What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?

When it comes to the West’s legacy of conquering by culture, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak or hamburger. So who are we now, as we join other societies in consuming less red meat?

Article by Ligaya Mishan

Meat is primal, or so some of us think: that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a quarter of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. In Australia, red meat consumption has been slipping steadily for two decades. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Diners at some McDonald’s in the United States can now sate their lust for a Quarter Pounder with a vegan McPlant instead. Faux meat products are projected to reach about $113.4 billion in sales in the United States by 2030, according to a recent study by UBS, and Tyson Foods, one of America’s biggest beef packers, has hedged its bets by introducing its own plant-based line.

Even in the stratosphere of the world’s most expensive restaurants, where multiple-course tasting menus often rely on the opulence of a marbled steak as their denouement, a few notable exceptions have abandoned meat within the past year, including the $570-per-person Geranium in Copenhagen (still serving seafood) and the $450-per- person Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan (save for the puzzling persistence of a tenderloin on its private dining room menu through this past December). Could this be the beginning of the end of meat — or at least red meat, with its aura of dominion and glory?

Those who believe humans are born carnivores might scoff. Indeed, archaeological evidence shows that we have been carnivores for longer than we have been fully human. As the French Polish Canadian science journalist Marta Zaraska recounts in “Meathooked” (2016), two million years ago, early hominids in the African savanna were regularly butchering whatever animals they could scavenge, from hedgehogs and warthogs to giraffes, rhinos and now-extinct elephant-anteater beasts.

Yet it wasn’t necessarily human nature to do so. Meat eating was an adaptation, since, as Zaraska points out, we lack the great yawning jaws and bladelike teeth that enable true predators to kill with a bite and then tear raw flesh straight off the bone. To get at that flesh, we had to learn to make weapons and tools, which required using our brains. These in turn grew, a development that some scientists attribute to the influx of calories from animal protein, suggesting that we are who we are — the cunning, cognitively complex humans of today, with our bounty of tens of billions of cortical neurons — because we eat meat. But others credit the discovery of fire and the introduction of cooking, which made it easier and quicker for us to digest meat and plants alike and thus allowed the gastrointestinal tract to shrink, freeing up energy to fuel a bigger brain.

Whatever the cause of our heightened mental prowess, we continued eating meat and getting smarter, more adept with tools and better able to keep ourselves alive. Then, around 12,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors started to herd animals, tend crops and build permanent settlements, or else were displaced by humans who did. Our diet changed. If we narrow our purview to more recent history, from the advent of what we call civilisation in the fourth millennium BCE, the narrative of meat eating shifts.

“For nearly all of humanity’s existence, meat was not a central component of people’s diets,” the American historian Wilson J. Warren writes in “Meat Makes People Powerful” (2018). Far from being essential, for most people around the world, meat has been only occasional, even incidental, to the way we eat: craved and celebrated in certain cultures to be sure, showcased at feasts, but not counted on for daily nourishment. This was true outside of the West well into the 20th century, but even in Europe before the 19th century, the average person subsisted on grains (cakes, ale) that made up close to 80 percent of the diet. The Old English “mete” was just a general word for food.

The rich were different, of course, with the resources to dine as they pleased. And not just royals and aristocrats: in 18th-century England, as incomes rose, an ambitious middle class began to claim some of the same privileges as their supposed betters. The Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm, in a 1748 account of a visit to London, reports, “I do not believe that any Englishman who is his own master has ever eaten a dinner without meat.” The caveat was key. Those not so fortunate as to control their own lives had to make do, as the British poor had done for centuries, with mostly gruel, perhaps enlivened by vegetables, although these were perceived, the late British urban historian Derek Keene has written, “as melancholic and terrestrial and in need of elevation by the addition of butter or oil”.

So meat was both sustenance and symbol. To eat it was to announce one’s mastery of the world. No wonder, then, that the citizens of a newborn nation, one that imagined itself fashioned on freedom and the rejection of Old World hierarchies, should embrace it. “Americans would become the world’s great meat eaters,” the former Librarian of Congress Daniel J Boorstin writes in “The Americans: The Democratic Experience” (1973). And the meat that would come to define Americans was beef: a slab of it, dark striped from the grill but still red at the heart, lush and bleeding, leaking life.

Layers of inside skirt steak beneath a silver serving spoon holding a sirloin tip. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
Layers of inside skirt steak beneath a silver serving spoon holding a sirloin tip. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.

Although the American love of meat has infiltrated almost every corner of the globe (including Australia, the world’s second-largest meat consumer, following the United States), global consumption of meat per capita remains only a third of North America’s. On average, Asians eat a quarter of the meat Americans do; Africans less than a fifth. Outside the West, a number of countries have long-lasting and sophisticated vegetarian traditions, from India — home to nearly 1.4 billion people, of whom 39 per cent identify as vegetarian and another 41 per cent restrict how much meat they eat — to Ethiopia, where more than 40 per cent of the population are Orthodox Christians and the most devout shun both meat and dairy on 250 fasting days a year.

The human response to meat is ambivalent, and not because of any intrinsic deliciousness or lack thereof. What draws us to a food or makes us reject it goes beyond the immediacy of flavour and satiation. In the countries that consume the least meat per capita, religion and food are intimately entwined; the choice to eat meat or not is for many a spiritual one. Only with the pressure of modernity and the encroachment of the West have certain cultures yielded their taboos and embraced meat.

Consider the example of early Japan. In 675 CE, Emperor Tenmu decreed that no-one in the country should eat beef. Cows — along with chickens, horses, dogs and monkeys — became a protected class of animals, released from the fate of becoming fodder for humans. Ostensibly this was done in pursuit of virtue, for in Buddhism, which had come to the country by way of Korea the previous century, animals are recognised as beings, like humans, with sentience and consciousness. And not only like humans: in the cycle of life known as samsara, your consciousness, or that of a loved one, might have once been born in animal form. So forgoing meat was not simply compassion but self-interest. The animal is your sister; the animal is you. There were also practical reasons for spurning beef. Oxen were important draft animals, with their brawn pressed into service to till the land for rice, the foundation of the Japanese diet. (The oxen may have been our brothers, but that didn’t stop us from putting them under the yoke.) There weren’t many of them — cattle use up a lot of resources, implacably devouring hay and requiring pastures to graze — and thus they were too valuable to eat. With the ban, the emperor was able to craftily codify efficient agricultural practices and, in so doing, help give shape and purpose to a nation whose unity was still uncertain. Notably, the law was enforced only from late spring through summer, when people were farming. And wild boar (before the 20th century, domesticated pigs were largely unknown in Japan outside of the southwestern island of Kyushu), deer (which would later be considered sacred in the former capital of Nara) and fish were exempt, their status as prey justified, perhaps, because they lived freely, unlike animals bred as part of one’s household, for whom one was morally responsible — or because Tenmu’s subjects, deprived of meat entirely, might otherwise have rebelled.

In the centuries that followed, the government continued to issue prohibitions on meat, and the Japanese continued to eat it anyway, if not in large amounts, because of a lack of wide-scale livestock rearing. Still, there remained some cultural consensus that meat eating was impure: those who handled dead animals, like tanners and butchers, were stigmatised and assigned a lower social status; when approaching a shop that carried meat, pious passers-by might hold their breath. The trade in animal flesh had something of a clandestine air, with red meat sold under names like fuyu botan (“winter peony”) and obake (“preternatural creature”). To this day, a particular species of wild boar is known as yama-kujira (“mountain whale”), based upon the theory that sea creatures don’t count as meat.

When Westerners started arriving in 1543, they brought with them a relatively blithe attitude toward the consumption of animals. Christianity advocated abstaining from meat only on certain holy days and as an act of personal sacrifice — not to relieve the suffering of animals but to experience suffering oneself, by renouncing a sensual pleasure and denying the desires of the flesh. Within a century, Japan had banned these interlopers, too, and shut off almost all contact with the outside world. But in 1853, the country was forced to come out of seclusion, with an American armada sitting at the mouth of what is today Tokyo Bay. Foreigners, now reluctantly welcomed, expected meat, and enterprising inns served it to them — then threw out the polluted dishes and utensils and stuck their guests with the bill, the Japanese anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney recounts in her 1999 essay “We Eat Each Other’s Food to Nourish Our Body”.

The difference in diet was a difference in worldview. “The discourse on the Japanese self vis-à-vis Westerners as ‘the other’ took the form of rice versus meat,” Ohnuki-Tierney writes in “Rice as Self” (1994). Meanwhile, in the West, similar battle lines were being drawn. “Some peoples, because of their differing conditions, are forced to live almost solely on fish,” the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observes, with seeming mystification, in “The Physiology of Taste” (1825), then pronounces, “These peoples are less brave than others who live on meat.” (He concedes that they might have better longevity.)

But other Westerners feared what they perceived as the eerie stamina and relentlessness of peoples inured to the supposed austerity of a meatless diet. The Indian-born British writer Rudyard Kipling, in his 1899 chronicle of travels through Asia and elsewhere, “From Sea to Sea”, quotes a fictionalised companion who marvels of the locals, “They can live on nothing . . . they will overwhelm the world.” In the United States in 1879, concerns over growing numbers of Chinese immigrant labourers led Senator James G Blaine, Republican of Maine, to declare, “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beer, alongside of a man who can live on rice.” A 1902 pamphlet in favour of Chinese exclusion put it bluntly: “Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?”

At the same time, some Japanese intellectuals were disavowing superstitions against eating meat and lobbying for a change in diet, pointing to Westerners’ physical strength and Japan’s need to compete. Less than two decades after the country opened to the West, Emperor Meiji ordered the imperial kitchen to begin serving beef.

Outside skirt steak draped over a vintage knife. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
Outside skirt steak draped over a vintage knife. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.

Cows are not indigenous to the Americas. Yet the Amazon is burning, set on fire by farmers seeking more land for their cattle, and the United States is the world’s biggest producer of beef, with a projected output of 12.7 million tonnes last year, about a third more than its closest competitor, Brazil, and about $95.5 billion in sales. The beef Americans eat — roughly, per capita, 27 kilograms of it, nearly 300 Big Macs’ worth, last year — is the beef of empire.

The Spanish brought the first cows to the New World in the late 15th century. They were used to power the sugar mills in what was then the West Indies, on plantations that relied on enslaved people for labour. Later, in both North and South America, the sprawl of cattle herds became a means of wresting land from its original inhabitants. “By occupying the vast spaces between population centres, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory,” writes Rosa E Ficek, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico, in her 2019 essay “Cattle, Capital, Colonization”.

For some, that whiff of conquest is a maddening perfume and, arguably, what makes beef so difficult to give up. The so-called tomahawk steak — named after the axe wielded by some North American Indigenous peoples (the word “tomahawk” was adapted from “tamahaac” in Powhatan, an Eastern Algonquian language) — is big enough to feed two and may be splendour or gore, depending on your perspective, redolent of the Old West and a country in the often violent process of becoming. In the decades after the Civil War, a romanticised vision of the cowboy was touted as American values incarnate: a vaguely lawless figure, quick with a gun, and a rugged individualist (even if in reality he was a hired hand, beholden to his boss for about $US40 a month), driving cattle across the plains while hide hunters and settlers massacred the native bison that once grazed there, and displacing Indigenous peoples along the way. Beef is the myth of the American frontier; beef is Manifest Destiny.

It was also the foundation of enormous wealth, and it wasn’t the cowboys who got rich. “It is difficult to turn a living thing into a meal,” the American business historian Roger Horowitz writes in “Putting Meat on the American Table” (2006). “Animals’ bodies resist becoming an expression of our will.” The profit lay in running the meatpacking plants, which were among the first pioneers of the industrial assembly line (and filthy, dangerous places to work, as documented in the American journalist Upton Sinclair’s 1906 social realist novel, “The Jungle”), and the railways, which carried live animals (in appalling conditions) and then, with the development of refrigerated carriages, freshly butchered meat that would eventually wind up in every corner of the country.

It’s impossible to talk about beef without talking about the arc of capitalism: livestock was one of the earliest forms of private property, and in England starting in the 12th century, the demands of grazing led to enclosures of what had once been common lands and the formation of manorial estates, where peasants with no acreage of their own had to toil for wages. Today, the mean hourly wage of an American meat worker is about $20, just over the poverty level to support a family of four, although meat packers are three times more likely than others to suffer serious injuries such as amputations, head trauma and second-degree burns. In the United States, meatpacking plants average about 17 “severe” incidents each month requiring hospitalisation and two amputations a week, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Carol J Adams, the author of the groundbreaking 1990 study “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, has written of the moral dubiousness of transforming “living beings into objects”. She is speaking of animals and their hidden deaths; the workers, and their suffering, are invisible, too. The meat comes to the table, a pound of flesh, carefully stripped of any sign of what it was before.

When it was made public in 1872 that the Emperor Meiji had eaten beef, 10 monks from a particularly ascetic sect devoted to mountain worship tried to storm the Imperial Palace, hoping to persuade the leader to forswear this barbarian custom. They clashed with the imperial guards; five of the monks were shot. Today, Japan produces some of the world’s most expensive cuts of beef, using secret methods that may or may not include feeding the cows beer or olives, giving them massages and generally keeping them calm and happy. Nevertheless, the Japanese eat only about nine kilograms of beef per capita each year, less than half the amount consumed in the United States (and in Australia, too).

Americans themselves eat less beef than they used to, down more than a third from a peak of 43 kilograms per capita in 1976. This is part of an overall trend of eating less meat in the United States (in Australia, beef consumption is dropping — about 41 per cent between 2000 and 2020, according to Thomas Elder Markets — however, Australians are consuming more chicken, resulting in an overall increase in meat eating). Most respondents to America’s 2019 Gallup poll said they were eating less meat for health reasons — as opposed to animal welfare or the damage to the environment from gigatons of greenhouse gases released by cows, or the 45.1 million hectares of forest that vanished between 2001 and 2015, replaced by cow pastures — which suggests that self-interest, rather than compassion, is still the most potent way to get people to change their behaviour.

Even the vegetarian activists of the 19th century often framed their crusade in terms of the ills caused by eating meat — that it turned you savage and put you in thrall to uncontrollable sexual urges, which to some diners may not have sounded so bad. Savagery was just a nuance away from virility, after all. Boorstin recounts that in America’s 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison was lauded for eating a plain-spoken diet of raw beef, untainted even by salt, while his rival, Martin Van Buren, was smeared with the accusation that he preferred hoity-toity delicacies like raspberries and cauliflower. Raspberries lost; beef won. (Harrison ended up dying 31 days into his term.)

The idea that not eating meat is a sacrifice (and possibly un-American) persists in the technological race to create nonmeat alternatives. The Israeli-based Redefine Meat offers ersatz marbled flank steaks, 3D-printed from vegan ingredient cartridges labelled “Alt-Fat”, “Alt-Muscle” and “Alt-Blood”. It takes pains to insist on its website, “We don’t just love meat; we’re obsessed with it,” and promises “the same great meat you know and love, simply better”. Burger King has rolled out plant-based versions of the Whopper, albeit cooked on the same grill as its beef counterparts and daubed with traditional mayo, so not, from a purist’s perspective, truly vegan. In America, Whoppers feature Impossible Burger patties that, in an uncanny valley-like moment, bleed when cut (the Australian version is made with a different, bloodless, patty).

Impossible achieves this simulacrum by deploying haem, a protein present in animal tissues but here derived from plants. (The company tested haem first on rats, which sparked the ire of some animal rights activists, for whom it undermined the burgers’ ethical stance.) Haem adds flavour, but it’s the literalism of the blood that matters, spilling under the teeth with its mineral tang. Unlike the mock meat cooked for centuries in China — lotus root standing in for bones in pseudo pork ribs, crispy layers of tofu skin mimicking the crackle and plush of duck — these fakes aim to provide not just the taste and texture but the cultural freight of the real thing, in “a continuation of meat as symbol”, as the journalist Alicia Kennedy has written. (Her book on the history of plant-based eating in the United States comes out next year.)

It’s as if the only way to get people to stop eating beef is to trick them into thinking they’re still eating it. Nothing has been lost, no sacrifice required. We can save the planet from those greenhouse gases without giving up the carnal pleasure of sinking teeth into what at least feels like animal flesh, rich with fat, its juices roiling. This is how deep it goes, the mythology of the open range and conquest, with the trickle of blood on the plate to reassure us that our own runs red. “To himself, the meat eater seems to be eating life,” the British philosopher Mary Midgley writes in “Animals and Why They Matter” (1983). For what does a bloody steak or burger invoke but something wounded, dominated, brought to its knees? Only now the diner need never wonder what, or who, that might be.

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 39, named “The End of Beef”.