Food has been an essential component of cultural identity for as long as humans have walked the Earth. One’s geographical location, religion, ethnicity, economic status and family traditions all shape how we think about food. These factors determine the food environment in which we grow up, how we eat as adults and how we raise our children to think about food. What we eat, where we get it, who prepares it, when we eat it and who we share it with all shape us as individuals and as a society. However, it may now be time to rethink some of our food traditions and how they impact others and the world we share.
Meat, in particular, plays a prominent role in many cultures. For example, the dietary guidelines in a traditional Jewish Kosher diet restrict what meat and dairy products can be consumed, and in what combination for spiritual health. Other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which have a doctrine of nonviolence, often observe abstinence from meat. Holiday traditions often center around meat, such as eating lamb for Eid El Kabir and turkey on Thanksgiving Day. We often experience a sense of belonging in community groups that share food. Whether it is a neighborhood barbeque, family meal, or formal catered event, social gatherings commonly include sharing a meat-based meal.
The types of foods deemed acceptable within a culture vary significantly by geographic location. For example, in the US most people consider eating cats and dogs unthinkable, and it became illegal in 2018 due to a bipartisan congressional bill. Many other countries have passed similar laws. However, what we consider pets in the US are still considered food in other territories.
Growing knowledge about animal-based food, its production method and its impact on human and planetary health have caused many people to adopt a more plant-rich diet in recent years. It is becoming increasingly well-known that conditions in concentrated animal feedings operations (CAFOs) are unsanitary and inhumane. What we don’t hear so much about are the conditions in which the employees at CAFOs and meat processing plants work daily. According to Food in Canada, the meat processing industry has one of the highest injury rates among all manufacturing industries. Workers in these facilities must repeat the same motions thousands of times daily, frequently leading to repetitive-strain injuries, chronic pain, numbness, cuts, lacerations, and permanent nerve damage. Conditions are made worse by the unreasonable expectations placed on an often-undersized workforce resulting in some workers performing up to 24,000 knife cuts and lifting 15 tons of meat every day. Slips and falls in the facilities’ wet and humid conditions are also common, as well as illnesses due to exposure to hazardous chemicals, dust and animal waste particles. These workers are also at high risk of developing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
COVID-19 worsened the situation due to crowded conditions experienced by employees forced to continue working during the pandemic. A 2021 US House Select Subcommittee report stated that 59,000 workers at the five biggest meat-packing plants tested positive for COVID and that at least 269 died from it. Moreover, most of these workers are paid minimum wage, which keeps them close to the poverty line.
Employees of the meat industry are not the only ones suffering from the meat production process. Studies show that lower-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture. The lower cost of land and the less restrictive regulations on emissions due to diminished political power and resources in these areas make them targets for the placement of factory farms and processing plants. For example, in North Carolina, the number of pigs living in factory farms is close to the total number of humans. The associated nitrate contamination of groundwater has caused health problems for those nearby, including blue baby syndrome, a condition in which a baby’s skin turns blue from inadequate oxygen in their blood, often leading to death. In addition, air pollution from the spraying of faecal matter-filled lagoon water can lead to severe respiratory illnesses. Due to their location, low-income Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are almost twice as likely to experience health issues due to living within three miles of a pig farm.
Dairy farms cause similar health hazards for those living nearby. In Tulare County, California, where 65% of the residents are Latinx, a drinking water crisis was caused by nitrate runoff from dairy farms. Residents have been severely affected. The rate of miscarriages is double the average for the state. To add insult to injury, residents pay three times as much as those in other areas for water that is unfit to drink.
If our current food system has so many problems for the health of our society and planet, you would at least expect it to be efficient at feeding the global population. Sadly, that is not the case. Nearly half the people on Earth are malnourished, yet populations continue to grow. The consumption of meat and dairy products is growing, and it cannot continue to do so. Livestock currently takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land yet only produces approximately 20% of the world’s supply of calories. This is due to the “feed-to-calorie ratio.” For example, feeding 2,000 calories of grain to a cow only results in 60 calories of beef, a loss of 97% of calories, according to Environmental Research Letters. Research suggests that it is possible to feed everyone a nutritious diet on existing croplands, but only if we see a widespread shift towards a plant-based diet.
While systematic changes are needed to address these issues, individual behavior changes can also have an impact. According to World in Data, if everyone moved to a plant-based diet we could reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%. The rule of supply and demand tells us that diminishing demand for meat products will result in a decrease in meat production. These injustices cannot be addressed from the top down only; it takes all of us “voting” with our dollars to make impactful changes.
To resolve the cultural issue around traditionally accepted foods we need to change our own food choices plus create an environment where others feel it is acceptable to do so. This means ensuring that family holiday meals are meat-free or have plant-based options. It means adding veggie burgers to the grill and removing the pressure to eat what everyone else is eating. Food service professionals and event coordinators can make tasty and visually appealing plant-centered dishes a regular part of their offerings. The point is to make it clear that eating meat is not required to be socially accepted and participate in traditions. The world needs change, and it is everyone’s responsibility to act to support that change. Together we can right the wrongs and move forward to a more equitable food system.
by Karyn Knox, Chief Development and Partnerships Officer at the Educated Choices Program, a non-profit that provides free science-based education on the impact of food choices and the food system on human and planetary health.