Monday, December 22, 2008

The Racial and Colonial Politics of Meat-Eating (part 1)

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[
1] and chicken was as expensive as shrimp and eaten in only 1/100th of the quantity today.[2] 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”[3]—a situation more associated with poor intercity neighborhoods.[4].

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.
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