When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) announced the details of her Green New Deal, its mention of the beef industry inspired some of the most ire from her critics. The policy suggests that our government should work with ranchers and farmers to reduce the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a prematurely published FAQ page on her website bore its only mention of emissions from cattle. Nevertheless, politicians and cultural leaders insist on falsely suggesting that AOC and the nebulous political left are coming for your cheeseburgers, months later, using language that mirrors the rhetoric of gun rights advocates. Powerful men in suits hold press conferences in which they eat beef to demonstrate their dedication to personal freedoms and to scare viewers into believing in a vegan Big Brother coming for their refrigerators hoping to ruin cookout season forever.
The meat and dairy industries have successfully branded themselves as an essential part of American culture and lobbied themselves into a crucial part of our politics. Unfortunately, cattle farming is also a source of greenhouse gases, deforestation, and water contamination. We need to discuss how to mitigate the harm the industry does before the damage done to our environment is catastrophic, and we’re too worried about losing millions of homes and lives to have opinions about our access to junk food. That discussion can’t happen while so many people are fear mongering about the animal protein that’s come to represent cultural values. Convictions about what we as a culture and individuals can and should eat are nothing new, but the politics of meat are particularly pointed because they’re aligned along ideological and gendered lines.
Surprising no one, many of the politicians who began this pro-beef crusade are those who represent states whose economies are closely tied to the cattle industry. It’s easy to forget, but farming in America is less a string of green-thumbed families carefully raising small herds of livestock and more a multi-billion dollar industry that produces a lucrative product, thousands of jobs, industry millionaires, and an effective political influence machine.
Recently, NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a citywide version of the Green New Deal that includes reducing the amount of beef bought by the city for its public schools, prisons, and other facilities by half. The cattle industry responded by claiming there is little evidence linking cattle farming to climate change, despite ample research demonstrating causality. For example, cattle farming is estimated to use approximately 15,000 litres of water per kilogram of meat, is linked to severe deforestation and loss of natural resources, and is a significant contributor to the emission of greenhouse gasses.
The meat industry is deeply ingrained in the U.S. Government. Industry groups claim that meat is a nutritious meal, despite even more research to the contrary, and the USDA is unlikely to challenge that, thanks to the influence held by ranchers over the agency. The lobbying organizations that represent the cattle farmers and meat packers of America exude power not through direct donations to influence votes, but through becoming invaluable parts of the legislative and regulatory process. The expertise they provide is decidedly skewed pro-meat. When overworked legislative aids write draft legislation on something they might not know much about, they often rely on organizations to provide information or suggestions; the problem isn’t that they need help understanding niche issues, it’s that the advice given isn’t necessarily impartial. Sometimes, groups will even pre-write bills or sections of regulation for their convenience, and their personally crafted wording might never be changed before it’s made into law.
The politics of meat break along ideological lines because limiting meat production can be framed in the language of government overreach and individual liberties. American conservatism values individual freedom (unless you’re a woman) and rejects public sector solutions, so naturally believes that Americans should be able to eat whatever they want whenever they want and that the government has no right to limit beef production.
The idea of government overreach is central to conservatism, which means that any attempt to reign in an industry, even one that hurts all of us, would be a mistake. Let the market decide, they say. However, the market is simply a collection of individuals making emotionally-driven choices about what to buy based on marketing and intangible traits. If the market were to act purely based on logical cost benefit analyses, the fat and cholesterol found in most processed meat products would make them untenable products. That’s not what happens. Nevertheless, conservative American pundits fight for our right to be manipulated by ads to buy things and call it individual liberty.
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Beef products have also been symbolically linked to masculinity and even patriotism and success, as a melange of marketing and cultural mores socialize us to associate what we eat with who we are. In her 1990 book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams uses intersectional critical theory to explore the relationship between consumption, dominance, and patriarchy. It’s an interesting fusion of theories, though I am less interested in her focus on the ethics of consumption and animal welfare; I’m more interested in sociological, historical, and cultural evidence that makes meat a heuristic shorthand for masculinity. I see a culture war divide connecting meat consumption and toxic masculinity through our language and cultural symbols.
As with “cuck” or “beta-male,” right-wing trolls will call leftist or perceived effeminate men “soy boys,” a reference to the increase of estrogen a soy-based diet can trigger, though I believe this connection only strengthens an already biased cultural assumption, that real men eat meat. In American television, women eating salad while men devour a steak has become a heuristic, comedic reference to performative heteronormative gender expression. The comedy in Ron Swanson’s character in Parks and Recreation, a popular sitcom that ran from 2009 to 2015, is that he is toxic masculinity personified and deconstructed, and a central part of that characterization is his affinity for meat. Meat is associated with hunting, self-sufficiency, action, and conquering nature, all traits typically gendered masculine in traditional Western cultures.
There’s some data to back this up. In a 2018 psychological study, men exhibited stronger implicit association between meat and healthiness (though women also associated meat more often with healthy than unhealthy concepts) and terms of healthiness were defined (in polling, we say ‘operationalized’ or having been given a measurable, constrained definition) using masculine terms such as virile and powerful. While not a direct link between meat and men, it shows a positive correlation between meat products and masculine forms of strength and power.
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This article isn’t meant to make anyone feel any way about what any reader eats, but to bring attention to the cultural significance of this one piece in the fight against climate change. It’s not just about meat production. Billions of dollars, cultural history, and personal identity are all tied up in this issue, and that’s why it’s so easily manipulated. Few would pay attention to a wonk-ish discussion about farming policy, but you can influence a massive population to rally around a non-controversy when yanking at the issues closest to us, individually.
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All images via Unsplash.