WASHINGTON: Humans have been eating meat since the prehistoric age, consuming ever more of it as time has worn on. Over the past 50 years alone, we have quadrupled global production to roughly 350 million tons annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). And the trend shows no sign of abating. Current predictions suggest we will be producing up to 455 million tons a year by 2050. Scientists have long raised concerns about the environmental impact of this love affair, particularly with regard to industrially farmed animals, and have deemed it an “inefficient” food source, on the basis that it requires more energy, water and land to produce than other things we eat.
A study on the impact of farming for instance found beef production is responsible for six times more greenhouse gas emissions and requires 36 times more land compared to the production of plant protein, such as peas.
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet, the study concludes.
Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%. What’s more, 60% of global biodiversity loss is caused by meat-based diets, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sources.
Yet, many of us continue to eat meat regardless. Benjamin Buttlar, a social psychologist from the University of Trier, Germany, attributes this to habit, culture and perceived needs.
“I think a lot of people just enjoy the taste. And the other thing is the identity part of eating. Many traditional cuisines revolve around certain meat dishes,” he said, adding that the habitual nature of eating animals means we often don’t even question what we are doing.
“And most of the time, these habits prevent us from thinking that meat consumption is actually bad because it’s just something that we do all the time,” he said.
Then there’s the fact that because what we are eating doesn’t remind us of an animal or the suffering it has gone through on the way to the plate, we are able to dissociate more easily.
Yet when confronted with a different perspective, whether in talking to a vegetarian or a vegan or watching a documentary about animal welfare, Buttlar says we might feel a need to justify ourselves, for example, by saying humans have always eaten meat.
Research shows that justifying eating meat as a natural, normal and necessary part of our diet is something that’s more typical for males.
“You see this in the trends of food,” Buttlar explained.
“There are a lot more young females and fewer men who are becoming vegetarian because it’s still a masculine stereotype that men eat meat. And this goes back to the idea of strong men hunting and evolutionary misconceptions around meat consumption.”
Scientists long believed that eating meat helped our ancestors develop more human-like body shapes and that eating meat and bone marrow gave the Homo Erectus the energy it needed to form and feed a larger brain around 2 million years ago.
But a recent study questioned the importance of meat consumption in our evolution.
The study authors argued that while the archaeological evidence for meat consumption increases in step with the appearance of H. erectus, this could also be explained by the greater attention given to the time period. Or, put another way, a sampling bias.
The more paleontologists went looking for archaeological evidence of butchered bones, the more they found it.
As a result, the increase in bones seen during this time is not necessarily evidence of an explosion in meat eating, the authors wrote.