How can I stop craving for meat?

The meat paradox: why we kill animals when we don't want to

The sheep wriggles. Kai has to use the nail gun a few times, he hesitates. I wonder if he's backing down after all? But then he takes a deep breath and pulls the trigger. The six-month-old sheep collapses immediately. The captive bolt alone doesn't kill it. Kai has to cut the animal's throat. The butcher helps him to make it go faster.

A German consumes almost 60 kilograms of meat per year. In the US and Australia it is more than 100 kilograms. Very few kill, cut up and process the animals themselves, but buy them piece by piece in the supermarket or the butcher. This makes it easy for the consumer to forget that the steak was once part of a living being.

Decoupling the meat on the plate from the living being that it once was helps out of the dilemma of the so-called meat paradox: the desire for meat and the wish not to be responsible for neither suffering nor death.

Kai is now standing in a pool of blood, the sheep has finally stopped twitching and lies lifeless at his feet. At the moment he cannot forget or suppress anything. He fights back tears and tries to understand what just happened. "I killed an animal."

Environmental problem meat

Kai is my colleague and has slaughtered the sheep for the Deutsche Welle format "Planet A". On Planet A, the colleagues deal with environmental issues such as recycling, the plastic problem and the waste of food.

Anyone who wants to talk about environmental damage and climate change cannot avoid meat consumption. According to the Meat Atlas 2021 published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation Germany (BUND) as well as the newspaper "Le Monde diplomatique", 70 percent of global agricultural land is used for cattle breeding.

Feed is grown on 40 percent of this area, especially soy. Because the hunger for meat increases and with it the need for fodder and pastureland for the animals, forest and grassland have to give way. Biodiversity and CO2-storing plants are disappearing.

To produce one kilo of beef, more than 15,000 liters of water are required on average. Industrial factory farming, which consumes a lot of water, has dried up rivers and wetlands, sinking groundwater levels and salinated soils as a consequence.

The list of devastation could go on for a while. For example, with the health consequences that the out-of-control meat consumption has. The use of antibiotics leads to multi-resistant germs and the destruction of ecosystems to a lively exchange of viruses between humans and animals.

Living contradiction

Because Kai knows all this, my colleagues are shooting this episode. What he also always knew is that the meat on his plate did not sleep peacefully or was cuddled to death. Kai still likes to eat it - albeit with a remorse. My colleague is not alone in this, on the contrary.

I launched a call on various social networks to get an impression of how widespread the meat paradox is. With the help of my colleagues from the various language departments of Deutsche Welle, I collect comments from Germany, African countries and the Middle East. Because not all commentators have revealed their exact place of origin, sometimes only the editorial offices from which the following messages have reached me are given:

"I feel sorry for animals and love them very much, but I eat meat. Both are incompatible ideas. This world is full of lies and contradictions." (Africa editor)

"I love meat very much, but I am very sorry that the animals are injured or killed." (Africa editor)

"No matter how hard a heart can be, seeing an animal in its blood is not easy to bear. I still eat meat." (Charles, Africa editor) 

Benjamin Buttlar is a social psychologist at the University of Trier and researches the meat paradox. He assumes that the basic moral principle of not killing and not wanting to cause harm applies to all people, regardless of their cultural background.

In order to at least partially break away from these moral standards, mankind has developed a whole series of justification strategies. Since 2010, the number of scientists who research the relationship between humans and non-human animals has been increasing steadily.

What is the difference between dog and pig?

Publications by biologists like Donald Broom or the neuroscientist Lori Marino describe it as highly social, intelligent and compassionate. It has a kind of self-awareness. We're talking about pigs. Despite this sensitivity and social skills, pigs landed in the "farm animal" category and - just after poultry - they are most commonly consumed around the world.

The distinction between livestock and domestic animals is a strategy to resolve the meat paradox. The psychologist and publicist Melanie Joy calls this distinction in two categories dichotomizing. It goes hand in hand with the fact that meat eaters deny their sensitivity to farm animals. The individual nature of the animal, which we would never deny in our dog or cat, is something we animals recognize, says Buttlar.

The four Ns

"There are also very specific rationalization strategies with which we can hand over responsibility," says Buttlar. The psychologist speaks of the three Ns of meat consumption: normal, necessary, natural.

"I eat meat. As a child it was quite normal anyway. My grandma and mom always cooked Kölsch and Rhineland-style in a very traditional way. That is also black pudding, sauerbraten, roulades and Co. My dad always said you have to try everything . And I've always lived after that." (Cologne, Germany)

"Since I do a lot of sport where, for example, muscle building is one of the main goals and I pay close attention to meeting my daily macro needs, the consumption of meat is almost 'inevitable'." (Germany)

"God created animals for us to eat. So don't feel bad about that." (Africa editor) 

There is also another N, says Buttlar - it stands for "nice". Meat tastes way too good for many people to be without it.

Does the bear sausage help to overcome the meat paradox?

After Kai has cut the sheep's throat and the animal has stopped twitching, he stands and stares at the scene. In Germany alone, 763 million animals were slaughtered in 2019. Worldwide there are more than 70 billion per year. Kai looks briefly into the camera: "Just so we can eat meat?"

First World Problem?

Most of these animals are bred and slaughtered in the industrialized nations - not by hand, of course, but en masse on the assembly line. According to the Meat Atlas, China alone produces around a third of the global amount of meat.

On the African continent, on the other hand, the average per capita consumption is 17 kilograms of meat per year - which is just under a sixth of the top consumers in Australia and the USA. Does this imbalance have an impact on the meat paradox?

"When I see meat, I don't even think about my family, especially not about the animals. Maybe it's because meat was so expensive (at home) that we were very happy if we got it at all. "(Syrian, now lives in Germany)

"Luxury problem." (Africa editor)

"That idea doesn't apply to us. Tell the Westerners who worry about human and animal life." (Africa editor)

"The dissonance, that is, the psychological process on which the meat paradox is based, is already accepted as universal," says Buttlar. Dissonance is the unpleasant emotional state in which - to put it simply - two incompatible lines of thought confront each other: I feel sorry for the death and pain of the animal, but I still want to eat meat.

Buttlar tells of one of the few publications that deal with the intercultural differences in connection with the meat paradox: Here the researchers found that certain things can be transferred from one culture to another.

No more animals, but meat

For example, the increased disgust that is felt as soon as the test subjects were shown a pig with its head. Seeing a dead animal in its entirety made the connection between the meat and its animal origin more visible to everyone - the desire to eat the pig dwindled. Kai also learned how big the difference is: "As soon as the head was cut off and the sheep skinned, it was just meat."

Self-relevance decisive for the meat paradox

However, according to Buttlar, these studies suggest that this effect is less in people from countries where self-slaughter is more common than in those who experience meat mainly in processed form as kebab or chicken nuggets.

The studies also suggest that the more relevant the topic is for the person, the more dissonance is felt, says Buttlar. Not all animals that are eaten in the world are devalued, but above all those that are eaten in one's own culture. This is also an indication that the meat paradox actually plays a role across cultures for people, but that it has different effects from culture to culture.

The power of norm and habit

In addition to all the psychological processes with which people try to get over the meat paradox, some people also completely dispense with meat or other animal products in order to finally resolve the dissonance.

"It's just hypocrisy: if you don't want to kill, why should you eat?" (Africa)

"I've been vegan for three years. I don't even long for meat. Quite the opposite: the meat counter in the supermarket seems like a cemetery to me."(Yemeni, lives in Switzerland)

After 19 years of being a vegetarian, I also decided a few years ago to go vegan. For me it was the easiest strategy to resolve the meat paradox. Easy? Benjamin Buttlar contradicts me. It is not necessarily easy.

"Eating meat is the norm in most societies," he says. If you come from a family like me that is full of vegetarian and vegan people, it is much easier. In Kai's family, however, meat consumption is an integral part of life. After a period of abstinence, he returned to steak. Probably out of habit, he doesn't really know.

In one of his publications, Benjamin Buttlar writes that information about environmental damage and health risks from meat consumption led less to behavioral changes than moral concerns.

Kai has not let go of the image of the animal slaughtered with his own hands for a long time: "Death itself is overwhelming."

  • With mass killings against animal diseases

    Fear of mutated coronavirus

    15 to 17 million minks have been killed in Denmark. Most of them on suspicion, because a mutated version of the SARS virus was found in some of their conspecifics. The Danish authorities ordered in November that all mink stocks in the country must be culled and that all fur farms must be closed. The minks were gassed with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.

  • With mass killings against animal diseases

    Gas birds

    Avian influenza, also known as avian influenza, mainly affects chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks - mostly with fatal results. There are various subtypes of the virus that keep causing outbreaks. In the past, the focus was primarily on death by gas, nowadays birds are pulled head first through electrified water.

  • With mass killings against animal diseases

    Pest in the pigsty

    Cough, fever, and loss of appetite are some of the typical symptoms that animals infected with swine fever show. In the event of an outbreak, treatment of the sick pigs is prohibited. The fight against the disease is based on the so-called swine fever regulation and EU law: For example, twelve million pigs were killed in a serious outbreak in the Netherlands in 1997.

  • With mass killings against animal diseases

    Sick brain

    BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is a spongy change in the brain of cattle that manifests itself in abnormal behavior, staggering and weight loss. The disease comes from Great Britain, where cattle were fed parts of their conspecifics processed into animal meal that were contaminated with the BSE pathogen. More than four million cows were emergency slaughtered.

  • With mass killings against animal diseases

    Death by suspicion

    Foot and mouth disease is also a viral disease that is wreaking havoc in Great Britain in particular. It attacks cattle and pigs, but also sheep and other ungulates. The animals get sick, but rarely die. However, this does not save their lives: 8.5 million animals were killed as a precautionary measure in Great Britain alone during the outbreak of the 2001 epidemic.

    Author: Julia Vergin