November 19, 2012

What We’re Reading: HIGH STEAKS Strikes at Heart of Meat-in-Moderation Message

Raychel Santo

Raychel Santo

Sr. Research Program Coordinator

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of interest in reducing meat intake in favor of more plant-based proteins. Most likely, this is happening because of the numerous health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits that this simple lifestyle change can put into place. From the continuous release of new books, reports, and infographics regarding meat consumption, to the increasing awareness of the Meatless Monday campaign, (CLF serves as a scientific resource for the campaign) more and more Americans are embracing the movement for meat moderation.

Yet, despite its progress, we still have a long way to go to ensuring a viable, sustainable, and humane global food system. While meat consumption in the U.S. has slightly declined over the last few years, Americans still eat about twice the global average. And meat consumption worldwide is increasing rapidly, due to population growth and the trend toward high-meat diets in developing countries as incomes rise. Considering the human health toll from too much dietary saturated fat and cholesterol, along with the harmful public health and ecological impacts of industrial animal production… we have ourselves in the midst of a disaster.

In High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat, author Eleanor Boyle addresses these reasons and many more for why America should steer away from industrial meat production in both its policy priorities and consumption habits.

From the beginning, Boyle emphasizes that she is not advocating for complete elimination of animal products from the diet. She thinks they can serve an important role in human diets, and that responsible, small-scale production can be beneficial to ecological systems. The problem, she notes, is that the current levels at which these products are consumed, and the ways in which they are produced, are not sustainable (in all senses of the word).

Thus, Boyle presents a compelling argument for both bottom-up and top-down approaches that will be needed to address the problem of our current unsustainable meat economy. She calls on individuals to consume less meat, and when they do consume it, to commit to paying more for animal products from good quality sources.

On the government side, she urges policymakers to address the true costs of our current food system by removing the unfair advantage large-scale factory farms have been receiving in the forms of price subsidies, overly lenient or non-existent regulations, and corporate influence. Instead, she says, we should support policies that promote truly healthy eating and farming practices.

She also discusses why current producers (she interviewed someone from the industry side itself) should be part of the solution. This is an often overlooked, yet important angle we need to explore if we hope to find a truly comprehensive and attainable solution.

I found her presentation of the complicated dynamics between the messaging of lowering meat consumption and government/institutional policy particularly poignant. Moreover, she offers up convincing talking points for many of the deep-seated questions often posed by critics of the meat reduction message, such as why Americans should reduce their intake when the Chinese are increasing theirs. If anything, a reader could come away from this book with a handful of cocktail-hour one-liners to justify why he or she is skipping the prosciutto tartine in favor of the crudités and hummus instead.

Boyle also rightfully mentions the need to curb not only meat production and consumption, but dairy and fish as well. A lot of advocates seem to stick to the “meat-free” message, and ignore the fact that dairy foods can have just as great (and sometimes worse) health and environmental impacts than meats, while our global fish stocks are facing depletion.

With a simple but effective writing style, a bit of humor (through some unavoidable puns), and a happy medium between academic data and personal anecdotes, Boyle certainly makes her book accessible to the general public. Nevertheless, if there is anything to quibble about, it would be the lack of a clearly defined audience. It is hard to imagine the average American, who is probably not on the lookout for a book about meat consumption, picking it off a shelf at the library or bookstore. While the book carries important messages that should certainly be heard by most Americans, I hope it doesn’t get lost in the growing haystacks of food-related books.

If you’re reading this blogpost now, you are likely someone who is already interested in and knowledgeable about these issues; and while this book is still well worth the read even for experts in the field, I challenge you to share this book with a friend or family member (a perfect gift for the holidays!) who hasn’t yet been reached or convinced by these meat-in-moderation messages. A movement is definitely happening, and this book is an excellent contribution that can and hopefully will motivate its readers (from all walks of life) to join in, take action, and make change.


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