Restoring pride in meat

A call to stop using meat as a scapegoat for both climate change and human illness was made by Belgian Professor Frédéric Leroy during his visit to New Zealand.
Thursday, 1 August 2019

Speaking at the Red Meat Sector conference in Christchurch, Professor Leroy, who has a background in microbiology, food science and human and animal well-being at Vrije University Brussels, told delegates that meat has become a "pharmakon", meaning that it is all at the same time a remedy, a poison and a scapegoat.

Meat is a symbolic food, but there are also anxieties surrounding meat to do with animal welfare, body image and environmental issues.

These anxieties are being propagated by mass-media running anti-meat campaigns in a post-truth era where the facts are cherry-picked and headlines are sensationalised – designed to grab attention.

Professor Leroy says global food producers are happy to pick up on the “vegan” trend as an “elegant solution” to growing profits in a saturated global market as it enables them to use cheap materials and charge high prices for their products.

They are able to do this through ultra-processing and by generating a narrative around health benefits and environmental protection.

Professor Leroy drew an analogy with margarine, which was created during the time of Napolean III, as a cheap alternative to butter for the army and lower classes.

It was later marketed as a modern and progressive butter substitute and margarine sales overtook butter.

This same marketing strategy is being used for meat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger with claims that it cooks, looks and tastes like meat, yet it is an ultra-processed product.

This systemic design requires social engineering which includes disguising the change, forming habits in new markets and making certain foods acceptable and unacceptable.

Policy-makers have also jumped on the anti-meat bandwagon as is reflected in call for taxes on meat and a reduction in meat consumption by leading politicians and NGOs.

Professor Leroy doesn’t believe any of this is justified and says the focus on meat in relation to its impact on climate change is drawing attention away from the real issue which is fossil fuels. These are by far the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change.

He says if the whole of the US went vegan it would reduce that country’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 2% and 6% and but would also result in significant nutritional deficiencies.

“The elephant in the room is fossil fuels.”

In Belgium, a single steel factor produces more greenhouse gases than all of agriculture combined and internationally, the cement industry alone contributes 7% of all man-made CO2, while tourism contributes 8%.

The production of pet food has a significant impact, accounting for 25-30% of the environmental impact from animal products.

Professor Leroy builds a strong case for the nutritional benefits of meat and its ability to deliver essential amino acids to the human diet.

Humans have been eating meat for over 1.5 million years and without developing the ability to eat meat, Leroy says humans would not have survived.

Historically, meat made up 68% of a person’s diet, in the US, meat now contributes 38% to the average diet yet there has been a surge in dietary related diseases such as Metabolic Syndrome and diabetes.

In emerging economies, red meat and dairy products are embraced as being beneficial to heart health and longevity.

Professor Leroy admits that from an environmental point of view red meat does have an impact, but so too does the production of plant-based proteins such as avocados in Mexico and almonds in California.

“Stop blaming farmers, livestock and animal sourced feeds and integrate them responsibly as part of the solution instead.”  

He believes the public should view meat with pride.

Culturally and symbolically, meat has no equal and the public has forgotten about that.

“Livestock farmers are working with nature and people don’t get that.

“Meat is fundamentally beneficial.

“We need to communicate that and get the science in behind it.”