are cooked in the female kitchen. Society is moving beyond those traditional roles though. This attitude linking meat to masculinity is being eroded. Just like the one between meat and status.

Beating the Meat

Industrial-scale agriculture began to take hold near the beginning of the 20th century. The mechanisation of tools, the arrival of synthetic fertilisers and the discovery of antibiotics meant that food and animals could be raised in numbers that would have been impossible for earlier farmers. Battery farms caged chickens in the millions. Cattle herds did not have to graze and instead had all fodder delivered to them. This created economies of scale that brought cheap, processed meat to billions. It sparked the emergence of new industries, like fast food.

But the widespread availability of cheap beef, pork and chicken eroded its status. Healthy lifestyles, open to only those with the time and money to afford it, replaced a topside of beef on the dinner table as the marker of the middle class. Education levels are a consistent way to measure class. People who left school before 17 eat 25% more meat than those with university degrees. Obesity, once a mark of wealth and respect, is now an epidemic which is disproportionately harming working-class and poorer people. Driven by the stress of poverty and lacking in time, fast food and ready-made meals are an attractive option for many poorer households. Meat has other issues to contend with too.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Factory farms, with their massive cattle herds, produce a large part of the greenhouse gasses heating up the world. The conditions these creatures are in provokes much-deserved hostility from animal rights campaigners. Chickens in battery farms can live their entire lives in cages smaller than an A4 piece of paper. These squalid and cramped circumstances are a breeding ground for disease. The industrial use of antibiotics is reducing their efficacy, leading to a potential health crisis. Runoff from farms, including manure, pesticides and fertilisers, pollutes many vital water resources.

Meat eaters still defend their position. Humanity was propelled down its evolutionary path by being able to catch, cook and eat meat which freed calories to be used for thinking and socialising. And roast beef, with thick, rich gravy perched on a Yorkshire pudding accompanied by roast potatoes, is delicious.

That roast dinner remains a key part of British culture. One I can wholly buy into. Especially during winter and the second lockdown, I found myself looking forward to a high-welfare piece of beef on a Sunday. It becomes a ritual, an event. A focal point for days that can get too flabby without anything to do outside the kitchen or dining room. It was these roasts, with the full trimmings of course, which got me thinking about how we think and feel about meat. It is a stubborn tradition in a changing world. Plus, a good excuse to drink wine. It is already open for the gravy anyway. The cook’s reward for slaving over the oven.

Roast beef, medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy. — Edna Ferber

The rise of vegetarianism and veganism is a good thing. We cannot afford a planet that feeds its over seven billion people on piles of beef, pork and poultry. Our bodies can’t either.

There is hope for meat-eaters. Lab-grown meat is an innovation nearly ready for the supermarket. Startups are racing to get their cultured meat on people’s tables and in their stomachs. Whoever wins will make a fortune and save the suffering of both animals and the planet. Companies like Mosa Meat, who have already debuted their cultured hamburger, or Israel’s SuperMeat, developing lab-grown chicken meat, might be the future. Today’s celebrated firms, like Impossible Food or Beyond Meat, might be supplanted very soon, their faux meat replaced by actual, though lab-grown, meat.

Meat’s back on the menu

These changes will shift our attitudes toward meat. Heritage and high welfare livestock breeding will return. Land will become cheaper as the commercial herds of cattle disappear, replaced by labs in big cities. Some of it will be used for rewilding efforts, attempts to bring back the biodiversity destroyed by the expansion of agriculture. But there will be space for a slower, older kind of farming. Wagyu and Kobe beef enjoys a distinguished reputation today. Cattle are raised humanely and with high welfare standards. The meat they produce is celebrated. Its luxury status is confirmed by its price. That might be the case for most traditional farms of the future.

Raising old-fashioned breeds of chicken, not designed for the battery farms that supply the pots or KFCs, is a popular pastime for some of Silicon Valley’s winners. Intensive farming may give way to more sustainable methods, increasing the price of meat. It may regain its place as a luxury, a status symbol, once again.

Photo by Tom Robinson on Unsplash

The feasts of history, resplendent with suckling pigs gagged with an apple or the little whole sparrows of Rome, may reappear. Trotters and other currently discarded parts of a butchered creature, evidence of a real, living animal, could become the height of luxury.

As how we grow our food changes, our attitude toward it does too. Lobsters, found in abundance, were once the food of the lowest of the low. Now it is a delicacy, prized for its rarity and price, if not its taste. Turkeys didn’t always rule the roost at Christmas. Goose and beef used to be the central, vital part of any Christmas feast.

Food and meat are the roots of culture. Our attitude toward it may seem permanent, fixed by venerated elders in some distant past. But it is not. As meat moves from the field to the pharma lab, how we feel about what is on our forks and what is says about us will too.