Home Episode Where’s the Beef?

Where’s the Beef?

August 10, 2016

Today we go to a future where animal products are banned. It’s one that lots of listeners have asked for so here you go. We talk about what happens to the land, the animals and the humans in this equation.

In this episode we discuss the arguments in favor and against banning meat. How does that impact culture? Why should we do it? Does it help or hurt the environment? Can you really grow meat in a lab? And is that meat vegan?

First we talked to folks in the “ban the meat” camp. Marta Zaraska, the author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession With Meat, tells us about the evolution of meat consumption and why we don’t actually need meat to survive. Then, David Agranoff, the author of The Vegan Revolution with Zombies, makes the vegan argument.

Then we talk about the environmental argument in favor of kicking our global meat habit. And as promised here are the citations for the statistics I talk about.

In 2014, the entire world produced 315.3 million tonnes of meat from cows, pigs, chickens and sheep. 1.3 billion tons of grain is consumed by those animals every year as feed. Livestock production uses about a third of the world’s fresh water every year, and contributes about between 14 and 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, depending on whose numbers you trust. Fourteen to eighteen percent might not seem like that much, but it is. That’s about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector every year. And a recent study in Science suggested that increases in livestock farming go hand in hand with decreases in biodiversity. Livestock, both the actual animals and the plants we grow to feed them, also takes up a lot of land. According to the United Nations, twenty six percent of the land on this planet is used for livestock.

After that, we hear about why it’s so hard for many people to give up meat, and how culturally important foods can be. To help us with that segment, we talk to Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and the author of a book called Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. Psyche explains why people get so angry and frustrated when you tell them what to eat.

Then we hear from listeners about what you think!

After the break, we talked about lab grown meat, and whether or not you can grow animal products in the lab. And are those products vegan? Could they be? Researcher Abi Aspen Glencross explains her work on trying to grow steaks in the lab.  

Then we round out the episode with a surprise guest: my grandma. She grew up on a farm and then farmed sheep until she retired. And she had some very good questions about this future.

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Caroline Sinders, Jess Zimmerman, Kevin Wojtaszek, and John Olier. The break music is by Black Ant and the episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.

That’s all for this future! Come back soon for a new one.


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Dante August 10, 2016 at 12:09 pm

Just finished listening to your podcast. Question: If meat is outlawed, pets would have to be outlawed as well. Anthropologists believe that dogs help humans win the evolutionary race with other hominoids. What would this world without animal companions look like?

Rose August 10, 2016 at 12:32 pm

That’s a great question! And in fact we did an episode about that: https://www.flashforwardpod.com/2016/03/15/episode-07-unpawful/

What Would Happen if We Stopped Eating Meat? | danilnews August 10, 2016 at 2:49 pm

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What Would Happen if We Stopped Eating Meat? – News Virality August 10, 2016 at 2:58 pm

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Isaac August 10, 2016 at 5:48 pm

On the topic of whether tigers in the zoo would be forced onto a vegan diet I would say, as a vegan, that even keeping wild animals locked up in a zoo wouldn’t be a part of any society that includes animals in its ethics. It’s immoral to do it to people, so why is it alright for animals?

What Would Happen if We Stopped Eating Meat? – Polly Verbs August 10, 2016 at 7:15 pm

[…] ▹▹ Full show notes […]

James August 10, 2016 at 10:18 pm

First great podcast, I really enjoyed listening to it. I do have a sort of ethical argument on the meat eating side that I did not see addressed, namely, stopping meat eating is, from a biological standpoint, disadvantageous for the domesticated animals.

My point, and not that this is necessarily my view, is that the species that we currently consume as food are distinct species that evolved because of our domestication efforts. Furthermore, we have taken these species and had them reproduce and spread all over the world. The numbers, kind, and range of these various domesticated animals far out stretches what they would have been able to accomplish had they not been domesticated. If we take the goal of any given species is to reproduce and spread, then domestication and use as a food source for humans, was a successful biological adaptation on these animal’s parts.

If we then cease eating meat, we no longer have any use for these animals, and their current numbers will likely not continue at the level that they do, and I see this a negative from a biological standpoint. Furthermore, it is left to wonder to what extent a number of these species would even survive at all in some of the locations that they current thrive because of human husbandry.

This is a sort of back of the napkin sort of argument, but the idea of what then happens to these domesticated animals if we stop eating them struck me listening to your podcast. I was further left with the thought, that to a certain extent these species only exist in their current form because of our meat eating habitats. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Michael August 30, 2016 at 9:05 pm

Human manipulation of a species to produce desirable results is not a biological adaptation. It is merely the propagation of specific traits. Also, remember that most animals raised for meat are slaughtered while they are still infants and adolescents. Many of these animals suffer greatly when rescued and allowed to live out their lives naturally, due to non-adaptive nature of their human-driven mutations. The driving force behind cross/re-breeding has been (and intensely so for the past 50 years) to get them to market weight as quickly as possible. With this comes many developmental complications that only arise if allowed to live beyond 18 months or so.
I do not subscribe to a utilitarian code of ethics, so I do not feel that the existence of sentient beings should be tied to their use to us. It is true that the sub-species we consume survive almost entirely because we help them to do so. I don’t understand why their disappearance would be a negative from a biological standpoint. Perhaps you could elaborate some. As my perspective of sentient beings began to shift and as I began to understand that to be ethically consistent, all sentient beings fall within the scope of my moral compass, I also began to recognize that thinking of animals as entire species is part of the problem. A species is not sentient. It is an arbitrary label used to categorize and identify individual organisms. If Homo sapiens were eliminated from the planet, I don’t feel it would be a bummer because the planet lost a species. I think it would be a bummer because of all the individuals who lost their lives for this to have become a reality. If we stopped eating animals, I think what would come with it is a large number of individuals willing to make sacrifices to help farmed animals live out their lives, but we would also not be producing more of them. Remember that there are no male chickens in the industry; they are killed at birth. Also, artificial insemination is how farmed animals reproduce. It would take a couple decades, but the sub-species would cease to exist fairly quickly.

Evelyn F August 11, 2016 at 3:05 am

Eeeeeeee! I emailed you in this idea a few months ago! *Fan Squeal*

Such a great episode

Im going to pretend it was aaaaaall me.

What Would Happen if We Stopped Eating Meat? – Mostviral August 11, 2016 at 6:33 am

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Julien August 11, 2016 at 9:27 am

Thanks for the podcats. It was very interesting. I noticed that vegetarians/vegans are mainly not eating meat to avoid animal suffering, but what would happen if plants were also shown to have emotions, like fear and pain? I’m wondering if vegetarians/vegans just consider plants as not cognitive enough to care about their wellbeing, just like we did with animals before?
(For info, plant research show that they exhibit many cognitive abilities found in animals, like for instance warning surrounding plants when attacked so that they can raise their defences.)

Michael August 30, 2016 at 7:11 pm

I’d be very curious to read the research you suggest demonstrates cognitive abilities, if you get a chance to link to it. Much of what is observed is a stimulus-response behavior, which is very cool, but not linked to cognition or sentience. From an evolutionary standpoint, pain would be an unlikely trait to have evolved for species with no ability to flee, and suffering would serve even less purpose, since they have little control over their ability to survive. That said, I would be remiss to say we’ll never discover that plants are sentient. If that were the case, I suppose I would still live on a plant-based diet. Far fewer plants are killed in a society that thrives without animal products. Just a thought.

David August 14, 2016 at 4:59 pm

Why is that the same people who think it is horrible for vegans to suggest to them they not eat meat are perfectly comfortable telling others that eating dog meat or horse meat is wrong (and in fact is illegal in many parts of the US)?
Love the podcast.

Christopher August 15, 2016 at 9:18 am

Loved the show and we are going to get to that future despite the rebels who prefer savagery over perfection. Here’s an alternative not mentioned in the pod… Plants restructured to taste and feel like meat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcA7iY3DNMk

Glenn August 23, 2016 at 9:29 am

Great series. My question is what would happen to the millions of cattle, hogs, chicken, and other livestock. My guess is that if farmers can’t use sell them for meat, they would slaughter them to avoid the cost of maintaining them, unless there was a government program to support those animals. Farm animals as we would know it would largely disappear from earth.

Also, if we ban meat, do we also ban dairy products, leather and other animal products? Even with a ban, illegal markets would pop up, just like we see with trading in ivory.

One last question. Does lab meat share the same health issues as current meat? My guess is not, so there will still be reasons switch to a more plan based diet.

My $.02 is that until economics of lab/alternative meat and dairy are sustainable, we will not see any such ban. That’s why oil is the prevailing energy source today. It’s much cheaper than alternative fuels.

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Andrew Gross September 13, 2016 at 10:09 am

This is the first episode I listened to, followed immediately by the previous two. I really love the premise, but I’d like to offer some constructive criticism.

I don’t think you’re being as imaginative as you need to be. The future you describe appears to be one in which meat is banned even though modern attitudes towards meat consumption haven’t changed at all, and phone menus still exist. I love in LA, and your future seems to take place in my past.

It would’ve made sense to present the future as one in which meat production was increasingly regulated for quality and ethical treatment, driving up costs, while meat alternatives grew more plentiful, and a generation grew up with fond memories of grilling lab grown meat or making aloo gobi with Grandma.

The holds true for the Revenge of the Retweet episode. I don’t know why the idea of an era of internet history is so shocking.

You posit two possibilities: that we’ll either grow to accept dumb things candidates do as teens, or we’ll only elect people who have no internet history. Firstly, this focuses solely on things people post themselves and ignores the fact that people can’t avoid leaving a trail to follow in photos others take and a wealth of metadata that will still let us track their doings as kids.

Secondly, you ignore a much more likely outcome: that nothing will change because candidates and their followers already invent narratives and then roll anything about the candidate into this narrative or ignore it.

Look at this picture of George W. Bush pushing a guy in a rugby match in college (http://www.snopes.com/politics/bush/rugby.asp). Look at Mike Pence’s rant about Mulan (https://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/mister-ill-make-a-man-out-of-you?utm_term=.tsxQmBM3K#.uewA9V1zP). Look at Donald Trump’s entire twitter feed and all of the awful interviews and books that are online for the last three decades. Nothing becomes an issue unless and opposition group chooses to focus on it ad nauseum. There is already more embarrassing content than we can use, and that doesn’t include the inexhaustible supply of nonsense people make up. Would Obama have been worse off if we’d had pictures of him smoking pot? Because we did, and instead his opponents argued that his birth certificate wasn’t real.

Your advertisements all sound far too contemporary, and the use of phone menus is distractingly weird. Again, I love the concept, but you seem like you’re behind the times instead of ahead.

VideoPortal March 19, 2017 at 12:29 am

There were many “Where’s the beef?” promotional items, including bumper stickers, frisbees, clothing patches, a Milton Bradley game,

Geoffrey March 28, 2017 at 10:50 am

While I think humans and the planet would ultimately be better off if humans ate little, or no, meat, I think making it illegal, especially suddenly, would be wrong and a bad idea. It would have to be gradual. We would have to slowly replace that industry (jobs). We would have to slowly change the land that is used to support that meat, either to farm land for food intended for human consumption, or change it back into forest, grasslands, etc. (like you mentioned). We would have to slowly change how media shows food.

My first concern to making meat illegal is the immediate impact it would have on people’s culture and tradition. To not be able to make you grandmother’s beef stew, your family’s secret fried chicken recipe, or have a 4th of July BBQ would be cruel. Tax meat. Make it unpopular to our mainstream culture. Don’t make it illegal.

Courtney July 25, 2017 at 10:31 am

Can we just talk about how adorable your grandma is?! She’s so funny! I love her!

Great episode, one of the first ones I’ve listened to, and it’s very interesting. I love meat, and I’d probably try lab meat at least once, but I’d have a problem if it was taken away. I don’t eat a lot of it and I’ve made a lot of vegetarian meals that are delicious, but I love a good steak or a juicy burger. Also not being able to make my mother’s beef stew is a world I don’t want to live in. Pets and animals are also a good point. They just cannot eat a vegan/vegetarian diet. I definitely see the points on sustainability in a no-meat world, but to me there’s more cons than pros to this.

Thanks for this podcast! I can’t wait to listen to more!

Jordis August 8, 2017 at 4:47 am

Great episode Rose! One thing that occurred to me and you didn’t mention was the creation of a black market with meat. One of your guest said he/she would surely try to get some anyway, and I am sure many many others would too. I see three major problems arising:
1) Social issue. I see a similar situation as with your (USA) alcohol Prohibition or War on drugs but on a much larger scale. Cartels, smuggling, gang warfare, enormous load on the justice and police system, corruption, all that nice stuff.
2) Animal welfare issue. As husbandry is illegal, no regulations or standards are applied. The welfare of the animals bred illegally would decrease drastically. Moreover the need for secrecy would confine them to crowded underground spaces or small closets. Proper fodder wouldn’t exist or would be highly suspicious, they would be fed all kind of junk. Diseases would spread easily and wouldn’t be properly cared for.
3) Health issues. Diseases from animals could spread to human. Also, all animal products are highly perishable, food sold under the counter would be of questionable quality. People getting ill from such a food would be afraid to seek proper treatment.
In short, all the bad things arising from illegal drugs would apply here (except the plant does not really care about its welfare – well not as much)

Earl October 31, 2017 at 11:50 pm

I came late and I’m catching up on podcast from the beginning, so I just listened to this one. Disclosure: I’m vegan.
If the first part of the podcast you covered well the ethical and sustainability points, but you omitted the health benefits to veg diets. There are journal articles on this you can check for further information.
I found the middle of the podcast a bit strange because your scenario seemed to be some dictator imposed a meat ban on a meat eating population from above. That’s rather unlikely. Should this future come to pass, it is likely going to be after an overwhelming portion of the population has already given up meat. The more appropriate scenario is, say, 75% of people are already vegan and meat alternatives are ubiquitous, and probably most of the cultural issues have been solved in the slow progressive transition period, and meat eating is considered a bit odd (the way begin vegan is today). Finally this majority votes to end animal slavery for one of the three reasons (environment, health, or ethics) or a combination.
Now even in the above scenario, I believe such a meat ban would be extremely contested, but I think it is a somewhat different situation than the one you seemed to be positing in the podcast.


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