The animal/plant divide in the post-truth era

The distinction between animals and plants in dietary and environmental policies, and especially in mass media, has become overly simplistic. While ‘plant-based’ eating is typically praised, livestock are portrayed as scapegoats, blamed for health and environmental degradation. These beliefs are influenced by societal concerns, political ideologies, and virtue signalling. The roots of this moralizing division can be traced back to 19th-century ideologies promoted by religious sects and temperance movements. Today, mass media plays a significant role in reinforcing the binary through sensationalism and simplification of scientific evidence. The post-truth era exacerbates the situation, promoting advocacy and manipulation of dietary discourse, even in scientific communities.

This article addresses the following elements:
  • What is the moral animal/plant divide? 
  • Origins of the animal/plant 
  • Societal anxieties and crusading vegetarianism
  • Role of mass media and the post-truth era
  • Biases in scientific / technocratic communities

     What is the moral animal/plant divide? 

    Contemporary dietary discourse is filled with contradictions and exaggerations. Animal source foods are particularly controversial, being described as both beneficial and detrimental to health. In today’s dietary wars, everyday foods are depicted as moral absolutes, categorized as either 'bad' (e.g., meat) or 'good' (e.g., whole grains). This mirrors a worldview built on dichotomies like Culture/Nature, Toxic/Pure, and Death/Life. Crusading vegetarians often overlay these concepts onto the animal/plant binary, portraying meat as unnatural, unhealthy, or outright evil.

    Further reading (summary of the literature):

    The pharmakon: beneficial and harmful

    Dietary discourse is ridden by exaggerations and contradictions. A cookbook analysis has shown that 40 out of 50 common ingredients have been associated with either cancer protection or risk [Schoenfeld & Ioannidis 2013]. Animal source foods, in particular, are described as both beneficial and detrimental to our health, depending on the study, expert, or journalist [Leroy et al. 2018]. Such ambiguity is not due to poor data or judgement alone [see elsewhere], but also relates to the fact that the health impact of any given food will depend on context (i.e., dose, individual needs, vulnerabilities, type of background diet, etc.) Moreover, foods can indeed simultaneously exert harmful and beneficial effects, either through superimposed mechanisms or by acting on different health outcomes. The idea that something both heals and poisons is referred to in philosophy as 'pharmakon'. Such a confusing status of ambiguity is difficult to uphold for many, provoking a collapse into an oversimplified good/evil binary. Once the 'evil' has been defined and categorized, it will need to be expelled. This is why the 'pharmakon' is related to the purifying concept of 'pharmakos' (i.e., scapegoat). The same problem is valid for environmental outcomes, which are projected upon the health binary.

    The pharmakos: animals as scapegoats

    Animals have a historical and ritualized role as scapegoats, atoning for the sins of humanity. This may well be the fundament on which the 'livestock-destroys-the-planet' is building [Leroy 2019; Leroy et al. 2020]. Characteristically, scapegoats are stereotyped as monstrous and indicative of the common Other, who is proclaimed 'guilty' by a frenzied mob, yet is unable to retaliate [Girard 2017]. As societal insiders/outsiders, animals fulfil this role to perfection. References to the monstrosities of blood and manure, planet-heating 'cow farts' and 'belches', ‘chicken periods’ (eggs), and ‘milk pus’ are often used by crusading vegetarians to vilify livestock farming [Leroy et al. 2020]. In such worldview, animal flesh may be symbolically associated to representations of blood and death, having a traumatic impact [Albertelli et al. 2023]. At the same time, however, an anti-speciesist ideology may prevail, whereby livestock animals are embraced as equals, which may either be read as a paradox or as a reflection of self-disgust. In any case, all this seems to be indicative of conceptual tension caused by a worldview constructed on an intertwined series of pre-existing binaries (Life/Death, Nature/Culture, Pure/Toxic, Good/Evil, etc.) [see elsewhere]

    The key questions are: when and where did the animal/divide first come into prominent existence, and why and by whom were plants proclaimed as the privileged side of the binary? Also, why is this increasingly becoming toxic? 

     Origins of the animal/plant divide 

    The animal/plant divide originated in the 19th century with the institutionalization of the belief that meat is harmful to human health. This ideology was spread by religious sects and temperance movements, later integrated into household economics by 'food reformists,' ultimately shaping public dietary narratives and contributing to today's healthy user bias. Wealthier, healthier individuals are more prone to adhere to dietary guidelines, which is then captured as an 'association' by nutritional epidemiology, thereby reinforcing the pattern through a positive feedback loop.

    Further reading (summary of the literature):

    Origins of modern vegetarianism

    To understand the contemporary animal/plant divide, an exploration of its origins is needed [Leroy & Hite 2020]. The idea that meat corrupts human health took shape as an institutionalized ideology in the 19th century with the first 'Vegetarian Societies', founded by religious sects and temperance movements in England and the USA [Spencer 2009; Barkas 2014; Shprintzen 2015; see elsewhere]. Due to zealous insistence within a receptive Zeitgeist characterized by social anxieties, Food Reformist beliefs entered the emerging field of household economics. As a result, they have contributed to the shaping of public dietary narratives, while moralizing and politicizing them [Biltekoff 2013; Veit 2013; Finn 2017; see elsewhere]. Influential health practitioners, such as John H. Kellogg who had a Seventh-Day Adventist background, have effectively contributed to the amalgamation of ideological, dietary, medical, and political discourse [Wilson 2014]. Vegetarianism was thereby idealized as an expression of biological living, against a background of science and progress.

    Origins of the healthy user bias?

    It has been hypothesized that the adoption of vegetarian dietary advice by parts of the middle classes of the Anglosphere may be at the origin of what is today's healthy user bias [Leroy & Hite 2020], creating a cultural artefact in the data obtained from the scientific domain of 'nutritional epidemiology of chronic disease'. This seems particularly relevant in the US, but not (or less so) in other cultural contexts [see elsewhere]. Upper-middle class Americans, who are healthier to begin with, typically eat less red meat and favour whole grains. As such, they are more susceptible to 'moral eating' and obedient adherence to dietary guidelines. This pattern is captured by observational studies which, in a positive feedback loop, further confirm and strengthen the original dietary advice.


     Societal anxieties and crusading vegetarianism 

    Moral vegetarianism is a personal choice based on ethical concerns, but its prevalence can at least be partly attributed to societal unease and status anxieties among the Western middle classes. Militant advocates of vegetarianism see dietary choices as moral and political acts, while often also advocating for dietary purity. This perspective is frequently linked with virtue signalling, engagement in social causes, and political activism. While vegetarianism is commonly associated with progressive ideologies, it can also emerge in eco-fascist or eco-authoritarian contexts. The loss of individual purpose in a status-oriented society leads to resentment and scapegoating reactions, resulting in a transvaluation of values. Historically positive associations with animal-derived foods are inverted, and meat avoidance becomes a way to demonstrate superiority. 

    Further reading (summary of the literature):

    Social construct rooted in anxiety 

    For many, adopting vegetarianism is an attempt to affirm a social identity [Plante et al. 2019]. Although it can be an informed and conscious personal choice based on ethical concerns [see elsewhere], part of the current prevalence of vegetarianism manifests itself as a 'crusading' variant. The latter seems to be due to a dynamic rooted in societal unease. Crusading vegetarians are frequently individuals who are part of the Western middle classes and are prone to status anxieties (e.g., caused by an increasing wealth gap with the elites). Such unease is generated by 'mimetic desire' and ultimately leads to a loss of individual purpose, resentment, mob formation, and scapegoating [cf. Girard 1972]. Practically, these frustrations find their expression in 'moral' eating and evangelic discourses on dietary purity, intertwined with virtue-signalling, advocacy for social interventionism, and political activism. It is important to bear in mind, however, that this psychotype is only characterizing a subset of militant vegetarians - albeit a very manifest one - that should not be generalized to the entire population.

    Meat's transvaluation of values

    Crusading vegetarianism involves a transvaluation of values driven by 'slave morality' (what was good and strong is turned into vile and sick) [Leroy 2019; Leroy et al. 2020]. The mechanism consists of a demonization of all conventional representations of power, sensuality, and lust, and a glorification of the miserable condition of victimhood, usually including a hatred of life, asceticism, a denial of the realities of human nature, and a wish to purge resentment through revenge [Nietzsche 1886, 1887]. Historically benign connotations of animal source foods, such as strength, abundance, sensuality, and generosity [which are particularly valid for red meat; Leroy & Praet 2015], are inverted into ones of death, infertility, debauchery, and selfishness [Leroy et al. 2020]. Purity accumulates with every single act of meat avoidance, as one is demonstrating superiority by being able to refuse what was historically seen as the most nutritious foods. Violation of that sanctified state, accidentally or due to 'weakness', not only creates disgust but also collapse of spiritual capital. This may explain why moral vegetarians often do not find it worthwhile to continue after a transgression [Levy 2015].

    Livestock and scapegoating 

    To dissolve the interindividual differences and inequalities that gave rise to mimetic desire and resentment, a homogenous mob needs to be created so that atomized individuals can find a sense of belonginess and purpose. References to a common threat, such as 'planetary catastrophe' or 'moral decline', act as a unifying narrative. Typically, this goes hand in hand with scapegoating strategies [Girard 1972]. As argued above, animals (and the food derived thereof) have a longstanding legacy as scapegoats. That function is now recycled, leading to excessive blaming in both the public health [see elsewhere] and environmental debates [see elsewhere]. In ethical discourse, meat becomes 'murder' [see elsewhere]. Part (if not most) of the public is less interested in factual correctness than in social rewards coming from upholding such herd beliefs [cf. Lomborg 2019; Clear].

    Politicization of vegetarianism 

    Crusading forms of vegetarianism are often coming from a 'progressive' angle, as a dietary statement in support of feminism, socialism, anti-racism, etc. [Veit 2015Finn 2017Leroy & Hite 2020]. The refusal or incapability to adopt and maintain vegetarian diets is therefore said to typify conservatives and people with a right-wing political mindset [Hodson & Earle 2018]. Some go as far as portraying the consumption of ASFs as an oppressive act of 'white supremacy' [Adams 2022]. However, vegetarianism also appeals to some within the ultra-right side of the political spectrum, giving expression to ecofascism [Devi 1959de Coning 2017Forchnter & Tominc 2017Buscemi 20152018a,bWikipedia]. It is not uncommon that an ecological rationale is offered in support, as to convert those who are not sufficiently convinced by the health or animal rights arguments [Kortetmäki & Oksanen 2020]. In its radical political version, this may lead to manifestations of ecoauthoritarianism [Beeson 2010].


     Role of mass media and the post-truth era 

    Animal husbandry and diets heavy in animal-derived foods have contextual effects on health and the planet. However, nuanced debates on these matters are scarce in the public space. Vested interests, the 'attention economy’, and click-bait dynamics in mass media lead to sensationalism and misrepresentation of scientific evidence. The use of simplified slogans, often with reference to ‘scientific authorities’, increases the impact and persuasive power of messages, whereas repetition leads to the illusion of truth. Newspapers tend to promote one-sided views on the food system, sometimes favouring livestock farming and other times being hostile and biased against it. The global media's focus on adverse impacts of animal-derived foods now overshadows the positive contributions of livestock to health, ecosystems, and livelihoods.

    Further reading (summary of the literature):

    Click-bait dynamics and agendas

    Animal husbandry and diets heavy in animal source foods are not without problems, but their effects on health [see elsewhere] and the planet [see elsewhere] are contextual [Leroy et al. 2020]. Unfortunately, there is little room for nuanced debate within the public space. Mass media are driven by click-bait dynamics and the so-called 'attention economy', leading to sensationalism and sweeping misrepresentations of the scientific evidence [Leroy et al. 2018]. Moreover, certain newspapers are financed by ideological and politico-economic agendas [see elsewhere] to promote one-dimensional views on the food system. Although these views are sometimes supportive of livestock farming, they can also be hostile and structurally biased (e.g., the Guardian's 'Animals Farmed' series). Another example is Vox Media, funded by Animal Charity Evaluators [ACE 2023a], founded in 2013 as Effective Animal Activism in Oxford, England, and merged with the US-based Justice for Animals [ACE 2023b]. Global media reporting on adverse impacts of ASFs now overshadows the coverage of livestock's positive contributions to health, ecosystems, and livelihoods [Leroy et al. 2018; Marchmont Com 2019]. 

    The post-truth era and the illusion of truth 

    To make matters worse, the post-truth era [Scheffer et al. 2021], and its reliance on social and mass media, has paved the way for quackery, advocacy, and manipulation of dietary discourse [Leroy et al. 2018; Marton et al. 2020]. Because intricacy hampers the process of societal conversion into a dietary belief system, the use of slogans is widespread. Such simplifications increase the persuasive power of the messages to be transferred. Due to the 'illusory truth effect', repetition of the same messages eventually equates with truth [Dreyfuss 2017]. The frequent references to 'scientific authorities' further troubles the waters [Leroy et al. 2018], either because studies are misread or because it is erroneously assumed that scientists are always rational and unbiased. As argued below, this is far from being the case.

     Biases in scientific / technocratic communities 

    Biases frequently shape how scientists approach the topic of animal source foods in their research, resulting in a selective interpretation of evidence. Biases can be subconscious and ideological, rather than driven by financial conflicts of interest. My-side bias occurs when scientists adopt beliefs from their social circles; white-hat bias involves the distortion of evidence in a zealous attempt ‘to do good’. Governmental funders' interference and pressure on researchers can compromise impartiality in public-good research. Manipulating data to suit political agendas is concerning, especially when health departments invest heavily in specific interventions and policies. The setup and/or use of models that are used by such scientists in food systems simulations may be flawed, emphasizing desired outcomes selectively. Eventually, the danger is that the outcomes of such studies are adopted by policy makers and lead to reckless top-down approaches, while neglecting unexpected events and leading to harmful interventionist policies and ethical repercussions.

    Further reading (summary of the literature):

    Cognitive bias and external pressure

    Several forms of cognitive bias contaminate the scientific community, summarized as: 1) my experience is a reasonable reference, 2) I make correct assessments of the world, 3) I am good, 4) my group is a reasonable reference, 5) my group is good, and 6) people's attributes (not context) shape outcomes [Oeberst & Imhoff 2023]. Higher educated population groups and scientists that are strongly committed to an ideological viewpoint are particularly prone to 'myside bias' and in-group allegiances, unable to realize that they have derived their narrow beliefs from the social circles they belong to [Stanovich 2020Clark et al. 2023]. This is amplified by 'white hat bias', i.e., the distortion of information in the service of what may be ideologically or politically perceived to be righteous ends [Cope & Allison 2010]. Scientists making controversial or unpopular claims often have to face backlash, such as reputational damage, the withholding of resources, sanctions by academic hierarchies, censorship, and rejection of scientific publications by reviewers and editors [Clark et al. 2023]. This may also result in self-censorship, so that scientists end up avoiding certain scientific arguments, ultimately resulting in the 'systematic distortion of empirical reality' [Clark et al. 2023].

    Moreover, governmental funders are known to interfere with public-good research, by putting pressure on the impartiality of researchers [McCrabb et al. 2021]. Manipulation of data 'to fit with political concerns' is particularly problematic when governmental health departments are heavily invested in the health intervention and its associated policy advice [Watson 2021]. Some research is also directly funded by actors with either financial or ideological interests in an anti-livestock agenda. For instance, the now discontinued Animal Advocacy Research Fund' has funded many academic studies that are favourable to animal rights advocacy and 'plant-based alternatives',  [AARF 2024]. AARF was part of (and was funded by) the Animal Charity Evaluators group [ACE 2022], an 'effective altruist' animal-rights advocacy initiative that also provides grants to The Good Food Institute, New Harvest, Faunalytics, Vox, Dharma Voices for Animals, Compassion in World Farming, and The Humane League [ACE 2022ACE 2023]. 

    Academic hyperbole has become common 

    As a result of the above-mentioned biases, the scientific assessment of the harms and benefits of animal agriculture often leaves little room for nuance and context. Animal source foods (ASFs) are now portrayed by various scientists as intrinsically harmful [Leroy et al. 2023]. In contrast, healthy and sustainable eating is equated to 'plant-based' diets, almost by definition [Leroy & Hite 2020], while this depends on the broader context and origin of the diet rather than simply its plant or animal origin [Gallagher et al. 2021]. Even some of the leading nutritionists now sometimes label red meat specifically as an 'unhealthy food',  together with sugar and refined grains [e.g., Willett et al. 2019], contrasting with its longstanding contribution to humanity's biosocial needs (including health) [Leroy & Praet 2015]. In addition to being excessively blamed for environmental damage, ASFs are targeted for the outbreak of zoonoses and related diseases, including the COVID-19 pandemic [Sp. Correspondent 2020]. For an overview of hyperbolic statements coming from academia, see Leroy et al. [2023].  

    Science is tuned to obtain a pre-set outcome

    To scientists with an anti-livestock focus, the goal often seems to justify the means, with a continuous shifting of goalposts to keep the animal/plant binary intact. Since, upon scrutiny, the actual harm caused by livestock on both health [see elsewhere] and the environment [see elsewhere] was shown to be less catastrophic than previously claimed, new loopholes needed to be created. For instance, attempts have been made to shift the debate to one on 'opportunity costs', i.e., what could be seen as benefits obtained without livestock farming [e.g., Hayek et al. 2020]. The latter requires a 'food systems' approach and the use of global models to simulate and suggest 'optimal' scenarios. Such models are not only unable to capture all real-world complexities, they are also relatively flexible to accommodate the desired outcome by specifically selecting for supportive metrics and underlying parameters. This is, for instance, the case with respect to land use assumptions [see elsewhere] or the nutritional interchangeability of meat and pulses [see elsewhere].  

    Harmful technocratic interventionism 

    Various authors have criticized the reckless use of top-down approaches to systems of all sorts [Gall 2012; Leroy et al. 2020; Scott 2020], and their negligence of black swan events [Taleb 2010]. They lead to scientism at the level of public policy making and, specifically, to nutritionism in the case of diets [cf. Scrinis 2013]. The concern is that this may result in harmful interventionist policies [see elsewhere]. This is not to be considered as anodyne; in a biopolitical context, such public interventions can have serious ethical repercussions on individual responsibility and freedom, cause iatrogenic harm, and affect societal well-being [Mayes & Thompson 2015]. The eventual impact of a radical change in food production and eating may be devastating indeed, for nutritional security specifically [see elsewhere], but also at a broader societal level [see elsewhere].

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