Amber Husain’s new book, ‘Meat Love: An Ideology of the Flesh’ unmasks the politics and violence behind eating meat.

She was a meat-eater who found vegetarianism annoying, until one moment transformed her view. Her new book looks at myths about our relationship with our food.

When Amber Husain was 26, she was preparing a piece of chicken for a friend to eat and was overcome by an unfamiliar feeling. A lifelong meat-eater, suddenly she was disgusted by what was in front of her. “I was just handling it and it felt so weird and horrible,” she says. Living with her vegan partner, she had been cooking meat far less often but had not totally given it up, believing that to do so was “little more than a salve for the naively guilty consumer”. Looking at it now though she “felt really strange … It completely transformed what I was able to confront in terms of the political reality of where meat comes from.”

Husain says she realised at that moment that for all the meat she had consumed in her life, she had never really seen it. She was, now, “relearning meat as a corpse”.

In her new book, Meat Love: An Ideology of the Flesh, Husain explores people’s continuing attachment to eating meat. Satirical in tone, she sets out to understand how the middle classes have come to “critique the worst violence against animals and critique climate change” while still eating meat.

Food production is a major cause of global greenhouse gas emissions and meat accounts for nearly 60% of the industry’s share. Though meat consumption has decreased, in 2019 people in the UK still ate on average 86 grams a day. Environmental activists such as the group Animal Rebellion have called for an end to animal exploitation and a shift to a plant-based diet, while the writer George Monbiot has taken aim at the trend for “organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb”, describing it as “the world’s most damaging farm product”.

Husain takes a slightly different approach, more interested in how people can love animals while simultaneously loving the meat from those animals.

The answer is what she calls Meat Love. There has been a shift, according to Husain: climate catastrophe and changing gender politics mean that a macho eroticisation of meat is no longer acceptable in socially conscious middle-class circles. In its place, people romanticise meat – how it is made and how it is eaten. Meat Love tells the world that there is an ethical and caring way of eating animals. You just have to do it right.

To make this argument, she examines the cultural conditions that “nourish” Meat Love via some of its figureheads, such as Instagram farmers, chefs and food writers. Think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Red Shepherdess.

This “middle-class visual culture and rhetoric” offers a “self-congratulatory account of why meat eating is not just an OK thing to do but is almost ethical, honourable or virtuous”, Husain says. Often promoting small-scale local farming, proponents present meat as being “compatible with love”; lovingly raising an animal before killing it and cherishing nature by consuming pigs and cows. This masks, she says, “a relationship of complete domination, where we suppose that our care for animals justifies us in helping ourselves to their flesh”.

Meat Love is all around us, Husain argues. Go to any supermarket across the country and you will see it in action: as in images of a pastoral idyll plastered across shrink-wrapped organic pork cutlets. It is pictures of “animals roaming in the beautiful countryside and the happy chickens with the happy eggs”, Husain says.

When she stopped eating meat (she is now a vegan), Husain assumed her “similarly middle-class friends” and family might respond by unburdening themselves of their own guilt about eating animals. Instead, people around her were committed to defending their choice and getting angry at hers. Husain admits to previously being annoyed by vegetarianism and veganism, cringing now as she recalls complaining that one non-meat-eating friend coming for dinner meant cooking something completely different for everyone.

Husain acknowledges that people who “aren’t the greatest beneficiaries of capitalism” may understandably feel entitled to whatever pleasure they have left. She is also clear that “the choice to not eat meat is not available to everyone” for economic reasons. Her explicit focus is on people who do have the luxury of choice but still tie themselves in knots to defend meat eating.

The book has three chapters, each titled with one word, which wryly examine the different ways Meat Love mystifies and idealises meat eating. There is Tragedy, in which people’s exploitative relationship with animals is presented as a tragic necessity, a primal urge that can be satisfied in a kind and ethical way. Then Harmony, the idea that it is natural to eat meat as part of a symbiotic relationship with nature; humans nurture and must also kill animals. And finally Beauty, which is the celebration of “luxury meat” consumption in high-end restaurants, where eating animals is treated as a sophisticated hobby. Meat becomes “a precious jewel, a beautiful thing to be savoured, as though the wealthy might starve without it”, she says.

Husain says there is no redemption to be found in meat from small-scale farms, which will always be niche under capitalism, skewed as it is towards economies of scale and ensuring meat is profitable, and driven by enormous subsidies.

Husain says “eating animals predates capitalism but it has systematised the way we devalue animal life”. Meat is such a huge part of humanity’s food system not simply because of natural compulsion or necessity but, she argues, because “capitalism as a system functions by establishing which lives are worth more and which lives are more disposable and exploiting the latter … meat is the furthest extension of that logic: a life is so worthless that we can create that life, treat it like it’s less than life, end it and eat it”.

Ultimately, Husain argues that Meat Love narrows the political imagination by presupposing that nothing much can be done about inequality, exploitation and extraction beyond being “a little bit more merciful in the way we destroy the planet and life on it”.

When I ask if she thinks everyone should stop eating meat, she does not give a straightforward answer.
Instead she settles on it being necessary that those who can do so, but that this is, on its own, insufficient. “Voting with our forks” is not the solution, she says. Just as “animals can’t just choose not to cooperate with human agriculture … abattoir workers and factory farmers can’t just choose to get better jobs and poor people can’t simply choose to change their diets”.

If avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way you can reduce your impact on Earth, where does that leave us then? The final pages of Meat Love offer a more comprehensive and complex response.

Where the former government food tsar Henry Dimbleby encourages people to eat less meat for the sake of the climate, Husain has a more expansive idea. “There is little to be gained from framing our resistance to human-animal domination as a matter of self-denial,” she writes.

Part of the solution is changing the economic system so that food security would be enshrined in “wages, social provision, policy and law” and “animal life would not be cheapened by the profit imperative because there would be no profit imperative”. But Husain recognises even this would not automatically put an end to meat eating. A just society for animals and humans means transforming what culinary pleasure is and questioning whether the “‘needs’ for meat we invoke are actually our own”.

After we speak, I ask her over email exactly what this means. She responds that how we eat can be an important part of politicising us to “desire, imagine and work towards a different economic system” but that this is bigger than food choice. It can mean “reframing the eating of animals … as a contingent necessity rather than a justified entitlement, which might result in minimising, if not eliminating, meat consumption”. That way we can be “a bit less purist about each other’s diets” and hold ourselves and each other “account[able] for how we’re justifying our actions”.

Husain is concerned with what it takes to open up people’s political imaginations in exactly the way she experienced when she suddenly saw the chicken she was cooking differently. Such a change is one of the necessary antidotes to Meat Love. Understanding, she writes, that “the decision to consume another’s flesh will always have as much to do with politics, as much to do with power, as it has to do with love”.

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com