Book review: Marta Zaraska (2016) Meathooked (Basic Books: New York)

Price: ***
Ease of use: ****
Value for EAA beginners: **
Value for EAA pros: ***

Review author: Andrew Leeke

Meathooked tells the 1.5 billion year old story of our increasingly troubling relationship with meat. This entertaining narrative begins with bacteria engulfing one another and ends with an unsustainable addiction that threatens human health, the environment, and the well-being of billions of sentient animals. Predictions and potential solutions to the current crisis are sketched out towards the end.

As she follows our ancestors’ history of eating meat and the advantages it may have conferred, Zaraska discusses a number of ‘hooks’ which have kept us attached to meat to the present day. These hooks include biochemistry, the potential health and fitness benefits of eating meat, and the power of habit and tradition. The hooks present a considerable obstacle to overcoming our addiction to meat despite the growing evidence that our levels of consumption are not sustainable, and will continue to threaten us and our environment in the coming decades.

Most of the chapters analyse a particular hook in detail; others provide context to the struggling vegetarianism movement or the geopolitical factors that have defined our diets and will continue to do so in the future. The chapters are as follows:

  1. Enter Meat Eaters (emergence of multicellular life and predation);
  2. Big Brains, Small Guts, and the Politics of Meat (politics and sex as drivers of meat consumption);
  3. The Good, the Bad, and the Heme Iron (nutritional analysis of meat);
  4. The Chemistry of Love: Umami, Aromas, and Fat (why does meat taste so good?);
  5. Why Would Abramovich Taste Good? (how quality of meat is affected by treatment of the animal–’Abramovich’ is a pampered ‘Kobe-style’ cow);
  6. Wagging the Dog of Demand (influence of the meat industry and marketing);
  7. Eating Symbols (importance of symbolism e.g. power over nature);
  8. The Half-Crazed, Sour-Visaged Infidels, or Why Vegetarianism Failed in the Past (vegetarianism’s association with radicalism);
  9. Why Giving up Meat May Be Harder for Some of Us (individual genetic differences in meat addiction);
  10. Dog Skewers, Beef Burgers, and Other Weird Meats (economic and religious reasons why different cultures have avoided certain meats);
  11. The Pink Revolution, or How Asia Is Getting Hooked on Meat, Fast (growing appetite for meat in developing nations); and
  12. The Future of Our Meat-Based Diets (clean meat, plant-based meat, and insects).

The chapters are written in an accessible style and combine present-day investigative journalism with socio-historical commentary. Relevant concepts, like checkoffs and lobbying, are explained clearly whenever introduced.

Zaraska wrote Meathooked because she was unsatisfied with the reasons people provide for eating meat in the face of huge health, environmental, and ethical costs. Her investigation into why humans love eating meat begins with two questions: a) is it an addiction?, and b) are we ever going to cut down meat consumption? While Zaraska provides explicit and thorough dissections of each so-called ‘hook’, the questions above remain only implicitly answered: a) maybe, and b) probably. However, we are only in a position to accelerate the ‘nutrition transition’ ahead by acknowledging the power of tradition, taste, and symbolism.

The book does not attempt to shock readers with the health effects of meat or the suffering of farm animals, but instead provides insights into what keeps us hooked on meat that can be appreciated by a number of audiences. Meat-eaters can acknowledge what drives their appetites and the influence of meat on their behaviour. Meat-reducers will realise why reducing meat is difficult and what they can do about it (it’s hard to quit something if you don’t know why you crave it). Vegans will understand why most people don’t follow their behaviours. I suspect that meat-reducers or aspiring vegans will get the most out of this book–but all audiences will be encouraged to make conscious decisions about their meat intake, rather than adhere to cultural or genetic scripts and government guidelines.

The hooks discussed in this book provide vital background material to the current debate surrounding meat alternatives: namely, how much should animal welfare advocates pursue investment in, and promotion of, clean meat as an effective strategy to reduce animal suffering? Meathooked demonstrates that there are a) many barriers to a vegetarian/vegan world, of which b) many are difficult to overcome, and c) may be impossible to overcome in a desirable time-frame. Unfortunately, Zaraska provides no high-level overview of which hooks are likely to be the hardest to overcome, or whether removing one hook may have a cascade effect on the others. Clean meat sidesteps the issue of ‘unhooking’ almost entirely–provided that we can still enjoy the taste and texture of meat without harming billions of farm animals, the most effective solution may simply be to remain hooked. The environmental and ethical objections to the meat industry will dissolve. However, in the interests of human health, there is still work to be done on reducing the amount of meat eaten, clean or otherwise.

The book therefore provides strong evidence that veganism and vegetarianism are not plausible solutions to the problem of factory farmed animals. The alternatives on offer are clean meat, plant-based meat, and insects. However, Zaraska fails to explicitly differentiate the potential of each, and the reader is encouraged to consider the most promising strategy on the basis of minimal comparative insight. Personally, given all of the information that Zaraska discusses in the preceding chapters, I believe that clean meat must be the solution to this crisis. I found this book particularly useful for understanding why vegetarian movements of the past have had such little success and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the future of the human diet.

At £18 from Amazon (in the UK), the book is quite expensive, though is cheaper in Kindle and 2nd hand formats.


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