Contrary to the perceptions of many Americans whom I have met, a plant-based diet is not isolated to a middle-class white elite in Anglo-American countries; it is quite common among people of color if one is to take into account countries outside of Europe and former British rule. The invisibility of the much more common plant-based diet is in part a product of most U.S. Americans’ deficient education in world geography, culture, and history. Further, because many East Asian and Latin American restaurants in the USA have menus filled with meat-centered entrees, many white Americans falsely assume that those animal-based dishes are commonly eaten within their countries of origin, forgetting that restaurant meals, gourmet food, and meat are primarily foods for the middle and upper class (the minority).
According to World Watch, collectively a person in industrial nations (most likely an affluent white person) will consume on average three times the flesh of mammals and birds as someone from developing nations (most likely a poor person of color), and a person in the U.S. will consume five times that amount. [1*] When fish and dairy are taken into consideration, Western Europe becomes the world’s largest consumer of animal products. [2*] In both cases, with the exception of Japan (a huge fish consumer) and a few South American countries (Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—huge beef consumers), people of color have very little access to animal products. Of course, much of this distribution is related to class--which only further highlights the intersections of speciesism, nationalism, racism, and classism.
Not until after WWII have US Americans had "privileged" access to cheap, fast, subsidized “meat.” Most Americans seem to have little conscious that only a little over one hundred years ago, almost 90 per cent of American resided in rural areas and chicken was as expensive as shrimp and eaten in only 1/100th of the quantity today. In an interesting reversal, today the poor commonly lack geographic and/or financial access to fresh produce. Recent studies have shown that even in in the agricultural state of Iowa, rural people have limited access to food, living in what are called “food deserts”—a situation more associated with poor intercity neighborhoods..
The privilege assigned to meat by the U.S. federal government is very evident in a graphic from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine that juxtaposes the federal subsidies pyramid with the federal nutrition recommendation pyramid: while over one-third of one’s servings should come from fruits and vegetables, these foods receive less than one percent of federal subsidies, while meat and dairy receive almost three-fourths. [3*] Even when made more affordable, nutritious whole plant-based foods are neither affordable enough nor culturally valued enough to overthrow meat and dairy as the centerpieces of the American diet. Even with a 10-percent subsidy on fresh produce, low-income Americans would still not be eating the dietary recommendations of fruits and vegetables.[4*]
In the following post I will examine--following Carol Adams analysis of the “sexual politics of meat”--the racial and colonial politics of meat (and milk). Unlike previous discussions of the topic such as The Dreaded Comparison (1996), I will not cover the psychological and analogous dimensions of racial/interspecies oppression, but rather the structures of Northern, American, White, and middle-class privilege that drive the intersections between the subordination of non-human animals and non-white human animals.
My intent is to show how Anglo-Saxon cultures have juxtaposed themselves to other cultures and “races” through their diets, establishing themselves as the human identity and others as essentially deviant and ethically marginal. Further, I describe the historical and ecological relationship between animal exploitation, colonialism, and the genocide of Amerindians. Finally, I put forth evidence that people of color within the United States (and in other countries) are still marginalized and whose lives are put at risk in order to increase the profits of animal-exploiting, multi-national corporations.
Ethnocentric Nutrition, Identity
Plant-based diets were not always associated with whiteness, elitism, and privilege as they are today within Anglo-Saxon cultures. On the contrary, in the 18th and 19th centuries plant-based diets were associated with savagery, poverty, and degradation. As Carol Adam’s notes in her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990), “[t]he hearty meat eating that characterizes the diet of Americans and of the Western world was not only a symbol of male power, it is an index of racism.”
Adams cites a 19th century British medical doctor, George Beard, as one white supremacist who believed beef-eating made the British superior to all other races: “In proportion as man grows sensitive through civilization or through disease, he should…increase the quantity of animal food, which is nearly related to him in the scale of evolution.” The “savages” can survive on rougher foliage because they are “little removed from the common animal stock.” Further, British imperialism could be explained and justified because they were “higher,” a more evolved “nation of beef-eaters.” Therefore, “[t]he rice eating Hindoo and Chinese and the potatoe-eating Irish peasants are kept in subjection by the well-fed English.” Others—people of a different class, nation, and/or race—were, like the cattle eaten by the British elite, natural subordinates.
Similarly, in his book Meat: A Natural Symbol (1992), Nick Fiddes notes the associations between meat-eating, human identity, and power. Fiddes finds that Claude Levi-Strauss’s, one of the most influential anthropologists, belief that cooking—the cooking of animal flesh to be exact—, not language and tools, as a universal symbol "by which culture is distinguished from nature in order that men might reassure themselves that they are not beasts" is particularly interesting.  Since it was the cooking and, by implication, eating of animal flesh that distinguished Homo sapiens from other apes and all the rest of animal kind, it would be far to easy to conclude—though Levi-Strauss did not—that ”clearly pre-human 'noble savages' must have been vegetarian, and hunting must mark the emergence of civilization.”  That the more meat one ate, the more civilized one was, removed cultures who subsisted on mostly plants from the category of civilization and full humanity.
Beard's sentiments about the nutritional and moral superiority of meat, specifically beef, were not uncommon in his day. Another British scientist, Edwin Lankester, wrote that "Those races who have partaken of animal food are the most vigorous, most moral, and most intellectual of races."[5*] Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire argued that "without meat the brain stopped functioning and civilization became impossible," which "explained why the rural poor, who ate a vegetarian diet of maize, salt, beans and pulque, were so sluggish."[5*] Sarah Hale, the American author behind Good Housekeeper (1841) likewise wrote that the
portion of the human family, who have the means of obtaining [animal] food at least once a day... hold dominion over the earth. Forty thousand of the beef-fed British govern and control ninety millions of the rice-eating natives of India.This was because animal food "strengthens the reasoning power, or the brain, the organ of the mind, better than vegetable food could do." [5*]
Of course, reason is the characteristic most often used in Western culture to distinguish "man" from "animal" (as well as "man" from "woman"). As an Australian doctor was confident that "Rice is, from an economical point of view, a wretched article of diet... We might expect to find rice-eaters everywhere a wretched, impotent, and effeminate race, and such is the case."[5*] It is no coincidence that American and Australian politicians would use the rhetoric of nutrition and a discourse of national cuisine to advocate excluding Asians from becoming citizens--national and masculine identity were at stake! At the turn of the century, the American Federation of Labor published a notorious pamphlet titled “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat Versus Rice, American Manhood Versus Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” (1902) in promotion of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the report, U.S. statesman James Blaine is cited arguing that
You can not work for a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beef, alongside a man who can live on rice. In all such conflicts, and in all such struggle, the result is not to bring up the man who lives on rice to the beef-and-bread standard, but it is to bring down the beef-and-bread man to the rice standard.[6*]In other words, by entering the labor force, Chinese male laborers would bring down the American living standard (beef-and-bread) to the Chinese level (rice) and effeminize the "ideal of manly labor."[7*]
This conception of the more suitable and ‘higher’ meat-based diets began to change in the mid-20th century when many anthropologists decided “Man” emerged from other apes as a hunter. Meat was now seen as not only superior to plant foods, it was also more natural and wholesome and those who who did not consume it had a deficient human diet. While the Western scientific privilege accorded to protein, especially when derived from animals, originates in the early 19th century with the discovery of the two major components of food--nitrogen and carbon--the democratization of the "power diet of white bread and beef" did not gain hold until the 20th century--though the British were reluctant to promote these power foods at first to the people they colonized.[5*]
By the 1950's, the leaders of Western food and aid organizations, not so differently from George Beard, believed people in the “Third World” were at a loss because they were protein deficient. Although certainly many people probably were protein deficient, “experts” in the West framed the disparity in health as if it were a “protein gap,” that these poor people weren’t eating enough animal protein, as if only a Western-like diet rich in protein guarantees biological and financial success. Dr. T. Collin Campbell, author of The China Study (2005), says there was a
profound belief that promoting high-quality protein, as in animal-based foods, was a very important task [in addressing] a so-called ‘protein gap’ in the developing world… According to this view, those in the third world were especially deficient in ‘high-quality’ protein, or animal protein. Projects were springing up all over the place to address the protein gap problem. MIT was creating a protein supplement, the U.S. was subsidizing dried milk powder, Cornell was developing high-protein rice and a livestock industry in the Philippines, and MIT was making fish meal to feed to the word’s poor.
Of course, such a perception was entirely ethnocentric as people had been surviving very well on plant-based diets, especially in those cultures that farmed a variety of nutrient-rich vegetables year-round. The Spanish, for instance, “were amazed to discover that [American] Indians had twice the life span they did." Moreover, many cultures in Africa prior to colonization thrived on plant-based diets. Notably, the 1970s was also a decade in which the livestock industry had increased their influence over nutritional policy. Michael Pollan describes how in 1977 within weeks of a government committee recommending a reduction in meat consumption “a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee” and their recommendation “was replaced by artful compromise: ‘Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.’”
As Campbell soon discovered, at least within the Philippines, those children most susceptible to many illnesses were those who ate greater quantities of meat. In the mid-70s, Campbell was one of the few nutritionists to question the cultural hegemony of the superiority of the Western diet, and later went on to study the impact diet—especially diets high in protein consumption—have on human health in China which confirmed his suspicions..
Yet the coercive forces of colonialism had long already infiltrated non-Western cultures. In her erudite presentation, "Power Cuisines, Dietary Determinism and Nutritional Crisis: The Origins of the Globalization of the Western Diet" at an American Historical Association conference, Rachel Laudan observes that
With the fate of nations, not just individuals, now attributed to diet, one nation after another began to believe it had a nutritional crisis on its hands. If a nation was to emulate the modern industry and modern armies of the west then, argued many, its population had to eat the strengthening western diet [5*]Countries such as Japan and Mexico, as well as many others, internalized their oppression, believing their diets were such to blame for their subordinate status. For instance in 1872, Emperor Meiji ate beef in public and abolished the Prohibition of Killing Law that had a 1200 year old tradition in Japan. The Finance Ministry had already established the Cattle Company to facilitate the trade of beef and dairy, French cuisine became popular among the ruling elites, how-to manuals on beef-eating were produced, and eventually popular playwrites promoted the food as one of civilized people. (In Mexico, maize--the indigenous grain--was denigrated so as to promote wheat, the superior European food. As late as the 1940s, Sociologists considered the consumption of corn tortillas to be "socially backwards.") [5*]
While post-colonial thinkers have challenged and reversed some of these trends, traces of colonialist ethnocentric nutrition lingers. The emulation of Western people is so powerful it has even found it's way into the Chinese discourse of nutrition. Between 1998 to 2007 "domestic consumption [of milk] increased fivefold and China became the fastest-growing producer in the world" after "economic planners [in the 1990s] decided that dairy cows were a quick way to improve rural incomes." In just 50 years, the 100,000 dairy cows in China grew to 14 million! Like Herbert Hoover's promise to put "a chicken in every pot," in 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed "that every person in China, especially the children, could afford to buy 1 jin [about a pint] of milk every day." According to Barbara Demick, the Chinese government even "spread the word that children needed to drink milk to grow as strong and tall as Westerners." This propaganda is representative of how dietary preferences are not only constructed, but "sold" with the promise of attaining the prestige of whiteness--even when these foods (i.e. dairy) cause illness among these predominately lactose-intolerant people.[8*]
McWorld: Columbus, Cattle, and Colonialism
Though food has long been a precious cultural product to be bartered and shared with others, the colonialist context is relatively modern. Spices were prestigious food commodities from Roman to Medieval times in Europe, but are later a major actor in the rise of mercantile capitalism, a globalizing economy, and colonialist expeditions; as we know, many of the Western European navigators were searching for the quickest routes to India to bypass Arab middlemen in the 15th century. The quest for spices was, after all, why Christopher Columbus's accidental discovery of North America and the consequent genocide and pillaging of the Amerindian peoples. Spice, though, was only valuable so valuable as it could add flavor to bland foods, and more importantly, preserve animal flesh.[9*] During winter and years with poor harvests, many Europeans, particularly the upper-class since peasants had little access to meat, relied on cloves and pepper to preserve meat for extended food shortages.
In the twentieth and twenty-first century spice as an icon of world trade has been replaced by the hamburger. The hamburger, of course, is also one of the icons of American culture. According to Josh Ozersky, the hamburger is an icon that has been able to unite an expansive, diverse nation of immigrants. In The Hamburger: A History (2008),
Ozersky shows how the history of the burger is entwined with American business and culture and, unexpectedly, how the burger’s story is in many ways the story of the country that invented (and reinvented) it... The hamburger played an important role in America’s transformation into a mobile, suburban culture, and today, America’s favorite sandwich is nothing short of an irrepressible economic and cultural force. [10*]So though McDonald's founder Ray Kroc's had some rather anti-American opinions--such as his belief that "we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry"--, the development of American food, culture, and business cannot be denied.
The conformity, however, which Kroc speaks of is the paradox of globalization which theoretically encourages diversity. As Kroc also dreamed of every person on the plant seeing a golden arch wherever in every cardinal direction, so McDonald's has grabbed a hold of soil in most countries around the world just as other Western fast food chains have encroached onto foreign lands.[11*] The hamburger has become so ubiquitous that a recent ad campaign by Burger King, "Whopper Virgins," is meant to incite audiences with awe that there are humans who do not even have a word for it--as they have protected themselves from consumer capitalism.[12*] Benjamin Barber has famously selected McDonald's as a symbol of not just the American way, but the soul of global capitalism in his book Jihad Vs. McWorld (1995). Barber argues that, in contrast to the "McDonald's theory of war"--that no two countries with McDonald's will go to war--, the unifying and community-destroying forces of neoliberalism has to an extent has fanned the flames of tribalism and thus has led the paradox of a unifying wold at war with itself.
One ought to wonder if McDonalds could ever have ever become the economic and cultural powerhouse it has if it sold pb&j sandwiches instead of the carcasses of cows. While it is certainly a stretch to argue that the world dominance of McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC demonstrates the colonial and violence inherent within "meat," as we will see in the following sections, global demand for these foods has indirectly resulted in the subordination of people of color and resource conflicts, and continues to do so today under the auspicious associations of cattle and capital, livestock and stock markets.
Colonialism: Domestication to Genocide
Dr. Beard’s belief that the Western diet has been an important force in the West’s successful colonization of the world may not be entirely pseudo-science. Alfred Crosby, in Ecological Imperialism (1986), explains that Europeans did not just colonize other humans, they colonized the entire New World with their plants and animals. In fact, colonization depended upon the transformation of the ecosphere of “new” lands and the profits from their enterprises there (including the enslavement on plantations and plundering of resources) only entailed further colonial development.
More recently, Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) has proposed that the domestication of animals—for whatever reason they were domesticated—enabled the transportation and labor forces monarchs and empires to expand great distances. Like Crosby, Diamond discusses how critical zoonic diseases, transmitted to humans from living in close proximity to (domesticated) animals, were as biological weapons used against Amerindians in the colonization of North America.[14a, b]
Yet, it was not only the “guns, germs, and steel” that enabled the colonialists to wipe “clean” the continent of its original inhabitants; the cow and the horse were other instruments of conflict and cultural calamity. Like previous environmental historians like Crosby and Cronon, Virginia DeJohn Anderson attributes agency to non-human forces in human relations, specifically those between the Amerindians and the English colonists. In Creatures of Empire (2006), Anderson argues that cattle
were a central factor in the cultural clash between colonists and Indians as well as a driving force in the expansion west...It was thought that if the Native Americans learned to keep livestock as well, they would be that much closer to assimilating the colonists' culture, especially their Christian faith. But colonists failed to anticipate the problems that would arise as Indians began encountering free-ranging livestock at almost every turn, often trespassing in their cornfields. Moreover, when growing populations and an expansive style of husbandry required far more space than they had expected, colonists could see no alternative but to appropriate Indian land. This created tensions that reached the boiling point... [a]nd it established a pattern that would repeat time and again over the next two centuries.Colonialists, in other words, attempted to eliminate Amerindian culture through cows--assimilating them into their own culture through the proper ownership of animals--as well as because of the rising demand for cow products and the need to expand westward to open up more pasture.
On the other hand, the horse, writes Human ecologist Paul Shepard in The Others (1996), despite the virtues it is assigned by romantics, pastoralists, and European nationalists, has a dark side that lies
in its employment in killing and enslaving people, in herding livestock in large numbers beyond the geographical and physical limits of habitat, in centralizing political power that destroys self-rule, in dismembering families and communities to an almost unimaginable extent Dr. Rita Law writes that Amerindian cultures as popularly characterized and imagined as heavily reliant on animal skins and proteins “flourished no more than a couple hundred years,” only after the introduction of horses, guns, and whiskey. In the midst of researching her Choctaw heritage discovered that before colonial contact her people were mostly vegetarian. “The ‘buffalo-as-lifestyle’ phenomenon is,” according to Law, “a direct result of European influence.”[16, *]
“The Age of Buffalo” began when horses in Coronado’s army escaped into the Great Plains and were tame by the indigenous people. “Between the horse and the rifle, buffalo killing was now much simpler,” but “[i]t was the white man who profited.” Those tribes who made use of the horse could trade their hides and tongues to the colonialists, who insatiably demanded buffalo tongues and hides, for the White man’s whisky. In 1832, 600 Sioux on horseback “killed 1400 animals, and then took only their tongues,” which “were traded to whites for a few gallons of whiskey.” In addition, up to “200,000 buffalo were killed each year to make coats for people back east” for one pint of whiskey.
Not only did the horse facilitate the near extinction of the buffalo, it also incited more intense conflict between neighboring tribes and men. Shepard writes
According to Elizabeth Lawrence, the Crow Indians were ‘preeminent among Indians affected by the horse.’ As a result, the horse ‘made the plains people much less submissive’ and elevated the notion of the ‘daring and ferocious equestrian raiders’ whose need for pasturage reinforced old rivalries between the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. As it had for centuries, the horse became ‘the chief occasion for strife,’ partly because of the normalization of hose stealing… The need for trainers and guards increased class distinctions and the reassignment of kinship groups’ and the ‘location of families.’ As it turns out, those cultures most dependent upon the White man’s biotechnology, the horse, have been culturally decimated more than those cultures who could assimilate into the agrarian society. Law notes that
The Sioux of South Dakota, for one, have the worst poverty and one of the highest alcoholism rates in the country. Conversely, the tribes that depended little or not at all on animal exploitation for their survival, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw, are thriving and growing, having assimilated without surrendering their culture The domineering of horse, the capitalist gains from the buffalo, and the intoxicating bravado of male warriordom, assisted the White colonialists in dividing and conquering the Amerindians, at least, so these thinkers believe.
“It is ironic,” writes Law, “that Indians are strongly associated with hunting and fishing when, in fact, nearly half of all the plant foods grown in the world today were first cultivated by the Amerindians" (i.e. tomatoes, white potatoes, bell pepper, peanuts, zucchini, green beans, corn, and loads more varieties of nuts, berries, and tropical fruit). Only more devastating is the fact that one of the few things Amerindians recieved for teaching their “ methods of seed development, hybridization, planting, growing, irrigating, storing, utilizing, and cooking…” was death.
Continue to part 2-->
UPDATE (03/09): Added additional citations about the distribution of consumption of animal products around the world and in the USA, as well as extended the discussion on ethnocentric nutrition in colonial times, in addition to adding a new section on the hamburger as the symbol of global capitalism/imperialism and the USA.