Nearly a billion pounds of beef move through the JBS processing plant in Grand Island, Neb., every year. Except this year: Over the last two months, the company has had to slow production as meatpacking plants around the country have been roiled by coronavirus outbreaks.
In late March, Nebraska state health officials, fearing such outbreaks, urged Governor Pete Ricketts to temporarily close the plant.
After Ricketts rebuffed them, stories of missing hand sanitizer and soap, no personal protective gear, and insufficient safety precautions began to leak out of the plant, which as of April had 260 confirmed Covid-19 cases that can be tied back to it. It’s difficult to know how many more among its 3,000 workers have been infected since then, because Ricketts has refused to disclose official plant numbers. Across the country, rural areas that contain meatpacking plants with outbreaks of Covid-19 have rates five times those of other rural areas.
In a daily briefing on April 23, Ricketts dismissed those who thought the largely immigrant meatpacking workers in his state deserved relief by warning, “Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products.”
President Donald Trump issued an executive order five days later recognizing meat as a “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense,” adding that he would “ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans” under the Defense Production Act of 1950. Ricketts—undeterred by the outbreaks in his state and emboldened by the White House—issued a press release declaring May as Beef Month in Nebraska.
“Politically, this shows that meat is indispensable,” said University of Notre Dame professor Joshua Specht, whose 2019 book Red Meat Republic recounts the history of American beef production. “Shortages of meat will personalize the pandemic for everyone, and that is a major political problem when you’re trying to say the country is open for business.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragility of American supply chains, and nothing demonstrates that more acutely than the price spikes, depleted meat aisles, and imposed rationing on a food that we’ve come to expect in limitless quantities. The brutality of effectively sacrificing human beings to keep those aisles well stocked might be the breaking point in what was already the liveliest debate inside food: the future of beef in the American diet.
Industrial beef is the most polluting, the most carbon-emitting, and the most resource-intensive form of protein. A 2018 study published in the journal Nature recommended that the average US citizen cut beef consumption by 75 percent if we want to keep the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. In the context of Covid-19, University of Minnesota biologist Rob Wallace has made the connection between global industrial livestock farming and the proliferation of superviruses.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already heard that you should be cutting down on beef. But Trump’s and Ricketts’s decisions show that with beef so embedded in American culture, it’s not going anywhere without a fight.
Ricketts’s warning of riots if big government comes for our beef echoes the claim by former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka that the Green New Deal is a harbinger of authoritarian communism. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” he bellowed in a speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.” Gorka made it explicit: To threaten the primacy of meat in the American diet is to threaten a pillar of what it means to be a free American.
Gorka’s ravings about government-mandated burger confiscation sound like some nefarious plot by the same “postmodern cultural Marxists” decried by the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. In 2018 he revealed on the wildly popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he was following an extreme form of the now trendy high-fat, high-protein paleolithic and ketogenic diets: just beef and water. Thanks to the “carnivore diet,” as he called it, Peterson said he’d lost 50 pounds, cured his 30-year gum disease, and seen his lifelong depression cease. “Meat, man—I’m telling you, meat,” reads an endorsement of the diet beneath an Instagram photo of him solemnly cutting through a steak.
Peterson first emerged in the public consciousness after protesting a Canadian policy about observing gendered pronouns, which he claimed as evidence of creeping authoritarian rule. He subsequently rode that wave of free-speech martyrdom to a best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life, full of banal self-help infused with social Darwinism. Peterson addresses feelings of real alienation in his audience, but instead of locating the structural sources of their misery, he harks back to an imaginary past when men could be men, before Western civilization became preoccupied with social justice and feminism. In recent years he’s become a kind of soothsayer for the mostly young white male demographic that is the subject of worried fascination in the current age of homegrown extremism.
It’s been 30 years since Carol J. Adams’s landmark The Sexual Politics of Meat connected the subjugation of animals with the subjugation of women. Studies have shown that men are less likely to embrace eco-friendly practices because we perceive them as feminine; a recent survey of men in the United States found that they were less likely to wear a protective face mask during the pandemic because they viewed them as a sign of weakness.
Peterson’s promotion of the carnivore diet was met with scornful incredulity and ridiculed as a self-defeating attempt to own the libs. But defenders of the diet pushed back, reminding us that humans are meant to eat meat and that it provides essential nourishment in the wasteland of the standard American diet—defined by high-fructose corn syrup, refined grains, and industrial seed oils.
We shouldn’t project our politics onto “people who are half-dead, trying to get their lives back.” That’s what his daughter, Mikhaila Peterson, 28, told me when I asked her about the politics of promoting an all-beef diet in the 21st century. She put her dad on the diet after it helped her with a crippling autoimmune disease and has since rebranded it as her very own Lion Diet.
“You have to reach a certain level of desperation to try it,” she admitted. “But because of how the media has been portraying Dad, the diet has been unfairly associated with the alt-right.” Assigning people a conscious political identity based on their diet would be unwise; Adolf Hitler, famously, was a vegetarian.
But it would be equally unwise to ignore the embrace of red meat by the far right. Diet books were among the best-selling literature of the 20th century. More than simply offering guidance on which foods to eat and which to avoid, they remain a way to construct grand narratives about who we are. “Self-help gets trashed as being an opiate of the masses,” said Adrienne Rose Bitar, the author of Diet and the Disease of Civilization. “But very few dieters see themselves on an individual quest for bodily perfection. Rather they recognize societal problems like obesity or diabetes and think that they’re going to do their own small part, however impossibly, to create a better world.”
Rogan and alt-right icons like Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones are already established in the dude self-care space, selling skin serums and supplements that might otherwise be considered ladylike. In recent years “soy boy” has eclipsed “cuck” as a term to deride the tofu-loving, beta-male archetype. The same return to a past, forgotten glory of men that is central to the appeal of people like Peterson and the nostalgic project of making America great again can also be found among advocates of low-carb regimes like the paleo, keto, and carnivore diets, which stress a return to the natural and traditional foodways of a healthier past.
Conservative radio host Dennis Prager’s faux university PragerU released a video last year titled “How the Government Made You Fat,” in which the “low-carb cardiologist” Bret Scher critiques the US Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid. The anti–Big Government message is clear: You are responsible for your own health. Don’t rely on the government to take care of you. For the One America News Network correspondent and former Pizzagate enthusiast Jack Posobiec and the far-right commentator Stefan Molyneux, praising meat-heavy, low-carb nutrition is a way to draw a contrast with the crypto-vegetarian piles of birdseed at the public schools their children attend, and Molyneux speculated it could be a communist plot. For others, eating meat is a way to police the boundaries of masculinity. In 2017 the far-right Canadian commentator Faith Goldy asked whether our fridges were the reason men were all of a sudden signing up for women’s studies classes. Alex Jones’s former sidekick Paul Joseph Watson wondered if soy was making Western men more likely to adopt left-wing beliefs. Anthony Johnson regularly hosts paleo nutritionists as part of his premier manosphere gathering, the 21 Convention.
Even the onetime steak salesman Trump did some nutritional virtue-signaling when it was revealed that he regularly enjoyed two Big Macs at dinner. His former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski quickly clarified to CNN that Trump “never ate the bread, which is the important part.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—which lobbied for meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic—dispatched its former senior director of sustainable beef production research, Sara Place, to assure the conservative media host Glenn Beck that methane emissions from “cow farts” were “fake news” and that cattle “are part of the climate change solution.”
Contemporary right-wing politics survives on a diet of grievance, persecution, and misdirection. In the right-wing mind, feminists and social justice warriors have been joined by the CEOs of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, creator of the Beyond Burger (the demand for alternative meat has skyrocketed but has not surpassed the demand for beef during the pandemic), Bill Gates, animal rights activists, Greta Thunberg, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to carry water for the vegan agenda. “Modern society has created the least masculine men in history,” reads one tweet by the Internet’s mysterious self-described “meat philosopher” Carnivore Aurelius. Another proclaims, “The Carnivore Diet is the red pill that wakes you up to reality.” In these circles, the war on meat is a war on men. Red meat is the red pill.
Even before the current once-in-a-century public health crisis, it was an anxious time to try to eat healthy. Chronic afflictions like obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes—commonly referred to as diseases of civilization—persist at rates bordering epidemic levels. As populations around the world modernize and adopt something closer to the standard American diet, health outcomes worsen. Our understanding of nutrition hasn’t helped.
The Australian historian Gyorgy Scrinis coined the term “nutritionism” for a paradigm that allows food corporations to rebrand and remarket ultraprocessed food as health food. In 2007 he identified a nutritional “loss of legitimacy” that had opened the door to the construction of new nutritional worldviews.
The paleo diet (the defining diet of the era, according to Bitar) is one example. Drawing on evolutionary biology and the caveman mystique, paleo mimics what was supposedly available to preagricultural humans, with a meat-heavy, grain-free, minimally processed diet. It’s what we ate before “everyone’s health went to shit,” to quote John Durant, the author of The Paleo Manifesto. The framing is instructive. All diet plans are an attempt to mediate the transition from an agricultural, pastoral lifestyle to an urban, industrialized one—and the distance that’s put between us and our food. Existential anxiety over what that change has done to our food and thus ourselves is what unites all diet literature.
“Diet books replicate the 19th century religious form of the jeremiad,” Bitar said. “They say we are fat, we are ugly, we are sinners—but together we can lose the weight and regain our understanding of what nature and God can bring.” In an essay for the food studies journal Gastronomica, historian Michael Kideckel noted that this understanding of food invariably launders a reactionary view of history.
“In this philosophy of the past, Americans must rediscover a ‘primitive’ instinct from a time when women did more work within the home, immigrants and indigenous people were even more marginalized, and fewer people saw culture and tradition as the product of specific human decisions,” Kideckel wrote. For Durant, our collective health went to shit when women left the kitchen, outsourcing the cooking to corporations. “Their traditional role was always an important one and shouldn’t be trivialized,” he said in a 2017 interview.
Dieting has been considered a feminine pursuit for so long that when Weight Watchers first marketed to men in 2007, said Tulsa University professor Emily Contois, the tagline was “Real men don’t diet.” But the first diet plans emerged during the mid- to late 19th century, when the ideal man came to be “embodied in muscular selves, nations, empires and races,” wrote the essayist Pankaj Mishra, who drew parallels between the 19th century’s ideas of manliness and those that “contaminate politics and culture across the world in the 21st century.”
The earliest diet to go by that name was a meat-heavy, proto-low-carb plan credited to a wealthy Londoner named William Banting, who in 1863 published the pamphlet Letter on Corpulence. It was such a best seller that “Bant” became a synonym for “diet.” Dr. James Salisbury, the inventor of the steaks, was another diet pioneer. He experimented with periods of eating only a single food like bread, oatmeal, baked beans, or asparagus before landing on—what else?—beef. It was the food that is “most easily digested” and “that we can subsist on exclusively the longest,” wrote Elma Stuart, a follower of Salisbury’s, in her book What Must I Do to Get Well?
Salisbury saw his book The Relation of Alimentation and Disease as a way to address the character and capabilities of Western men. Civilization, he wrote, was damaging their physical and moral health, making them more likely to “sin” and “shirk responsibility.” He may have been influenced by Mose Velsor, a columnist for the New York Atlas, who in the 1850s worried that city life was producing a generation of soy boys. When Velsor’s columns were rediscovered and republished in 2016 as Guide to Manly Health and Training, they bore the author’s real name: Walt Whitman. “Healthy manly virility,” he wrote, was being depleted. To foster a more “pure-blooded race,” Whitman recommended an end to “confections, sweets, salads, things fried in grease.” Instead he advocated eating fresh meat “with as few outside condiments as possible.”
The connection between eating meat and the superiority of Western men was drawn out further in an 1869 essay “The Diet of Brain Workers” by the neurologist George Miller Beard. “What have the natives of South America, the savages of Africa, the stupid Greenlander, the peasantry of Europe, all combined, done for civilization, in comparison with any single beef-eating class of Europe?” he wondered. Beard is better known for his theory that the Euro-American brain was so powerful that it could overwork itself into a condition called neurasthenia—stress or exhaustion. In his 1881 book American Nervousness, he wrote that the affliction that came to be known as Americanitis was caused by the technological advancements of modern civilization. One such advancement was the “mental activity of women.”
To cure Americanitis, Beard prescribed that men harden themselves by working on cattle ranches, of course. Theodore Roosevelt would epitomize this transformation in American masculinity. He gained a reputation in the New York Assembly as an effeminate jane-dandy but returned from his time on the frontier with the stoic, aggressive cowboy bravado that would define and plague American masculinity for at least 100 more years.
As president, Roosevelt popularized the term “race suicide” to describe the fear that excessively fertile immigrants would outbreed their racial betters. Calling it “an unpardonable crime,” in a 1914 article, “Twisted Eugenics,” he castigated women who chose to attend college or use contraception instead of focusing on repopulating the white race. It’s not unlike the present-day fears of white genocide or the great replacement that you’ll find in the tweets of Iowa Representative Steve King or in the white nationalist literature uncovered on Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller’s e-mail server.
Toughening up on the frontier also meant interaction with Indigenous tribes. Even Salisbury’s beef remedy was inspired by his observations of Native Americans. “There is no reason why we of civilized communities should not live to an even greater age than man does in the wild state,” he wrote. But it’s unlikely that Salisbury ever witnessed the healthy wild state of beef eaters, because cattle are not indigenous to North America.
Beef’s journey to the top of the American diet began with the near extinction of bison and the genocide and forced removal of Indigenous tribes who subsisted on hunting that animal. “Cattle ranching becomes central to the dispossession of Native lands and the takeover of western ecosystems,” Notre Dame’s Specht pointed out. “Cattle are a tool of, and a justification for, taking that land.”
At the same time that American manhood was redefined as the strong, silent type roaming the western frontier, beef became hypercommodified, readily available and relatively inexpensive for the first time in history. “The idea that beef is something you eat all the time is the product of industrial agriculture, it’s a product of cities, and it’s a product of the expansion of commodity markets,” Specht continued.
To have a seemingly limitless supply of beef was such a global novelty that it became a badge of Americanness. “Immigrants would write home and say, ‘Life in America is hard, but at least I get red meat all the time,’” Specht said. We can but wonder how the largely immigrant workforce at the JBS plant in Grand Island felt about receiving 10 pounds of free ground beef as a coronavirus bonus.
W here do you go these days to mingle with some of the thought leaders advocating for beef to remain a central part of the American diet? Out west. Last August, over 150 people came together for three days at the University of San Diego student center for the eighth annual Ancestral Health Symposium, a big-tent conference that encompasses paleo, keto, and carnivore people along with anyone else who wants to examine “current health challenges through the context of our ancestral heritage,” according to the Ancestral Health Society’s website. It’s a heterogeneous community with plenty of internal debate, but its members share an intense skepticism of the medical, nutritional, and scientific establishment and a celebration of real, natural, traditional food.
“This is the Wild West, man. This is the fringe that the mainstream poaches from,” a sturdily built, sandy-haired chiropractor from Los Angeles told me as we looked out at a room of lean, mostly white attendees outfitted for functionality—wicking athletic shirts, yoga pants, five-toed shoes, Xero sandals, blue-light-blocking shades, and slick metal water bottles. He wasn’t wrong. The ancestral health community has been on the front lines of reclaiming healthy fat from unfair criticism; despite critiques of the community as overly patriarchal, some feminists have praised ancestral diets as a respite from a culture that equates “beauty with thinness,” to quote Bitar. If you know about collagen peptides, circadian rhythms, gut microbes, or the dangers of inflammation, these people may have had something to do with it.
Yet there remains the fact that humans must change our relationship to meat, especially beef, if we are to avoid ecological catastrophe, let alone improve the lives of meatpacking workers or help the animals themselves. But if meat is of essential value to human health, we seem to be in an existential bind, trapped between our perceived nutritional needs and the capacity of our ecosystem and labor force to meet them. In “Can Seven Billion Humans Go Paleo?” the writer Erica Etelson wondered, “If there’s not enough animal protein to go around without cooking the planet, who should be first in line?” That’s the mostly unasked question at the heart of the meat debate: one of power and ethics, not fat and protein. That’s also the dilemma that many people grapple with (this soycialist writer included) as they eat the occasional burger, steak, or oxtail.
“I’ve been called right wing for saying meat is healthy,” said Diana Rodgers, a farmer and dietitian. “It’s very political, but it shouldn’t be. You’re either a less-meat environmentalist or you eat a lot of meat and don’t care about the environment.” Rodgers was in the midst of debunking the EAT-Lancet Commission’s “planetary health diet,” which aims to accommodate the growing global population and planetary limits. The guidelines allow for only one serving of red meat per week—a death sentence to the people in this small auditorium. Rodgers disclosed that the General Mills meat snack company Epic Provisions had paid her way to the conference to help promote her upcoming book and documentary Sacred Cow (“the nutritional, environmental and ethical case for better beat,” according to her website), which was cowritten by Robb Wolf, the author of the best-selling The Paleo Solution.
Rodgers argues that beef is the ideal food for the health of the planet because of the potential for holistic range management—an approach to cattle rearing popularized by Zimbabwean rancher Allan Savory and his namesake institute. To oversimplify, cattle are strategically moved around a plot of land in a way that mimics the millions of bison that grazed for thousands of years in North America. This grazing technique restores grasslands and revitalizes soil in a way that allows for substantial—maybe even earth-saving—levels of carbon sequestration. While holistic range management (and the prospect of carbon-neutral burgers) makes intuitive sense and has serious momentum, it’s also highly polarizing.
There are credible scientists on either side of the Savory debate, including David Briske and Richard Teague, two professors in the same department at Texas A&M University. Savory’s past as an officer in the Rhodesian Army hasn’t done him any favors among his critics, who portray him as a delusional iconoclast with no respect for scientific rigor. But to his proponents, which include a growing list of farmers around the world, Savory is a misunderstood sage. The complexity and dynamism of his methods cannot be fully appreciated in summary form.
If there is a middle ground between the dystopian reality of the beef industry and the unsettling vision of a world without animal agriculture posited by Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown, holistic range management could be just that. It doesn’t seem right that the Norwegian billionaire couple behind EAT-Lancet, Gunhild and Petter Stordalen, are allowed to prescribe diets for the rest of the world while they fly around in a private jet with their own carbon footprint unregulated. I was open to the possibility that the Shake Shack burger I ate the night before was not a personal moral failing but actually a righteous rebellion against the 1 percent. That would make life easier. Then an audience member asked Rodgers if there would be enough land to support a large population on the beef-heavy diet she recommends. She assured him there would be.
“And it could sustain the same population or more as an agrarian-based economy?”
Rodgers was visibly flustered. “What I can tell you is that there’s too many of us,” she replied. “Do we want lots of people fed like crap, or do we want healthy people? Our current system is completely failing and producing sick people and killing our environment. So regenerative agriculture is actually the only solution we have moving forward. And, you know, there’s too many people.”
Perhaps Rodgers should have chosen an other title for her lecture than “Feeding the World a Healthy and Sustainable Diet”—and other opponents than EAT-Lancet and Impossible Foods. At least their visions attempt to account for the world’s population as it exists. Only 3 percent of the beef produced in the United States is designated as grass-fed; even less is raised by Savory’s method. Any hypothetical solution in which factory farms transform into holistically managed ranges will ultimately have to confront the multinational agribusiness industry that has been consolidating power for decades. Eating beef is political, whether we want it to be or not. But what was most troubling about Rodgers’s answer was her “too many people” declaration: In those thought experiments, it’s always the less powerful who count as extra. It’s not necessarily right wing to say that meat is healthy, but to quickly revert to claims of overpopulation calls up the darkest strains of both the conservation movement and ancestral health diet literature.
In 1975 a doctor named Walter Voegtlin self-published his foundational text, The Stone Age Diet, which told a story similar to Rodgers’s about the lack of sufficient animal protein to feed a surplus population. Voegtlin’s solution included “limit[ing] reproduction to superior types of individuals” and “practicing euthanasia of imperfect newborns.” Rodgers and others who advise people to eat more meat surely don’t endorse that approach, but it’s worth highlighting how similar their framing is: For some to thrive, others must disappear.
I kept Rodgers and Voegtlin in mind toward the end of an interview with Tristan Haggard, the proprietor of the popular keto-carnivore YouTube channel Primal Edge Health, which is also the name of his diet brand. A gregarious former vegan, he had spent much of our two-hour Skype call building his case that the plant-based-food movement evolved out of the eugenics movement and is behind a conspiracy to depopulate the world by feminizing men through “industrialized vegan kibble.” His mantra, “Eat meat, make families,” is a response to what he sees as the growing “cultural degeneracy” of modern city life. “Instead of being concerned with how you can feed your family or protect your community, men are taught about how cool they might look in a dress,” Haggard said. That’s why he fled California to raise his family on a farm in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Now he lives like a 21st century primal man—eating grass-fed steak, drinking raw milk, and creating content for his subscribers and clients about the dangers of modern “soycial engineering.”
I told Haggard I had just heard Rodgers recite the same Malthusian talking points he attributes to vegans. “I’m glad you brought that up. It’s important to read with nuance,” he said. While he recognized that overpopulation arguments are usually directed at his neighbors in the Global South, he’s appeared on the white nationalist publishing company Arktos’s channel to talk up the carnivore diet as part of the fight against “globalist hegemony,” and he’s also rushed to the defense of the Nazis kicked out of the farmers’ market in Bloomington, Ind. It seems that for Haggard, regardless of your political leanings, if you’re on the side of more meat, you’re part of the resistance.
Haggard touts small-scale, local agriculture as a weapon against the globalists, yet he calls climate change a “word game” and factory farming a “straw man” argument. His fun-house mirror of inconsistent, repellent, and altogether weird beliefs is not uncommon among prominent followers of Weston Price, the godfather of the ancestral health movement. In 1939, Price published a flawed but compelling ethnography, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, describing traditional preindustrial diets from the Alps to the Andes. He found several constants, the most important of which are the vitality of animal fat and the degeneration of people’s health after exposure to the Western industrial diet. Today his followers have translated his work into contemporary diet guidelines. Rather than eschew any specific food group, they focus on minimally processed food and old-world farming and food-preservation techniques.
In the vendor room at the Ancestral Health Symposium, I spoke with a disarmingly friendly volunteer from the Weston A. Price Foundation about the pleasures of bone marrow and roasting vegetables in duck fat and another who was in the midst of shooting a documentary about grass-fed beef. The foundation is best known for Nourishing Traditions, the best-selling cookbook by its founder, Sally Fallon Morell, which popularized Price’s work. While the pandemic has shown the importance of local, organic farms, which Price’s followers have supported for years, they’re still easily dismissed as cranks because of their opposition to the scientific and medical establishment, as demonstrated by their commitment to unpasteurized dairy.
Unfortunately, that’s not the most controversial claim the foundation’s leaders have made. In 2018, Morrell wrote on her blog that “the Earth stopped warming in the late 1990s and now is in a cooling trend,” so “we don’t have to feel guilty for driving an SUV or eating bacon.” The foundation doesn’t have an official position on climate change, and when some of her followers protested in the comment section, she replied that the discourse around global warming reminded her of the “relentless propaganda against animal fats.” Like Haggard, she seems willing to embrace anyone sympathetic to her cause.
In 2015, Morrell appeared on Red Ice Radio, a Swedish media platform that the Southern Poverty Law Center called one of the most effective white nationalist outlets on the Internet. Before it was banned from YouTube, Red Ice unveiled a cooking and lifestyle show hosted by a neo-Nazi domestic goddess named the Blonde Buttermaker. In an interview on the white nationalist channel NoWhiteGuilt, she spoke of how influential Price’s work had been on her journey from former liberal vegetarian to animal-fat-obsessed white nationalist. In the wrong hands, emphasizing ancestral wisdom can be reinterpreted as a permission to embrace ethnonationalism.
But Price’s research does have value if read critically. In Diet and the Disease of Civilization, Bitar analyzes his work using the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s concept of imperialist nostalgia, in which “agents of colonialism long for the very forms of life they intentionally altered or destroyed.”
Nowhere was such nostalgia more evident than during the symposium presentation by Paul Saladino, a young, charismatic, and totally shredded “carnivore MD.” Saladino described the “uphill battle in consciousness” to convince the world that plant fiber is unnecessary for human consumption. Repeating the ancestral health movement’s dictum that Indigenous cultures prized fat as a symbol of health and fertility, Saladino encouraged the audience members to swap their kale salads for rib eye and organ meats. He closed by invoking an Andean tribal saying, “Wiracocha,” which he translated as “I wish you a sea of fat.”
Wiracocha was also used to describe Spanish conquistadors, whose white skin was foamy like fat. It’s a coincidence that reveals the historical revisionism pervasive in this community. Throughout the weekend there were photographs of healthy, happy, well-fed preindustrial Indigenous groups. But there was no acknowledgment that the rise of cattle ranching depended on eliminating the means of subsistence for Indigenous tribes—or that the destruction of foodways has been a deliberate strategy of colonial powers. The slideshows simply showed beautiful people victimized by the forces of nature, whose wisdom was now bestowed on us. A young woman asked Saladino what he would say to someone curious about the carnivore diet. “Welcome to the tribe,” he replied.
A sympathetic look at this confused yearning for tribal belonging would take into account what Bitar discovered as the main recurring theme in paleo diet books. Surprisingly, it has little to do with food or nutrition. Our ancestors “enjoyed a balanced life of working, playing, relaxing, and worshipping…. They felt closeness to one another and everyone had purpose,” Bitar said, quoting from Living Paleo for Dummies. It’s a human need as basic as food: meaning and connection, especially in a country defined by loneliness and living through a second gilded age of economic inequality.
This was made even clearer during the last presentation I attended, by a naturopath named Nasha Winters. She informed us that in the past three years, American life expectancy rates declined. The diseases of civilization now have company—opiate addiction, alcoholism, and suicide, the diseases of despair.
Nowhere is the degeneration of the quality of life in the United States more acute than in the communities surrounding the meatpacking plants that dot rural areas. Americans do need better diets, but we also need to realize that while consumer politics might be transformative for individuals, as public policy, it amounts to window dressing. As University of California–Santa Cruz professor Julie Guthman noted in her book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, the artificially low price of food has long functioned as a replacement for a living wage and a social safety net, and it comes with serious environmental and public health consequences.
Over the past 100 years, from Upton Sinclair to Michael Pollan, many Americans have been curious about how the sausage is made. But what most of them really want to know is whether they can keep eating it. The public became concerned with the conditions inside meatpacking plants not out of a concern for workers’ health but out of worry for what meat shortages might do to their own. Sinclair’s famous regret was that he aimed for the public’s heart with The Jungle but hit them in the stomach instead. He hoped that exposing the horrifying conditions in meatpacking plants could spark a socialist uprising, but all he got was the Meat Safety Act of 1906.
“The logic that consumer prices are the highest good in terms of social policy, that…comes from beef,” said Joshua Specht. Any movement to reduce meat consumption must address the role that cheap beef has played in providing meaning and nourishment to the masses, or else that ground will be ceded to the Sebastian Gorkas and Donald Trumps of the world.
The coronavirus pandemic and the looming global ecological crisis are collective problems that individual solutions won’t be able to solve. But as Bitar writes, the best way to approach the question of diet is “not to call out ignorance” but rather “to understand myths.” When we examine these myths, we “can see them truly as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and, perhaps, a story for which we can write a better plot.” As difficult as it is to forecast what America will look like after the pandemic, it could be enough of a ground-shifting historical event to spawn new stories—about why we eat, what we eat, and what we must change to survive.
“Food is so much about who we are and who we’ve been. To just change that overnight is not really that easy, actually,” said Specht. “But food isn’t just a building block for who we are, it’s a building block for the kind of society we want to live in.” If we can ground our food system in a more rigorous understanding of history, perhaps then we can remake it as a reflection of the society we want to live in. That would be the real red pill, waking us to a new reality.