Across the river from my house, surrounded by a wire fence is a brick building with a flat roof. Whenever I go running, I cross the bridge and pass alongside it. My route runs alongside the building for about twenty or thirty meters, before the road turns away and the fence disappears behind bushes. Sometimes I see white vans waiting outside a large door with roller shutters. The shutters are always down.
In February 2019, a joint EAT-Lancet Commission published a report in which they put forward a new global diet aimed at ensuring both healthy nutrition and sustainable food production systems. The report was the result of 2 years of collaboration between 37 experts from 16 countries informed by disciplines including health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, and economic and political governance (Lucas & Horton, 386). The commission tackled two problems: unhealthy diets and climate change. Over the last fifty years, poor diets across the globe continue to contribute to poor health, chronic conditions, and low life expectancy (Willett et al, 449). As the report states, “more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low quality diets” meaning that “unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined” (Willett et al, 447). Across the same fifty-year period in which global diets have become less healthy, food production systems have become a driving force behind climate change. “Increasing evidence”, the report states, “shows that food production is the largest cause of environmental change” (Willett et al, 461). More specifically, the report highlights how food production occupies 40% of global land, produces 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of all freshwater (Willett et al, 449). The report avoids a wider examination of the politics and economics that have provided the historical context to this fifty-year descent into unhealthy eating and an even less healthy planet. Instead, having argued that “diets inextricably link human health to environmental sustainability” the EAT-Lancet report looks forward, outlining a new “win-win” diet that is both sustainable and healthy (Willett et al, 447). Naturally, the diet they propose does just this, even if the report acknowledges that it will require a “Great Food Transformation” on a scale that has never been attempted let alone achieved before (Willett et al, 448). The message is theoretically simple: change our diets and we can save the planet and ourselves.
The report’s publication was widely discussed in the press. Commentary tended to focus on one particular aspect: the fact that the EAT-Lancet Commission proposed an almost entirely plant-based diet, with minimal levels of animal products and almost no red meat (beef, pork or lamb).
Our universal healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables. (485, Lancet)
In radically reducing animal products, the report claimed to be following scientific evidence from both a dietary and planetary perspective. The report highlights studies which show that the consumption of processed red meat in particular was associated with ill-health and early mortality, while diets traditionally low in red meat, such as the Mediterranean diet, were “associated with exceptional longevity” (Willett et al, 455). In terms of the environment, meat fares no better. Animal source food, the report states, “puts pressure on land use, increases greenhouse-gas emissions and, if the animals are grain fed, are water intensive” (Willett et al, 480). Industrial farming is particularly damaging, with “intensive meat production (…) on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change” (Lucas & Horton, 387). The report concludes that “studies show a diet including more plant-based foods than animal source foods would confer environmental benefits and improved health [sic]” (Willett et al, 470). It thus recommends a 50% reduction in the consumption of red meat (Lucas & Horton, 386) and a “shift towards a dietary pattern emphasising whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes without necessarily becoming a strict vegan” (Willett et al, 455). This was the meat-free message that accompanied the report’s publication, with headlines such as The Guardian’s “New Plant-Focused Diet would ‘transform’ planet’s future” briefly ricocheting around browsers and newsfeeds. What I want to consider here is not the dietary or even the environmental merits of a meat-free diet. Instead I want to consider the EAT-Lancet report’s call for a “Great Food Transformation” in relation to a longer history of concern about dietary and planetary health – and in so doing to think a little more about the unassuming building across the river from my house.
Reading the EAT-Lancet report and responses to it, it is easy to get the impression that such wholesale challenges to the consumption of animal products is a radical transformation. Many of the reports suggest that a plant-based diet would mark new terrain for the human species, a mark of adaption in the face of an environmental crisis. Only now that humans have become conscious of the damage meat consumption is doing to themselves and the planet do calls for a change in human diet emerge. In their work, The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz unpack a very similar sentiment. They argue that the official narrative of an environmental awakening, in which humans blithely and unknowingly damaged the planet for centuries before suddenly discovering their environmental impact in the mid-twentieth century is a “fable” (Bonneuil & Fressoz, XIII). As they put it: “The opposition between a blind past and a clear-sighted present, besides being historically false, depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene” (Bonneuil & Fressoz, XIII). In the course of their effort to unpick this narrative, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that the Anthropocene must by definition also be an Agnotocene. They turn to the notion of “Agnotology” – the study of the production of zones of ignorance – to argue that “the history of the Anthropocene is not one of a frenetic modernism that transforms the world while ignorant of nature, but rather a scientific and political production of a modernizing unconscious” (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 198-199). Throughout modernity, they argue, people have been fully conscious of human impact on the environment. To arrive at the Anthropocene is to actively participate in a project of forgetting this long history of “environmental reflexivity” (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 78-79). Bonneuil and Fressoz make a challenging but important point. Within the official narrative of environmental awakening is an assumption of our own “excellence” today and the ignorance of those humans who have gone before us. To do so, not only assumes that we have unique access to the solutions for the planet’s future, but also places the blame for the planet’s ill-health on those in the past whose ignorance has got us into this mess. For the remainder of this piece I want to apply Bonneuil & Fressoz’s critique of the Anthropocene in general to the EAT-Lancet report’s implicit conclusions about the meat industry. I hope to briefly sketch a piecemeal collection of the histories that might have been occluded in the development of industrial farming and think a little more about what might be inside the building across the river from where I live.
Humans require protein to build and repair body tissue. Without protein humans wouldn’t grow from zygote to infant, from infant to child, and child to adult. Similarly, without the capacity to repair body tissue adult life would be short. The role of protein is so central to human well-being that the source of protein is commonly used to define diets: omnivore, pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan (Willett et al, 454). Yet, while the EAT-Lancet report admits that animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources (Willett et al, 454), it has little interest in any other rationale for seeking out alternative protein sources other than the current “sudden” climate crisis. The most cursory glance at history, however, suggests that human beings have been thinking about where they get their protein from for many years. In fact, the historian Keith Thomas has detected a rise of moral questions over eating meat in the early modern period – a period cited by some as the start date for the Anthropocene.
For the most part the medieval world understood that “every animal was (…) intended to serve some human purpose” (Thomas, 19). Yet, within this purview moral objections to eating meat were not absent. The notion that man had originally been vegetarian only to be corrupted by eating flesh was ancient and worldwide in origin. Christian thinkers located man’s omnivorous turn either at the Fall or following the flood; vegetarianism was expressed in Greek, Roman and other pagan literature, for which voluntary abstinence from meat symbolized the triumph of spirit over the body. In the medieval period, then, many people actively abstained from eating meat, and many more simply could not afford to. In the mid-seventeenth century, around the onset of the agricultural revolution and the rise in more intensive farming practices such as selective breeding aimed at securing greater profits, a new opposition to meat-eating emerged. In 1657, for instance, Thomas Tyron gave up meat and fish and even refused to wear leather because he opposed “killing and oppressing his fellow creatures” (Thomas, 291). By the late eighteenth century man’s right to kill animals for food was being widely debated. Similarly, the notion that eating meat was both physically and spiritually unhealthy was circulating over three hundred years before the EAT-Lancet report was published. In 1780, for instance, the philosopher Adam Ferguson was restored to health by following what was termed a “Pythagorean course of diet” – named after the Greek philosopher who abstained from all animal products (Thomas, 292). There was also a growing disgust at the practice of killing animals for food. John Foxe declared in 1548 that “I can scarce pass the shambles where beasts are slaughtered, but that my mind recoils with a feeling of pain” (Thomas, 293). Butchers were regarded with suspicion “not just because of the noise, smell, blood and pollution which their activities involved, but also because of the widespread aversion to the act of slaughter itself” (Thomas, 294). Disgust spread beyond the narrow purview of vegetarians to the wider public. Civic authorities sought to control the slaughter of animals in public places and drive the shambles beyond the town walls altogether (Thomas, 294). Keith Thomas thus argues that
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, therefore, all the arguments which were to sustain modern vegetarianism were in circulation (…) Not only did the slaughter of animals have a brutalizing effect upon the human character, but the consumption of red meat was bad for health; it was physiologically unnatural; it made men cruel and ferocious; and it inflicted untold suffering upon man’s fellow creatures. (Thomas, 295)
Moreover, there were a growing number of sentimentalists who, while happy to eat meat, were unwilling or unable to kill animals. In 1714, Mandeville stated that “there were now many meat-eaters who would themselves be reluctant to wring a chicken’s neck” (Thomas, 299). Similarly, where it had been customary to serve meat (pigs, claves, hares and rabbits) with the head attached, “around the end of the eighteenth century there seems to have been a growing tendency to conceal the slaughtered creature’s more recognisable features” (Thomas, 300). As Thomas concludes, “Killing animals for food was now an activity about which an increasing number of people felt furtive or uneasy. The concealment of slaughter houses from the public eye had become a necessary device to avoid too blatant a clash between material facts and private sensibilities” (Thomas, 300). Intriguingly, Thomas connects the embarrassment over meat-eating and disgust at slaughter to a wider shift in attitudes towards nature. By the end of the eighteenth century, a “growing number of people had come to find man’s ascendancy over nature increasingly abhorrent to their moral and aesthetic sensibilities” (Thomas, 300). It is notable that the moment at which questions over man’s place within nature arose and the question of the right to kill animals was raised coincides with the development of more intensive farming practices necessary to support urban populations. Whether or not people turned to animal products as the source of their protein, throughout the early modern period there developed an uneasiness around the realities of killing animals for food.
By the nineteenth century, uneasiness had transformed into disgust. For the novelist Thomas Hardy human reactions to the slaughter of animals for meat were so profound as to provide a rich basis for the construction of character. This is most evident in a passage from Jude the Obscure. Shortly after Jude’s hurried and ill-advised marriage to Arabella, the time comes to kill the pigs that they have fattened in the sty. Slaughter is presented as a matter of pragmatism: they plan to butcher the pigs in the morning so that Jude can still go to work. But snow has fallen overnight and the “pig-killer” fails to show up at the appointed hour. Jude says they must put the killing off, but Arabella insists on proceeding, explaining that the pig has not been fed since the previous morning in preparation. It turns out that Arabella knows a great deal more than Jude about the butchering of pigs. For instance, she knows that you must starve the pig for two days before slaughter “to save bother with the innards” (Hardy, 84). With no one to help them, the young couple decides to go ahead with the slaughter themselves and the differences between their characters become more apparent. As a man, Jude insists he must do the killing, but as he looks at the animal in the sty, sentiment stirs within him: “Upon my soul”, he declares, “I would sooner have gone without the pig than have to do this (…) A creature I have fed with my own hands” (Hardy, 84). Sharing none of his sentiments and worried about time Arabella tells him not to be a “tender-hearted fool” and indicates which knife to use. When it comes to the slaughter itself, Jude suggests it best to “make short work of it” to reduce the pig’s suffering, but Arabella is having none of it: “You must not!” she cries. “The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that’s all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps on bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying at least” (Hardy, 84-85). Jude is not convinced. He ends up cutting deep and killing the animal swiftly. In so doing he defies Arabella’s instructions. When the pig’s crying distresses Jude, Arabella simply takes the knife and silences the animal by cutting the windpipe. Where Jude is sentimental, Arabella is pragmatic. “It is a hateful business”, Jude declares at the end. “Pigs must be killed” Arabella replies. The marriage does not last.
Following the breakdown of his marriage to Arabella, Jude leaves the countryside and moves to the city of Christminster. While his fortunes remained elusive, in an urban environment he was removed from the spectacle of animal slaughter. Urbanisation took the practice of slaughtering animals even further from the public consciousness, as diets still included meat and demand for consumption went up. In 1949, Georges Franju wrote and directed a short film entitled Le Sang des bêtes. The film opens with scenes of urban life: children playing, a man smoking, women hanging out laundry, a couple kissing. There are shots of trains, cars and trucks. Buildings. Chimneys. Eventually the camera pans inside one of the buildings into the Emile Decroix abattoir. The viewer follows a horse into the slaughterhouse where it is rapidly killed, crumpling to its knees as the metal bar is slammed into its brow. The contrast Franju sets up between the seemingly innocent scenes of urban life and the series of animals being slaughtered continues throughout the film. Occasionally the passage of animals through the urban space is made clear: cows crossing a bridge, sheep massing in a yard. The interruption, though, is only brief. The scenes of slaughter are graphic and unflinching. In line with the practice advocated by Arabella, many of the animals are bled, often strapped to wooden benches to allow the butchers to process the vast numbers of animals that must be killed. Compared to Hardy’s depiction of the butchering of a pig, the slaughter is at a much larger scale. Just as the urban space has expanded and grown, so too has the volume of animals that must be cut, bled and butchered. Yet, as Franju’s film makes clear, such scenes are at a remove from the day-to-day existence of urban life. Indeed, Franju explained that he himself took the decision to make the film in black and white: “It if were in colour, it’d be repulsive (…) the sensation people get would be a physical one” (Wikipedia).
Across this cursory examination of history, then, two immediate conclusions emerge. Firstly, that the moral question of killing animals for food has been raised for several centuries. Secondly, that as the scale of slaughter grew there was a growing disgust at the slaughter of animals across the human population, slaughterhouses were moved out of towns and cities or concealed behind blank exteriors. I can’t quite recall at what point I realized that the unassuming brick building across the river from my house was an abattoir, but still, after several years of running past it, I have yet to see a single animal arrive or a single piece of meat leave. The vans reverse up to the shuttered doors, sometimes empty boxes are visible in stacks under the eaves. There is no sign on the door or name on the fence. The only indication of what takes place in there are a few line-drawings of different animals that have been stuck to the sides of one of the newer vans.
Considering the longer history of attitudes towards eating meat was perhaps not part of the EAT-Lancet report’s remit. Yet, what I have tried to demonstrate in this whistle-stop tour through four centuries is that not considering these longer histories involves risks. Following Bonneuil and Fressoz, the narrative of the “Great Food Transformation” risks privileging today’s insight and crediting today’s solutions as being superior to actions in the past. More importantly, it risks overlooking the longstanding practices by which humans have been detached from the processes that have led to the Anthropocene epoch, be they burning fossil fuels or eating meat. To combat the twin problems of poor diet and pained planet – whether that involves a “Great Food Transformation” or not – we might need to think a little more about the single-storey buildings that sit across from rivers, about what happens there and why we don’t know.