Why doesn't society go vegetarian?

Why meat-eating is ingrained in our culture...
29 September 2020

Interview with 

Kate Stewart, Nottingham Trent University


A plate of salad, surrounded by bowls of various fruits


Surveys suggest about 6% of people in countries like the UK are vegetarian. In the UK, that’s about 3 million people. Looking at it the other way, 94% of the population chooses to eat meat. But why is that? It turns out that it’s probably a behavioural thing that’s programmed into us by our lifestyles from birth, as Adam Murphy’s been finding out, from sociologist Kate Stewart...

Adam - Vegetarianism is on the rise, but even so it's still the minority position. Vegetarians and vegans have plenty of moral arguments, saying things like animals "not being ours to use". And as someone who does eat meat, I find those moral arguments hard to dispute to be honest. But why is meat eating so ingrained in our culture? I spoke to sociologist Kate Stewart from Nottingham Trent University.

Kate - It's something that we do three times a day or more. We eat; we eat together as part of our family units, as part of our friendship units; so changing the normal ways of doing that is actually quite a big task, because it is such a huge part of our everyday lives. I think as vegetarianism, veganism and plant based-diets become more popular, adopted by more and more people, then that process of perhaps shifting becomes a little bit easier, a little less unusual.

Adam - That makes meat eating the default, and the default is easy to maintain. But how are animals presented in society to reinforce that default?

Kate - I think that there's lots of ideas that we have about being special and different and separate from the natural world, if you like; that a way in which we identify ourselves as a species as being important and special is through our sense of dominance, ownership, use of the natural resources on the planet that we live on; this idea that everything else on the planet is there for us to use, and for us to use in order to sustain and enjoy our lives as members of the human species. So from infancy we see messaging about the normality of using animal products, right from the beginning. I mean, if you think about the absurdity of infant milk formula brands referencing cows; the idea that this replacement for human milk is already being subtly messaged as something that comes from another species, and the appropriateness of that. If you look at children's food packaging, mostly canned baby food is rice and vegetables mashed up; you look at the pictures on the front and the description of the meals, it's "Shepherd's Pie", it's "Mum's Roast". It has all of that traditional narrative to it about what a meal is, and favouring the meat part, the animal product part; when in fact if you looked at the ingredient list, that's really not what's in the jar at all! It's mashed up vegetables and rice with maybe a bit of other things for flavouring. So the messaging comes through right from the beginning of life, and then we see it reinforced through how other animals are represented in toys, in games, in film and television, on clothing even. We see this organisation of different species into their appropriate uses to us as humans.

Adam - Some people look down on vegetarians and vegans. There's that old joke: "how do you find the vegan? Don't worry, they'll tell you." But where does that attitude come from?

Kate - I think it's because people see it as being some sort of moral or ethical comment. And it seems to suggest people who aren't vegetarian or vegan feel that vegetarians and vegans are making some kind of suggestion that non-vegans, non-vegetarians, have failed morally; it's some sort of ethical shortfall, that they failed to act on a moral issue, they've failed to do something that vegetarians and vegans have done on an issue of morals. So that prompts all kinds of responses. It can prompt a defensiveness; so you speak to any vegan, they will tell you how common it is for non-vegans to account for their moderate consumption of other animals quite enthusiastically. So that's one common response. But then also quite common is that angry defensiveness turns round as an attack, because it's a response to feeling that their own moral thoroughness is being questioned.


Add a comment