The animal/plant divide in the post-truth era

Dietary policies, mass media, and activists increasingly portray plants as mostly beneficial and animal source foods (ASFs) as mostly harmful. Yet, both sides of this poorly informative plant/animal binary represent heterogeneous food groups, which can be either benign or harmful from an ethical, environmental, or health perspective. It is unhelpful to base policies on such simplistic categorization, of which the conceptualization traces back to a belief system that originated in the 19th-century, and is now reinforced by societal anxieties and 'white hat' bias in a post-truth context. 
 
The livestock pharmakon as a template for binarization
 
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 (ASFs), in particular, are described as both beneficial and detrimental to our health [Leroy et al. 2018]. The idea that something simultaneously heals and poisons us is referred to in philosophy as pharmakon, an ambiguous status that also entails the 'purifying' concept of the pharmakos (scapegoat). Animals have a historical and ritualized role as scapegoats, carrying the sins of humanity, on which the livestock-destroys-the-planet narrative seems to be building [Leroy 2019; Leroy et al. 2020].
 
Livestock and ASFs are markedly shifting from the pharmakon into the pharmakos status. In other words, a transition is seen from playful ambiguity into an intimidating ASFs (bad) vs. plants (good) binary, from which the 'bad' needs to be expelled (i.e., scapegoated). 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 fulfill 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 typically used by vegan activists to vilify livestock [Leroy et al. 2020]. These are the same anti-speciesist activists who wish to embrace livestock animals as their equals, which may either be read as a paradox or as a reflection of self-disgust. In any case, all this is indicative of conceptual tension caused by a worldview constructed on a problematic series of binaries (Life/Death, Nature/Culture, Pure/Toxic, Good/Evil, etc.) [see elsewhere].
 
Conceptualization of the animal/plant binary in the Anglosphere
 
To understand the contemporary animal/plant divide, a socio-historical understanding of its origins and dynamics is needed. With the first 'Vegetarian Societies', founded by religious sects and temperance movements in England and the USA, the idea that ASFs corrupt human health took shape as institutionalized ideology in the Anglosphere of the 19th century (some historical examples of dietary asceticism and mysticism aside) [Leroy & Hite 2020]. By rejecting earthly life, these movements (Cowherdites, Bible Christians, and Seventh-Day Adventists in particular) began promoting a Garden-of-Eden diet, which was occasionally connected to a romanticized interpretation of Hindu vegetarianism by Theosophists [see elsewhere]. Symbolizing richness and sensuality, red meat was fully at odds with a world-renouncing vision of restraint, and therefore portrayed as sinful compared to the blandness of 'virtuous' whole grains. Since, crusading vegetarians have been referring to meat eating as a morally deficient and unnecessary perversion in terms of 'corpse consumption' [Plumwood 2000]. Even now that religious teachings have become less relevant, their lasting influence on dietary beliefs is noticeable.
 
Due to zealous insistence within a receptive Zeitgeist, such Food Reformist beliefs entered the emerging field of household economics, shaping public dietary views and influencing medical discourse [see elsewhere]. It has been hypothesized that this may be at the origin of what is today's healthy user bias [Leroy & Hite 2020], creating a cultural artifact in the data obtained from nutritional epidemiology 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 favor 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.

It may be no coincidence, therefore, that vegan and vegetarian movements are especially influential in the urban areas of English-speaking countries. Most of them have a legacy of Calvinistic liberalism and Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, emphasizing the concept of self-ownership of the body [Plumwood 2000]. Self-preservation becomes the aim, so that 'death' is a target for domination and a site of individual (rather than shared) salvation, even in liberal vegetarian atheists. Notions of temptation, individual fall, personal virtue, and righteousness often are at the heart of militant forms of vegetarianism.
 
Reinforcement of the binary by societal anxieties
 
Although moral vegetarianism can be an informed and conscious personal choice based on ethical concerns [see elsewhere], some authors have argued that at least part of its current prevalence is due to a wider dynamic rooted in societal unease. Proponents of vegetarianism are frequently part of the Western middle classes, and thus prone to status anxieties driven by an increasing wealth gap with the elites. This typically finds its expression in 'moral' eating and discourses on dietary purity, intertwined with virtue-signalling, advocacy for social causes, and political activism. 
 
Usually, this is done from a 'progressive' angle, blending vegetarianism with feminism, socialism, anti-racism, etc. [Veit 2015, Finn 2017; Leroy & Hite 2020]. Yet, it can also appeal to the ultra-right side of the political spectrum, giving expression to ecofascism [Devi 1959; de Coning 2017; Forchnter & Tominc 2017; Buscemi 2015, 2018a, b; Wikipedia]. Both fractions also rely on an ecological rationale, in an attempt to convert those who are not convinced by the animal rights argument [Kortetmäki & Oksanen 2020]. In its radical political version, this may even lead to ecoauthoritarianism [Beeson 2010].

Loss of individual purpose in a status-oriented society mirrors resentment, amplified by 'mimetic desire' [Girard 1972] and increasing wealth gaps between the middle classes and elites. This is bound to trigger scapegoating reactions and a 'transvaluation of values' (what was good and strong is turned into vile and sick) [Leroy 2019; Leroy et al. 2020]. The transvaluation 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].
 
In the process of transvaluation, historically benign connotations of ASFs, 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]. 
 
References to a common threat, such as 'planetary catastrophe' or 'moral decline', act as a unifying narrative to shape mob homogeneity (and thus to dissolve inter-individual differences and inequalities) [Girard 1972]. As argued above, animals (and ASFs) 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].
 
Reinforcement of the binary by mass media in a post-truth setting
 
Animal husbandry and ASF-heavy diets 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). 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].
 
To make matters worse, the post-truth era, 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 aim at increasing 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 at all times rational and unbiased. As argued below, this is far from being the case.

Reinforcement of the binary by scientific and technocratic communities
 
Higher educated population groups and scientists that are strongly committed to an ideological viewpoint are particularly prone to 'myside bias', unable to realize that they have derived their beliefs from the social groups they belong to [Stanovich 2020]. Often, this is also amplified by 'white hat bias', i.e., the distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends [Cope & Allison 2010]. In food science, this may result in a reliance on a Manichean animal/plant division, leaving little room for nuances and middle ground.
 
As a result, ASFs are now portrayed by various scientists as intrinsically harmful, whilst healthy and sustainable eating is equated to 'plant-based' diets, almost by definition [Leroy & Hite 2020]. Red meat is sometimes specifically labelled as an 'unhealthy food' together with sugar and refined grains, even by some of the leading nutritionists [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]. 
 
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 by livestock on health [see elsewhere] and the environment [see elsewhere] was shown to be less catastrophic than previously claimed, the debate is now shifting to one on 'opportunity costs', i.e., what could be obtained as benefits 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 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]. 
 
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 nutritionism in the case of diets [cf. Scrinis 2013], while translating into potentially 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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