Are You What You Eat?
There is a great deal that animal advocates would like to change about how humans relate to other animals. The harms are so egregious and so unnecessary, and the solutions seem so obvious; people eat animals because they like the taste, and they need to stop because it is cruel. We’ll spare ourselves a lot of frustration with our fellow humans if we recognize that the motivations for their dietary choices go beyond mere gustatory pleasure. Each person likely has multifaceted, possibly conflicting factors that go into their dietary decisions, and they shape not just their eating experiences but their very identities. If we want to change people’s eating habits, we must first seek a deep understanding of the forces that shape their eating habits.
This study of cow meat (‘beef’) consumption in India provides an excellent illustration of these sorts of diet-influencing forces. The author interviewed inhabitants of Bethany, a largely Christian leprosy colony, about their practices, attitudes, and observations about eating cow meat.
In India, especially the northern regions, Hinduism is widely practised. In Hinduism, cows enjoy a protected status and are typically not eaten by higher castes. This has led to a simplistic characterization of the decision of Indians to eat or abstain from beef as obeying or disobeying a ritual prohibition. Right away this strict dichotomy runs into the problem of India’s religious diversity, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and others. Beyond religion, there are many deep-seated influences that factor into whether or not a person chooses to eat beef.
Practices surrounding beef can be closely tied to Indians’ identities. Abstaining from it can be an affirmation of Hindu belief and identity, while eating it is central to some Indian Christian traditions and commonly anchors Sunday dinners and other celebrations. Avoiding cow meat can signal membership in the empowered nationalist majority, while those outside this group may eat beef as a form of protest against current power dynamics. Young people may choose to eat beef to demonstrate their embrace of modernity, rejecting the beefless diet of their more traditional parents. Avoiding cow meat can preserve the status of members of higher castes and allow members of lower castes to increase their social mobility by shedding the stigma associated with lower castes that traditionally eat beef. Some Indians refuse beef because of concern for the environment and animal welfare. These factors crisscross and overlap in different ways for each individual, and have little to do with the tastiness of cow meat.
Apart from helping to define a person’s identity, beef consumption is influenced by practical considerations. Anti-slaughter legislation in some states impacts the availability of beef. The rapid growth of industrial chicken farming means that beef, which used to be one of the cheaper meats in India, is now roughly the same price as chicken. New, exotic food options now available in many Indian cities broaden the range of possible dietary choices. Growing fears of the possible health effects of genetic modification, zoonotic disease, and pesticides in animal feed make Indian consumers increasingly wary of meat. The changing availability, cost, and risks associated with beef influence people’s eating habits.
To complicate matters further, people’s stated values or beliefs are not always borne out by their actions. Sometimes disempowered members of a household, such as women, children, and elders, must eat whatever food is brought home by the wage earners, whether or not this is in keeping with their values. Sometimes people are so tempted by the taste of beef that they eat it in secret while otherwise keeping up appearances. Some people feel the nutritional or medicinal value of cow meat outweighs prohibitions against it. Some people feel a kinship toward animals they raise in their own households and refuse to eat them, even though they are willing to sell them for others to eat and are willing to buy and eat animals raised elsewhere.
The bottom line is that people’s eating choices are complex and wrapped up in identity, belief, belonging, family, tradition, individuality, class, and so much more. To view meat eaters as slaves to taste is reductionist and will derail efforts to convince them to change. Before we can convince people to stop doing something, we must understand why they are doing it and ensure that the alternatives we are offering can fill the same needs. With a real understanding of diet-shaping forces, we can make real progress in our animal advocacy efforts.