In the light of the ongoing dialogue about climate change, the United States’ rate of meat consumption has been a point of contention. According to a Dec. 1, 2016 MarketWatch article, research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that Americans are among the highest consumers of meat per capita in the world, consuming, on average, 193 pounds of beef, pork, chicken and lamb a year. For a decade or so, scientists have studied the effects of meat production and consumption on things ranging from climate change to human health. Regarding climate change, a July 2009 study by Dutch scientists concluded that the meat production industry accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gases and 80 percent of total anthropogenic land use. Research from Harvard Medical School regarding the health benefits of reduced meat consumption shows that vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fats and cholesterol and consume more beneficial nutrients like vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid  and magnesium. Thus, the findings of such research tend to indicate that a general reduction in red meat consumption is better for not only the environment but for personal health as well.

Certain entities like the media, animal-rights activists and climate activists passionately encourage citizens to decrease  meat consumption.  In many of their campaigns, responsible consumers are urged to decrease meat consumption or  lead entirely meatless diets. With endorsement from celebrities like Beyoncé, plant based eating has experienced a surge in popularity. According to Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017, six percent of the U.S. now identifies as vegan, as opposed to one percent in 2014. However, these campaigns often use shaming tactics to try to change people’s minds. A result of the popularity of “veganism” is the phenomenon where its practitioners shame the diets of non-practitioners. A July 14, 2017 Huffington Post article related an incident in which a group of vegan activists confronted a family fishing for tilapia, exclaiming, “Fish feel pain, just like us.” In another 2016 incident, protesters stormed into a Berkeley, California restaurant and disrupted a dinner service. The restaurant was chosen as part of the protestors’ campaign “to peacefully speak out in stores and restaurants that serve products from animals killed for food about violence against animals on farms across the United States,” according to a Sept. 11, 2016 Berkeleyside article. Perhaps an even more psychologically problematic approach to inspire avoidance of meat-heavy diets is the production of very harrowing documentaries that depict the ill treatment of animals in various meat and dairy industries, such as “Food Inc.” and “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” These documentaries do indeed depict the truth behind the production of meat. However, in convincing audiences to take action against ill treatment of animals, their main mechanism is to shock and burden viewers with guilt. 

The problem with these approaches to reducing meat consumption is that they ignore a number of nuances, from the results we’re trying to achieve with eventual meat-consumption reduction to the different relationships that individuals have with meat. As it stands, this broad and vaguely shaming clarion call by animal-rights activists and climate activists alike may risk retrograding what should be a noble, global effort. 

The main problem with the arguments of animal-rights activists is that rarely do they provide sustainable solutions to what exactly should happen to animals domesticated and/or slaughtered for meat or dairy. As is, most chickens and turkeys in the production cycle have been genetically modified so that their bodies cannot live very long, according to the Aussie Farms Repository. Furthermore, it is important to understand that they live only to satisfy the market demand for meat. This means that if there were to be a sudden decline in the need for meat — because, say, a significant number of individuals turned vegan — the animals that exist today would simply be killed, as they can’t sustain themselves without human aid. On a larger timescale, it is important to consider the idea of artificial selection. Charles Darwin, widely known for his contributions to the theory of evolution, touches on the effect of artificial selection on animals in his landmark book, “On the Origin of Species.” What Darwin illuminated almost two centuries ago was that humans have modified domestic animals so much that it is virtually impossible for them to return to the wild. The genes of these animals code for domestication. This means that if one were to walk into a chicken factory and free all the chickens, they would simply waddle and cluck their way back to the factory. Given such a predicament, what are we going to do with species of domesticated animals if we do reduce meat consumption? Does it mean that species of animals that are the most environmentally taxing will eventually become extinct?

Another starting point for discussion is that, in the United States, there could never be a 100-percent reduction in meat consumption. Culturally speaking, this country is too varied to make a decision like this; ever since the U.S.’s inception, many nationalities, religions and cultures have immigrated here, and in doing so, they have brought with them different attitudes toward meat consumption. It can be argued that such attitudes toward meat are so ingrained in their lives that they are inherently part of their cultures. 

Similarly, some could argue that they rear and slaughter their own animals, and hence do not contribute to the industrialization of meat production. Such a practice is common in places like rural Zimbabwe, in Sub-Saharan Africa. The animals there have expansive pastures where they feed, ruminate and interact the whole year. They are only kept in pens at night to protect them from carnivores like hyenas and leopards. Moreover, slaughtering them for meat is a luxury: Cows are slaughtered for beef only at events like funerals and weddings. What arguments, then, can convince an individual who knows no other life? 

Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with consuming meat. Humans — despite being vastly more intelligent — are animals, and hence part of any ecosystem, too. Killing between different species is a natural aspect of the natural world. This is what has helped our ancestors evolve for us to become as complex and well-adapted to our world as we are. That said, there is indeed a gross problem with our meat consumption today. The industrialization of food production engenders many ethical and environmental concerns. Therein lie all the problems that contribute to ill treatment of animals, poor human health and, indeed, capitalism. We are killing more animals than we need and we are growing rather unnecessary tastes, and this ends up in a cycle where industries manipulate that demand as they emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and keep animals in cages.