Meat and Cancer

Kelly Struthers Montford discusses the politics of food choice and meat consumption.

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“[Food] is such a complex product of choice and coercion, necessity and pleasure, science and culture…” (Mosby, Food Will Win the War, 2014).

Recent announcements and debates in the media, such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) announcement on October 26th, 2015 concerning the link between cancers and red meat as well as processed meat, have unfolded within a wider social context marked by ongoing anxieties about the politics of food, nutrition, and choice.

We see these anxieties in mainstream media debates about the practice of eating animals. For example: CNN stated that beef is the new SUV; a New York Times op-ed predicted that the future of meat is that of ‘fake’ meat; the Atlantic’s installment of If Our Bodies Could Talk series ran a segment named The Future of Protein will not be Animal Meat; the BBC asked whether we can justify killing animals for food given the effects of animal agriculture on climate change; and Oxfam America detailed the exploitative and dangerous working conditions for workers in chicken slaughterhouses.

800px-Franz_Marc_1914_Animals_in_a_Landscape

Franz Marc, Animals in a Landscape (1914)

The development of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines in the United States also reflected these concerns. An expert panel of 15 academic researchers synthesized over 4000 peer-reviewed studies and recommended that issues of environmental sustainability be considered in the dietary guidelines. The expert panel reported that, given the emissions produced and the water used in animal agriculture, the health effects of meat, and the availability of foods for the general public, it would be inappropriate to recommend meat-based diets for the nation. The panel suggested that plant-based diets were preferable.

Moments like these might provide us with opportunity to reconsider food as, not only an edible substance, but also a locus of relations between the earth, producers, eaters, and animals. Instead, the economic interests of the powerful agricultural industry persistently undercut the radical political potential of these moments.

Three days after the WHO’s initial announcement, they responded to meat industry backlash and requests for information by issuing another statement clarifying their position. In this second statement and in a Q&A page of the document, the WHO continued to recommend limited intake of meat for health reasons but also clarified that they are merely communicating the results of their research, not recommending vegetarian diets.

The expert committee developing the 2015 United States Dietary Guidelines received threats of funding cuts, and various congressmen condemned the committee for “exceeding their mandate.” The experts on the panel were accused of failing to recognize that United States Agriculture, as congressman David Scott said, “Is the single most important industry in the world.” In the end, sustainability will not be included in the 2015 guidelines.

The interplay of health warnings and economic power do not account for the entire situation. Consider for example what happened with smoking. Smoking rates began to decline in response to public health efforts even as the tobacco industry maintained its economic and political power. Public acceptance of health warnings helped to undermine the power of the tobacco lobby.

I suggest that, even in the face of health warnings, meat eating amongst the general public will continue. This is because meat eating continues to give power to modern ontologies of domination. That is, it is a politically loaded practice whereby humans assert their dominance over animals.

By singularly focusing on the health effects of meat, the WHO does not attend to the relations—including the animals who are killed to become meat—entailed in the production of food. Instead, animals are reduced to deadened life, specifically beings who, even when alive, always already exist only to become corpses we will call food.

Instead, to think of the WHO statements and backlash within a framework of food-as-a-locus of relations, we can see that eating animal flesh is related to health risks as well as economic policies, farmed animals, farm workers, and the environment. We are not merely individuals making personal food choices. We are implicated in complex interspecies webs of coercion and inequality sustained by current norms of food consumption.

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Kelly Struthers Montford is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta. @KellySMontford

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