GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact

Are meat and grains being demonized?

Detail of grain food on the market

More than ever before, dieticians, the media, and even supermarket chains looking to attract new customers are praising the merits of alternative diets, free of animal products or “staple” grains, or both. Whether it’s a choice made for better health, a moral or ethical conviction, or a necessity owing to intolerances, everyone seems to be talking about the changing trends in food, especially in the West.

But is making the change to vegetarianism or veganism a cut and dried issue? Are the corn, wheat and rice that have bolstered humanity’s caloric and nutritional needs since the Green Revolution to be dismissed without a second thought?

Here, we present two opinion pieces that urge readers to pause and reflect on the issues, the historical context and the people and livelihoods behind the farming of animals and the cultivation of monocrops.

What do YOU think? What other books, articles and scientific literature do you cite to argue your position on the bane or boon of livestock and grains? Leave your comments below!


With the Grain: Against the New Paleo Politics

Grains are under growing attack. A whole genre of diet advice blames them for contemporary health problems, described as diseases of civilization. Humans did not evolve to eat “carbs,” it is said, which are fit only for peasants.1 Real men, and women too, are better off with meat, nuts, and fruits. Taking this counsel to heart, many of the 45 million Americans (almost one in six) on a diet have chosen a Paleolithic or ketogenic regimen. Many more shun wheat and barley, even though they do not suffer from celiac disease, crediting claims that these grains are silent killers of body and brain.2 Those who do enjoy grains are apt to dismiss their modern forms, seeking out ancient and supposedly healthier versions. Grains and soy, rail political activists such as Miguel Altieri, have replaced traditional multi-cropping with monocultures that deprive peasants of a life on the land.3 The crops produced by “big ag” are “not food but commodities, grain not to eat but to store, trade, and process,” environmentalist Richard Manning charges in his 2004 book Against the Grain.4 Environmentalists fret further about fertilizer runoff and pesticide use on these high-yielding crops.

The anti-grain consensus, ostensibly focused on the improvement of diet, equality, and environment, rejects in theory if not in practice the very notions of progress and civilization. That the turn to grain-based agriculture transformed the healthful, leisured, and carefree life enjoyed by hunter-gatherers into the dull drudgery of peasant society is a theme promulgated by prominent scholars, notably the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who termed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society,” and the biologist Jared Diamond, who declared agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”5 The historian Yuval Noah Harari takes a similar tack in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Underlying each of these criticisms is a rejection of the old idea, implicit in the foundational myths of the first civilizations and explicit in Enlightenment conjectural histories, that the postulated passage through the stages of hunting and gathering, herding, and farming constituted progress: an improvement in the quality of human life.

In 2017, James C. Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, joined the anti-grain chorus with his widely praised Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.6 Scott’s is a name to conjure with. His pioneering field work on the resistance of Southeast Asian peasant societies to state power was followed by widely read articles and books, particularly Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), that spread his reputation from the halls of political science departments to the wider public.7

There is much to agree with in Against the Grain, not least because Scott, by his own admission, is reporting what archaeologists and historians have learned over the past century. Material familiar even to high school students following the Advanced Placement world history syllabus came as news to him, he says, just a few years ago.8 Domestication was not a sudden event but a long, drawn-out process in which humans successively mastered fire, the breeding of certain animals, and the use of grains, well before the emergence of farming or cities. Only grains — easy to monitor, count, carry away, store, and redistribute in measured amounts — could support cities.9 Non-state societies (hunters and gatherers, nomads, and those who gardened roots) did not constitute stages prior to civilization but coexisted with “civilizations” (grain-based states), dwindling to almost nothing in size and influence only in the last few hundred years. Living in the early states meant drudgery, taxation, slavery, and ill health for much of the population.

These facts, Scott concludes, leave the “progress narrative” that celebrates settled life, farming, cities, and states in “tatters.” Dismissing the main historical trajectory of the past 5,000 years, city-based societies, and the grains on which they have depended for most of their calories and nutrients is no small matter. It’s also one in which I have a personal stake, as I reviewed the same facts in my Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013) and drew very different conclusions. In that book (which might have been called Grains and Progress), I argued that without grains, no progress in the human condition would have been possible.

Food systems — the ways our food is acquired, prepared, and distributed — are interwoven with politics — the power structures of societies. The two change in tandem. Over the course of human history, the very real costs of grain-based, city-centered, agrarian societies have been offset by the fact that, unlike the foraging, herding, and gardening alternatives, grain-based societies were able, over time, to reduce labor and inequality while increasing access to good food and political participation. This was progress: not the grand narrative of a march forward sure from the first step across the whole of human life, but a specific narrative that acknowledges backward steps and unintended consequences while insisting on overall improvements in the food system and in social and political organization.

Read the full article by historian and author Rachel Laudan HERE.


Undue Influence

Fifteen or so people (directors, scientists, donor agents and advocacy and communications experts) are meeting in Nairobi this week to review a two-year project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by the International Livestock Research Institute to advance Global Livestock Advocacy for Development (GLAD).

One of the perennial issues we face is that those in developed nations advocating for ‘less livestock’ have voices that can drown out the different concerns of those in developing nations that want and need ‘more and better livestock’.

Here’s what some of us working in ‘livestock for development’—that is, towards better lives through livestock—would like those to understand who are arguing for the whole world to go vegetarian—to end all consumption of milk, meat and eggs—or even, as recently advocated by a leading environmental journalist at The Guardian, to end all forms of animal husbandry entirely.

We’d like these individuals and groups to be aware that the repeated blanket anti-livestock pronouncements now being made in the major media of the Global North—published generally with well-meaning intentions of bettering human diets and health, or animal welfare or the environment—are taking on a life of their own.

The accelerating anti-livestock rhetoric is now exerting undue influence on global livestock investments and policies, many of which continue to pay little heed to, or even understanding of, the economic, food, nutrition, health and other exigencies of the Global South.

This anti-livestock rhetoric, though typically intended for the constituencies of the world’s wealthier countries, which have ready access to many options for healthy diets, rarely makes that distinction clear, and thus can easily end up hurting members of the world’s poorest communities in some of the world’s poorest nations, for whom livestock remain central to livelihoods—and to life itself.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, some Western media pundits appear to know the (environmental) price of everything but nothing of the (real) value farm animals bring to millions of impoverished people.

What would help is if all those with particularly influential voices were to become more ‘global-aware’—that is, more disciplined about making explicit what communities they are addressing with their impassioned arguments, and what communities might be disserved, and possibly harmed, by their arguments.

What would help is if all those working for developing-country constituencies take actions to wrest back control of the livestock narrative—and make it more compelling—as it relates to low- and middle-income countries.

What would help is developing an appetite for ambiguity—for attending to alternative opinions, and to the (unspoken) perspectives and hopes and fears that give rise to them.

What would help is staying mindful of scientific consensus—and being willing to change our minds when presented with new evidence from reputable scientific sources.

What would help is understanding that we’re all interconnected—and that we (really do) have all the resources needed to support both the planet and all its peoples. If we can agree, for example, that under-consumption of calories and nutrients—with its knock-on and lifelong harms to human health, productivity and well-being—is a problem as deserving of our global and national attention as over-consumption of food and its knock-on health and other impacts, then we at least have a good start for inclusive policy dialogues about nutrition.

The more we are able to be inclusive in our problem statements, the greater are our chances to come up with practical as well as equitable and enduring solutions.

This opinion piece by Susan MacMillan, Team Leader of Communications, Awareness and Advocacy for ILRI, was featured in ILRI’s weekly Taking Stock newsletter. Find more opinions on the ILRI Opinions Pinterest board.

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