Friend or Foe?
The paradox of meat consumption
Yearly about 325 000 000 tonnes of meat are produced across the globe – and livestock supply is expected to increase by another 14% in the next 10 years (OECD/FAO, 2020).
The world’s largest meat producer today is China, – other major players include Europe, the USA, Brazil, Russia, India and Mexico. In terms of Kilogrammes of meat consumed per person, per year, North America ranks on top, followed by the EU.
Despite environmental and health concerns and recent trends towards vegetarian and vegan diets, worldwide meat consumption has risen steadily over the past decades, as higher levels of income and urbanisation favour animal-based proteins in our nutrition. As such, economic and population growth in developing countries will be key drivers of global meat consumption in the near future too (OECD/FAO, 2020).
At the same time, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that over 20% of globally produced meat is lost or wasted, and another 20% of dairy products are discarded every year.
The insatiable craving for meat has been accompanied by numerous scandals around intensive livestock farming, exploitative working conditions inside slaugther houses, unmet sanitary requirements and the consequences of extremely competitively priced meat and dairy.
But this complex of problems is nothing new. Hit earlier by animal disease outbreaks like Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), Avian Influenza (AI) and African swine fever (ASF), the meat industry had to face severe production losses, as well as economic and reputational damage. The current Covid crisis once again spotlights the vulnerable relation between humans and animals (i.e. nature).
The meat paradox
Humans’ relation to animals and eating meat is quite paradoxical: On one hand most of us don’t want animals to suffer, on the other hand most of us like to eat meat. On one hand we treasure some animals as pets and treat them as family, on the other hand we breed and slaugther others, just for the sake of eating steak for dinner. (This is referred to as “meat paradox”).
Because we hold such contradictory attitudes and display inconsistent behaviours with regards to animals, eating meat can be a source of discomfort.
And yet, there’s a simple human way ’round to resolve the unpleasantness of this situation: When we are about to eat animals or have just consumed meat, we trick ourselves by denying animals the capacity to feel pain, emotion and to have mental abilities. In other words, telling yourself that animals are not like us (“dehumanising animals”) is a good strategy to feel less guilty about eating meat. Similarly, we don’t face up with realistic images of farming conditions and slaugthering. Instead we take distance and refuge in idealised pictures as presented on advertising or food packaging and we buy processed food that is completely disconnected from its animal origins.
Animals as friends?
But what happens, when farm animals (pigs, cows, sheep etc) are purposely depicted with human-like attributes and behaviours, capable of befriending with humans and with each other? Are we less ready to consume their meat thereafter?
Two researchers at the LSE, Feiyang Wang and Frédéric Basso, investigated this question with an unusual experiment.
Their line of thinking: Friendship is generally associated with caring for someone – and not with harming them. Interacting with friends involves some form of morality we often lack in our relations with animal beings. So, in principle, regarding farm animals “as friends” should induce ethical behaviour and make us less willing to eat their meat, as you wouldn’t “eat” or “kill” a friend.
The experiment @Mr. Piggy’s
1st: Selected participants (non-vegetarians) get to see a web page describing a piglet café. At Mr. Piggy’s Café customers can play and befriend with cute piglets while enjoying food and drink. At this stage participants are implicitly invited to think of animals “as friends”.
2nd: Participants are randomly assigned to one of two conditions:
(A) the meat condition: participants are informed that the Piglet café serves “pork sausages and smoked bacon rolls” on their menu.
(B) non-meat condition: participants are told that the Piglet café serves “spinach omelete and egg rolls” on their menu.
3rd: Participants are asked whether they would visit this café or a similar restaurant and they rate how enjoyable and pleasurable it would be to eat the food served in that restaurant.
Those who had first received information that they will play with cute piglets at the café and who later found out that the café serves pig meat (condition A) reported lower intentions to go to that place and imagined it to be less enjoyable to eat the food served there – as compared to those who were told that the café serves vegetarian food (condition B).
Make us feel guilty again
This has to do with the fact that when pigs are presented as capable of befriending with humans or with each other, this induces stronger feelings of empathy and of anticipatory guilt in us. And anticipating that you’ll feel guilty later for having harmed the pigs, prompts a negative moral feeling that makes you less willing to buy their meat in the first place. (btw, this does not rely on pigs actually “being like humans” (as in true facts), it suffices to think of them and treat them “as if” they were).
This points again to the power of “anthropomorphising”. Indeed, giving something that’s not human, human attributes or personality induces feelings of guilt that can only be avoided when we make ethical choices and behave prosocially or pro-environmentally (as in wasting less food, consuming less meat).
But, it also shows that re-framing our relation with animals in terms of friendship can change our attitudes towards buying and eating meat – at least in the short run.
Surprisingly, when you try the same experiment on beef, you don’t get the same results: Presenting cows “as friends” doesn’t produce less favourable attitudes towards consuming beef – which leads us back to the meat paradox.
The study authors’ conclusion: Pigs and cows are generally associated with different attributes: While pigs count as highly intelligent, cute and friendly, cows are usually portrayed as stupid and less cute. So visualising them as friends might be somewhat incongruous and less effective. And while we certainly got familiarised with pigs impersonating humans, through books and movies like Animal Farm, and Babe, cows’ potential has yet to be exploited.
Food for thought
Whether dehumanising animals as food or anthropomorphising them as friends: Both extremes reveal that we rarely see animals and nature “just as they are”, when we look at them through a human-centered lens.
Written and published September 2020
List of references I used in this article:
Ahn, H.-K., Kim, H. J., & Aggarwal, P. (2014). Helping fellow beings: Anthropomorphized social
causes and the role of anticipatory guilt. Psychological Science, 25(1), 224–229.
Bastian, B., Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Radke, H. R. M. (2012). Don’t mind meat? The denial
of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
FAO (2015). Food loss and waste facts.
Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Bastian, B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of
moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite, 55(1), 156–159.
OECD/FAO (2019), OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2019-2028, OECD Publishing, Paris.
OECD/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2020), “Meat”, in OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020-2029, OECD Publishing, Paris/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
Wang, F., & Basso, F. (2019). “Animals are friends, not food”: Anthropomorphism leads to less favorable attitudes toward meat consumption by inducing feelings of anticipatory guilt. Appetite, 138, 153-173.