Is it time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?
Are environmentalists waging war on culinary traditions?
I love meat. I’m a sucker for an all-you-can-eat BBQ, I’m part of a new ‘Burger Thursdays’ tradition and my great South America meat-binge tour is fresh in my memory. However, last week Leonardo Di Caprio told me that the carbon footprint of an individual hamburger leaves the same carbon footprint as leaving your air conditioning on for 24 hours. A feeling of meat-guilt rekindled within me. It has been clear for a long time now that high meat consumption contributes significantly to global warming. Is it now time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?
For many people, food and drink is one of the primary reasons why they travel – to learn about a culture and to immerse themselves in a different way of life. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, claims that ‘food history is as important as a baroque church’ and that ‘governments should recognize cultural heritage and protect traditional food.’ Can this be true even if a country’s culinary habits are toxic for the environment? To what extent should culinary habits be protected in the name of culture?
‘Food history is as important as a baroque church.’ – Carlo Petrini
Unfortunately for Earth, meat is delicious. And meat sandwiches are delicious. I’m fascinated by cities that have tied a particular sandwich to their identity: the Philly Cheese Steak is described as a ‘civic icon’ and ‘cultural obsession’ by the Philipelphia’s official tourism website; Porto has the heart-attack-on-a-plate monstrosity that is the ‘Francesinha’; and the Municipal Market of São Paulo is teeming with people gobbling down ‘mortadella’ sandwiches. Hundreds of eateries benefit from the reputation of these indulgences as tourists strive to live and eat like locals.
These sandwiches add to the charm of a city, keep culinary traditions alive and help fuel local economies, but at what point does this meat consumption become excessive? Two of the biggest consumers of red meat in the world are Argentina and Brazil. Argentina is famous for its thick, juicy steak and asado tradition. Brazilian all-you-can-eat rodizio restaurants are heaven for meat-lovers; you watch as much as twenty different types of steak are sliced onto your plate fresh from the grill.
Beef eating and the asado are deeply engraved into Argentina’s culture. The gaucho (cowboy) way of life, the rearing and trading of cattle, has been in existence for hundreds of years and is romanticised across the country. Beef formed the basis of the gaucho diet and the asado evolved into a Sunday family tradition. I don’t envy the environmentalists who seek to change this. Argentines will possibly feel that their history, culture, economy and way of life are under attack.
Whilst it’s possible to defend the asado as a cultural tradition, the danger is that meat obsession can spiral out of control. It’s harder to argue that Argentina’s fast food industry is anything but excessive. Whilst Burger King’s new ‘Stacker Cuádruple‘ equates to 96 hours of air conditioning use, it has nothing on the ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ available for a mere £8.
The ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ would be right at home on ‘Man v Food’ whose food challenges certainly do not promote responsible meat consumption in the US (4th in the table of red meat consumption). Such challenges have seen a surge in popularity since the show first aired. Charlie Brooker writes that presenter Rickman ‘may as well lie down, open his gob and let a herd [of cattle] stampede directly into his stomach.’ Interestingly, the show is categorised as a travel show – the producers clearly feel that food challenges are a fun way of exploring local American culture (the catalogue of ‘pig out joints’ can be found here). The unfortunate truth is that this isn’t a sustainable attitude at a time where red meat consumption needs to drop.
The somewhat obvious conclusion is that moderation and balance are needed.
Returning to Carlos Petrini, he argues that ‘if you love food but aren’t environmentally aware, you’re at best naïve, and at worst, stupid.’ His argument, which surely everyone can get behind, is that celebrating gastronomic traditions and being environmentally responsible and are not mutually exclusive – that, whilst its hardly rock and roll, we can continue to travel and experience other cultures so long as we do it responsibly.