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Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat

by Marta Zaraska

“To publicly make the observation that meat is murder,” writes avowed animal-rights advocate Morrissey in his autobiography, “is, in fact, to claim that the law is wrong. It is also to suggest that all British judges who enjoy hunting and shooting and fishing, and who have personal investments in animal industries, are themselves terrorists.” It is something of a leap, one might argue, to go from decrying the practice of meat eating to equating those who engage in it with terrorists. Though, for Morrissey, this equivalency is nothing short of elementary.

indexPolish-Canadian journalist Marta Zaraska is nowhere near as rabidly evangelical, even if many of her arguments dovetail with those of the singer. Both point out the deleterious effects a meat-based diet can have on human health – eating meat has been linked with higher incidences of cancer, heart disease, osteoperosis, and diabetes – and on the environment. Zaraska quotes a 1992 study stating that “direct health-care costs attributable to meat eating in the U.S. were over $61 billion.” And on the climate-change front, the news is even starker: “Of all greenhouse gasses released by humans,” Zaraska writes, “14.5 per cent comes from livestock. If this number doesn’t seem that large, consider this: it’s about the same as emissions from all of transportation combined.” Today, fully 33 per cent of the planet’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock.

Given the evident problems our rampant addiction to meat eating pose on both an individual and a societal level, what explains our continued refusal to abandon meat as a staple of our western diet? This question forms the heart and soul of Meathooked, a fascinating combination of science writing, anthropology, and food history.

Zaraska describes herself as a “sloppy vegeterian”: she eats fish – out of laziness, she admits – and lives in France, “a country of foie gras and horse steaks.” If she were to abstain from animal meat altogether, she writes, she “would have consumed about half a thousand goat cheese salads” to this point.

Yet, she clearly feels a moral imperative to limit the amount of meat she consumes – an imperative the reader cannot help but share when she describes the horrific ways in which the animals that wind up on our dinner plates are housed and slaughtered. Environmental concerns aside, meat is an industry, and it is subservient to profits, not to any squeamishness on the part of farmers who won’t necessarily care to ensure their animals are comfortable or do not die in excruciating pain. (Though Zaraska does point out that meat farmers have a vested interest in limiting the suffering of their livestock: animals that are overstressed at the time they are killed release adrenaline and other hormones, and so won’t taste as good once they are cooked.)

Even more fascinating is Zaraska’s investigation into what keeps us coming back to meat and meat products: the influence of heredity and culture; meat’s umami taste (the word is derived from the Japanese for “delicious”); and its association with power, masculinity, and sex. “Hunting and eating meat reinforced gender inequality,” Zaraska writes, before quoting activist Carol J. Adams: “Meat eating benefits from objectification in a way similar to sexual violence because you don’t see the other being as a living, breathing individual.” This may be stretching a point, but Zaraska is very strong in describing the cognitive dissonance meat eaters must engage in to continue their habit.

Zaraska does not adopt the tone of a squealing harpy loudly berating meat eaters for their culinary choices. She is not, in other words, Morrissey. And Meathooked is no screed or polemic. It is instead an illuminating look at a food group that too often gets taken for granted in an affluent western context.