Editorial note: The text below is an introduction to the first of Initium's three, comprehensive installments on the changing nature of meat production and consumption in China (with an eye to One Health). It is translated from Chinese. Please check back again soon for the full story.
In his last full-length work, Fourteen, Japanese manga artist Kazuo Kaito describes a future world, in the 22nd century, in which mankind only survives under the protection of artificial barriers; Earth's environment is so severely damaged it cannot exist without them. Here, the natural world is absent, and most species have been exterminated. But on this harsh landscape, meat production has not ceased. In the still paper-thin city of Tokyo, there is a towering pyramid in which a chicken manufacturing company continues to produce delicious chicken meat. Yet there is not a single chicken inside; only pool after pool of nutrient solution, containing genes extracted from poultry. One day, though, a chicken head appears in the chicken company's nutrient solution, and humans end up raising an animal determined to take revenge on behalf of its kind.
This is, of course, a cartoonist's imagination of the future, not science, not reality. But our relationship with meat is intricate: according to anthropologists and scientists, humans have been eating meat since the Paleolithic (2.5 million-10,000 BCE). Because of meat, humans as a species were able to migrate out of the African continent and spread around the world; because of meat, we became social animals, built languages, communities, and then civilizations. With brains that evolved rapidly as a result of meat eating, we reached the top of the food chain, outsmarting stronger predators on the African savannahs.
For most of human history, meat has indeed been a luxury. In the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Sister Feng uses about ten chickens to cook a fresh vegetable dish in order to show off her modernity, her status. In the post-WWII era, however, the industrialization of meat production has not only made it more affordable for most people in the developing world to eat meat, but they can also consume a lot of it. Eating a McDonald’s Big Mac alone provides 563 units of calories, one third of an adult’s daily calorie requirement and costs ¥22 (US$6). It is the easiest time in our history to get a hold of meat, without having to risk our lives to hunt, without having to abide by state rationing, without even having to butcher anything ourselves. One need just take a trip to a supermarket and buy wholesome, cheap, good quality meat with great ease.
But our story with meat doesn't stop there. Today, when billions can finally afford to be carnivores, we wonder if meat is the cause of climate change. Is meat consumption causing us all kinds of diseases? Is the modern meat industry the source of the next global plague? Beyond the obvious questions, the unasked questions seem even more difficult to answer: Is it true that we are physically incapable of giving up meat because we are born to eat it? And why can we always turn a blind eye to the cruelty of mass meat production to animals?
The relationship between meat consumption and GDP in different countries and regions. In one group of countries, increased per capita GDP leads to greater meat consumption; in another group of usually already-developed countries, the relationship between growth and consumption isn't as strong / Credit: Initium Media/data from the OECD.
Once again, scientists have tried their best to answer these questions, but as with all other human questions, the scientific answers are far from adequate. What is animal, what is food, what is human - like the chicken head in the nutrient solution - is up to our imagination.
To be continued...
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Chinese by Initium Media on August 18, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A slab of meat / Credit: Initium Media.