Meatification: A Case Study In Market Capitalism From Vietnam
In 2013, despite the global population more than doubling, total global meat supply had reached 302 million metric tons, while the global annual average meat consumption per capita hit 43kgs (94.8lbs), compared to 23kgs (50.7lbs) back in 1961. Though it’s often stated that meat consumption rises in tandem with income level, that may be too simplistic a way of explaining the phenomenon.
Though higher meat consumption may provide some nutritional benefits in poorer regions, meat production is well known to be a highly inefficient way to provide food to a growing population. Our eating habits and consumption patterns are shaped by both systems of provision and everyday practices. In fact, several researchers have previously suggested that what we are observing is the “meatification” of food provision and practice – an outcome of capitalist development strategies and processes.
This study set out to better understand the factors leading to the recent meat consumption surge in the country of Vietnam. They interviewed government officials, food and agriculture analysts, market vendors, restaurant owners, speciality food producers, farmers and representatives of abattoirs and villages engaged in livestock slaughter, and members of 20 middle-class households during the research period. Furthermore, the qualitative data was supported with statistics from FAO, UN Comtrade and the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, all to understand how meat consumption and development have co-evolved in Vietnam.
Since the economic reforms in Vietnam in 1986, daily per capita calorie intake has increased by a third. Here, calories from plant products increased by about 14 per cent, while calories from animal products increased by 357 per cent, the latter mainly driven by a drastic rise in the consumption of pork. The strongest relative increase was in the consumption of beef and poultry, while the development of culturally widespread practices of consuming dog and ‘wild’ meat remain unknown.
Meanwhile, the consumption of other animal products has also increased significantly, most evident through the rise of milk consumption. The researcher relies on decades of consumption research when claiming that individual choice is but a small part of the complex processes that determine consumption patterns.
Digging further into the details, the paper outlines four factors found to be the most influential in Vietnam’s surging meat consumption:
- Increased availability and affordability – driven by higher agricultural outputs and Vietnam opening its market for imports from large meat producing countries.
- Meat intensification of food practices – traditional Vietnamese meals and dishes are becoming more meat-centered, and foreign meat intensive dishes and eating practices influence consumer behaviors (e.g. KFC alone have 140 restaurants in the country).
- The popularity of eating out is seen as an important part of the nutrition transition. The average spending on meals outside of home increased almost ten-fold between 2002 and 2012. Meals outside often involve more meat than meals at home because typical family meals remain strongly focused on rice and vegetables, while restaurants and fast food outlets introduce meat intensive practices.
- Meat represents development and distinction – eating meat is seen positively via social connotations such as financial well-being, progress, masculinity, etc.
As we can see from the above, Vietnam has in many ways experienced developments along the lines of what is described as the nutrition transition and the livestock revolution. At the same time, changes in systems of provision of meat made it much more affordable. Combined, these processes can be understood as part of the spatial expansion of capitalism. The paper argues that the dramatic “meatification” of food provision should be analysed at the intersection between food provision systems and everyday practices, as a result of capitalist development processes, rather than a ‘natural’ and inevitable outcome of societal development.
Since continuous increase in global meat consumption is deeply unsustainable, more empirically grounded research is needed on the economic, social and cultural factors contributing to “meatification.” However, animal advocates will appreciate the revealed complexity behind the reasons why people eat more and more meat. The fact that affluence, urbanisation and foreign dietary influences are contributing factors – but not sole reasons – for increased meat consumption adds to the pool of knowledge, and advocates would do well to reflect upon them.