Episode #164 Stop eating Chicken! – The future of food with Rob Percival, author of The Meat Paradox
How can we feed ourselves while re-establishing our connections to the web of life? In a world where global food systems are extractive and destructive, how can we regenerate our land?
Rob Percival is a writer, campaigner and food policy expert with The Soil Association. His commentary on food and farming has featured in the national press and on prime time television, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Prize and the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Food Sustainability Media Award. He works as Head of Food Policy for the Soil Association.
The Meat Paradox is his first book, and goodness, it’s been a world changer – since its hardback publication, Rob’s become a global superstar: invited to speak to groups across the spectrum of industry and culture about the nature of our relationship with the food that we eat. We left our first conversation each feeling that we’d just begun to scrape the surface of possibility and it would be good to talk again.
We had scheduled another podcast for later this year, but I saw that the book had just come out in paperback and that coincided with our having a total technological crash in this week’s interview. So Rob really kindly agreed to fill in at super short notice so that we could talk more about life and death and food and the nature of the meta-crisis.
There’s so much to this that really cuts to the core of who we are and where we’re heading as a species, and we ended – again, feeling that there was more to say. But in the meantime, we explored the nature of the food system, the concept of precision fermentation, what makes ‘whole’ foods and how we might feed the world without industrial agriculture. Rob gave his one big suggestion for moving things forward – stop eating chicken.
At the end, we opened another huge topic and began to explore the nature of death, and who our fear of the unknown leads us to denial of the meta-crisis and, in the end, denial of death itself. So we’ll be back when Rob’s next book comes out, but in the meantime, here are more thoughts on the social, political, practical and moral aspects of how we take in the building blocks of life.
Manda: It’s my pleasure to introduce you once again to Rob Percival, author of The Meat Paradox. Rob was a guest on the podcast back in episode 144 last summer, when the hardback of his book had just come out. Since then, Rob, it’s fair to say, has become a global superstar. He’s been invited to speak to groups across the spectrum of industry and culture and politics about the nature of the food that we eat. This is such a huge, huge topic. And we both left that first conversation feeling that we’d just begun to scrape the surface of possibility and that it would be good to talk again. And we had scheduled another podcast for later this year. But then I saw the book had just come out in paperback, and that kind of neatly coincided with my having a complete technological crash in this week’s interview.
And there was going to be a week of silence. But then Rob really kindly agreed to fill in at really short notice, so that we could talk more about life and death and food and the nature of the meta crisis and where that might all take us. There is so much to this that really cuts to the core of who we are and where we’re heading as a species. And we got to the end feeling yet again that there was much more to say. We opened up an enormous can of worms right at the end that I really wasn’t expecting. But in the meantime, we were able to go more deeply into the things that matter, around a topic that touches on absolutely everybody. So this conversation will continue. But in the meantime, people of the podcast, please do welcome Rob Percival, author of The Meat Paradox.
Rob Percival, thank you for filling in at emergency and at short notice and congratulations on your paperback coming out because this has proved to be quite a timely crisis on my part. How are you?
Rob: Very well, thank you. Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Manda: And how is the paperback doing? It’s kind of early days yet. It’s only just come out.
Rob: So paperback is just released. Yeah. Which is really exciting. And to mark the occasion, it’s being taken on by Radio four as their book of the week. And so from 30th January there will be a serialised version being read 9.45 each morning, little snippets from across the book. So really looking forward to that. And that’s going to be available both live and online afterwards. So, yeah, do check it out.
Manda: Fantastic. Yes. And if we can get a link to that retrospectively, I’ll put it in, because this podcast should be going out just to coincide with that. So congratulations. Getting on radio 4 is a huge coup. Well done to your publishers. And so we want, obviously, to continue the conversation that we began when the hardback had just come out. But I have a question for the year and I’m going to plough on with it until it ceases to be useful to me. So the question is, what makes your heart sing right now? And where does that take you? And you are allowed to say your paperback coming out makes your heart sing. That would be okay.
Rob: That’s an excellently positive question to start on. What makes my heart sing? Well, at the moment I have a very fortunate situation where I’m spending 12 months in Cornwall, living more or less on a beach and I’m walking the dog each morning on the beach and I’ve got to see some spectacular sunrises, which are more difficult to see from my slightly more urban corner of South London, which is where I’m normally resident. So I yeah, I feel very fortunate to be here and it’s just ridiculous seeing the sunrise over the ocean each morning. Absolutely stunning. And and where does it make me want to be? I think the answer is nowhere except where I am. It’s quite rare to feel that you’re in just the right place and not pining after being somewhere else. So that would be it.
Manda: Yes. Well done. Thank you. Faith and I, bizarrely enough, we had a holiday. Which has never happened pretty much in 20 years of being together. And we went to Cornwall and exactly that, waking up in the morning and thinking, my goodness, this is just glorious. We can see why people want to come and live here. Later you can tell me where you are. We were near St Agnes. It was really beautiful. So anyway. Yes, Glorious sunrises with the dog. Good. Let’s move back to your book, because we were really deeply looking at indigenous cultures, current indigenous cultures, historic indigenous cultures. And it seemed to both of us when we finished, that we’d just begun to look at the surface of The Meat Paradox, which is the title of your book, and our discomfort with Killing in order to survive. And since then, I have really begun to explore more deeply the nature of death and what it is and our discomfort with it. And also been listening to some quite interesting more Neuropsychology podcasts on our entire culture’s incapacity to deal with our own death. And I would like to explore that more deeply, but I would also like to find out what has changed for you, in the time since the hardback came out. Because life is evolving and you’ve had a lot of conversations around this book with a lot of interesting people. Where have they taken you?
Rob: Yeah, I mean, I wrote this book partly because I was bored, bored with the way the meat debate had become so polarised and set into predictable camps. You knew what everyone thought. They were wearing their colours. The battle lines were drawn and I hoped it would open up some more interesting conversations, some slightly different conversations. And that has been the case. I’ve had a really enjoyable six months speaking at events and promoting the book and having the opportunity to talk through some of its ideas. And I think the two sort of themes that stick out for me; one is around this idea that I bring to the book, that the challenges we’re facing aren’t entirely novel, that many cultures have, in their own way, been forced to grapple with this question What does it mean that we kill to eat? And that has landed with people in a really interesting way. That they perhaps weren’t cognisant of that. The vegan movement and the meat debate is played out in social media. It feels hyper modern, it feels very contemporary, but actually there’s a much deeper undercurrent to all this. So it’s been it’s been really interesting unpicking that with people. And then the sort of component of the debate that feels like it’s evolved and still evolving in the sort of in the public space, is around alternative proteins and the role cellular agriculture, precision fermentation lab grown meat, might play, for better or for worse, in shifting our relationship with animals and with the natural world and so on. So that has become increasingly prevalent in the conversations that I’ve been having as well.
Manda: And where do they take you in your thinking? Let’s take us forward ten years to 2033. In an ideal world, if we culturally have got to grips with our Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and the technology of gods and have made a series of the best decisions that we could make, and we can look at what those decisions might be. Where do you think we are in terms of how we are feeding the people of the planet at that point? Have you… That’s possibly quite a difficult question, but I think if we don’t look forward to where we think we want to go, then we end up moving by default. So does that open doors at all?
Rob: Hmm. So, I mean, it’s easy to, in a sense, to sort of paint idealised pictures of the future and I sort of cleave to one, as anyone does. I you know, I’m very much sitting within the the agro ecology movements. We have this sort of pathway laid out, where we think about the shift in farming that we want to see, towards more nature friendly production. The shift in diets we want to see, towards less highly processed foods; fresher, more natural foods in balance with that land use system. And a shift in the power dynamics of the food system, a sort of redistribution of power back to producers, back to citizens and so on. That’s that’s the ideal. But then we have the reality of food system politics and human psychology to grapple with. And the interesting question to grapple with in that context is, you know, what’s the trade-off? What sacrifices are you willing to make in pursuit of that ideal outcome? And alternative proteins sit in this space. They’re obviously not the ideal, but could they play a helpful role in shifting diets and land use, or are you selling out to the big corporations if you embrace alternative proteins? Or are you taking a step in the right direction, even if you’re not quite at the ideal yet? So there’s something to unpick around that. But yeah, there’s there’s no doubt that we need that vision of ten years from now and we need to be pressing ahead for the best outcome along the way.
Manda: Thank you. So there feels to be quite a lot of depth in that. I recently read a blog by Chris Major, who wrote Small Farm Futures, which was a response to Regenesis, but was beginning to look at some of these questions. Particularly the lab grown meat, precision fermentation area. And that took me a little bit further down the line. It seems to me that if we take a step back and take a broader view that isn’t simply the food system view. And I’m remembering right at the beginning of the last conversation, I had been reading the IPES report on the politics of protein, which still seems to me remarkably cogent, even though it was written basically a year ago. And one of the key killer quotes at the start was, if they can get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t have to worry about the answers. And I got caught in a flame war, as a result of posting something about this on Twitter, in which one of the arguments seemed to be…it seems to me that precision fermentation, lab grown meat, the few papers I’ve seen that have looked at the energy return over energy invested have not been kind to this. That the energy return is really bad. It requires basically an industrial culture to support industrially produced food. And the response to that, a tweet this morning was: well, we’ll use the excess renewable power when the sun is shining to create the lab grown meat. So that’s no problem. And I’ve become quite a lot more hardcore since you and I spoke, in terms of understanding the degree to which our power use is part of the problem.
Manda: So there’s a really good book called Overshoot, and I can’t remember the name of the author, but I will put it in the show notes and I will remember by the end of the podcast. And the core thesis of that is – he doesn’t say we’re a plague species, but he says we we exhibit all of the criteria of the species that we would identify as plague species – which is: we get a carbon source (and for every other species on the planet that is food); we get an energy source; our population soars on the back of this sudden abundance of energy, and then the energy runs out and the population collapses. Our energy is fossil fuel. Ancient sunlight converted over millions of years into coal or oil or gas. And I discovered recently we have burned 50% of the fossil fuel that has ever been burned by humanity since 1990, which just really left me gobsmacked. And so we’ve got this very abundant energy source. If various numbers are spun around, but the one that sticks in my head is we’ve got a rolling use of 19 terawatts at any given moment around the planet. We’re using 19 terawatts. And that to be within the potentially sustainable field, we need to drop that to five. If we’re using a significant proportion, or indeed any of that, you know, reducing our our power use to 25% of what it currently is – and that’s globally.
Manda: So those of us in the Western educated, industrial, rich, democratic, weird global north, are going to have to use a lot less. Because one of the other numbers that stuck was we in the West use between 15 and 18,000 kilowatts per annum. In Yemen, it’s 69. In bits of the Gaza Strip, it’s 0.1. So there’s a quite a big disparity. We’re not going to be using that for producing food that we could use by letting sunlight hit grass without any industrial processes in between. It just seems that we’re very good at looking very narrowly at a single bit of a problem, and then assuming everything else stays the same. And that allows us to fix the problem. And the problem is how do we feed 8 billion people? We make the assumption that everything else continues. We still have an industrial culture and we just need to work out the protein balance. Sorry, that was a bit of a rant. But I wasn’t really thinking in these ways when we last spoke. And so are you coming up against anyone who is thinking through, or are you thinking through, the ways that we feed whatever population we decide is a stable population globally? Whatever, however, we make that decision. Why are we focusing, why does it all come down to the source of amino acid chains? Which seems to me to be quite a narrow part of our nutrition. Does that make sense as a question? Would you just like to talk to what I just said?
Rob: It does, yeah, no doubt. That’s fascinating and resonates. I mean, the organic agriculture, agro ecological farming is photovoltaic. It’s powered by the sun. And that’s one of the strongest arguments for us adopting this mode of production at the moment. Farming is heavily reliant on fossil fuel based fertilisers, fossil fuel based agrochemicals and energy intensive processing, international supply chains and so on. So there’s a really good case for re localising to a certain degree, our food system and focusing on those low imput forms of food production and aligning our diets accordingly. I guess there’s a there’s a case that can be made on the alternative protein side, plausibly around resilience in the face of extreme climate variability. So the Holocene is over, as we know. The global climate in which agriculture was first made possible has gone. That doesn’t exist anymore. And conditions are going to get progressively tougher over the next century. And there’s resilience in agri-ecological production. It has healthier soils, better structured soils, soils that are better equipped to deal with drought and flood and so on. But there could still be a case for saying that perhaps some sort of industrial processing to supplement this, could help with food security, if it can be scaled in such a way that it isn’t to energy intensive and is reliant on renewables and so on.
And that’s where precision fermentation comes in, as plausibly producing a good whack of protein and fat to supplement our diets and helping shield us against that extreme climate variability. But there are, as you alluded to, significant questions still around energy usage and so on, and the energy requirement to scale the technology. I guess that has to be traded against the immediate imperative as well; To wean ourselves off intensive, intensively farmed meat. So there’s a sort of an ethical case, obviously, for doing that. There’s a land use and climate case, for just getting people to eat slightly differently, displacing that produce from their diets through an alternative is is easier and quicker, arguably, than persuading them to eat a pile of mung beans and higher welfare, organic beef. So there’s all sorts of trade offs that we face. But I think that that that question that you pose is really the big one in the background. How do we align food production and human society within planetary boundaries and within a sort of energy paradigm that is going to be cohesive with the future? And it’s difficult to see us getting to that place with an overt reliance on energy intensive food production in laboratories and so on.
Manda: Because it isn’t just weaning them off industrially produced meat, which is essential. I think… I haven’t heard anybody argue…maybe I just don’t listen to the industrial farmers, which is true. I really don’t. They’re outside my bubble. But there isn’t a single human being that I’ve listened to who suggested that industrially produced meat is either a good thing or it can continue. It’s morally and ethically it’s an abomination. And you can’t continue growing grain to force into, let’s say, feedlot cattle or chickens in a version of chicken Auschwitz, in order to produce meat. That’s not going to be a thing or it needs to not be a thing. But it seems to me that the industrial production of monocultures of non animal food is still really problematic. If the mung beans or the carrots or whatever are grown on 100 acres of industrially farmed land, which is essentially… What we’re doing then is turning fossil fuels into carrots instead of turning fossil fuels into beef. It’s still a catastrophe. We’re still looking at industrial runoff annihilating the oceans. The Goes report reckons it’s a combination of. Ph change, because of CO2 in the atmosphere, and microplastics. But the third one is toxicity and dead oceans by 2045. And that’s very soon. And we don’t know what happens if the oceans become devoid of life, but it’s not going to be good. And it’s not an experiment we want to run. So we have to stop all industrial agriculture, I would have thought. And I don’t know what the pathway is.
If we were able to create a global governance structure that was not wholly owned by the multinationalse – have a global governance structure at the moment, we just don’t acknowledge it, and it is wholly owned by the multinationals. If we were able to create one that wasn’t. Can you see a pathway? But within a timescale that is relevant for moving from the entire industrial food system, which involves a lot of transport along long distances, to a local system that is going to feed people without leading to mass starvation.
Rob: So I want to come back first to your comment that no one’s really arguing for the perpetuation of industrial production and factory farming animals and yeah, I really wish that was true. I was invited to speak a couple of months ago, at an essentially a global meat industry summit. It was convened with a focus on feeding animals, feed particularly for animals in intensive systems. It was sponsored by Cargill, the big players were there and so on. And I was shocked by the degree to which the environmental concerns remained on the periphery. So these guys do not have a clue. They do not understand the situation we are in. They do not understand the crisis we’re facing, and they’re still faffing around the edges in terms of their response. A large part of their response is focussed on efficiency of production. So Cargill has committed to lowering the greenhouse gas intensity of its products by 30%. So that means that your average chicken wing will be 30% less greenhouse gas intensive, that’s their ambition. That’s what they’re working towards. Or the average beef burger. But of course, they’re not looking at what their total emissions are. They’re still talking about growth. And this was the mantra that came through the entire conference: growth, growth, growth. They were concerned about the market. Lots of talk about the impact of COVID and these big sort of crises like swine flu that’s hitting the Chinese pork market. There was zero talk about contracting, downsizing, aligning the industry with the Paris Agreement, and they were completely clueless. And the argument that kept bubbling to the surface was that global demand for meat is rising and people need to be fed. There are still hundreds of millions of people who are malnourished or hungry, and we’ve got a moral responsibility to not just continue what we’re doing, but make it better by making it more efficient, expanding into new markets and so on. So it was really disturbing.
Manda: How did they… First of all, why did they invite you? And second, what did you say to them and how did it go down?
Rob: So they convened a panel around communications and media profile, and they’d invited me in my capacity as author of The Meat Paradox, to comment on the question ‘is the industry doing everything it can to improve its public image?’
Manda: Oh, dear God.
Rob: Which I obviously had a lot to say on this question. And, you know, I just put the challenge to them. Your image is never going to be improved as long as you’re part of the problem. And you’ve got some difficult questions to grapple with. At the moment, your heads in the sand and and so on and so on. So I tried to challenge them as best I could to face up to some of the realities that they were avoiding.
Manda: And you got out alive. You’re still here.
Rob: So it was split. There was 50% of the audience would not meet my eye afterwards and was sort of avoiding me. And the other half were coming up and saying, I’m so glad you said that it needed to be said, and so I’m okay.
Manda: But that’s amazing because I would have thought it would be 90 – 10.
Rob: Yeah, no, it was split.
Manda: 50-50 is remarkable, actually. Wow.
Rob: Yeah. So your initial question was, is there a pathway out of this? Is there is there a way out? And I think it’s really difficult, but it needs the sort of pincer approach. We need regulation. We need governments to step up and regulate the hell out of these industries, which obviously is politically challenging. And on the other side, we need mass behaviour change and dietary change. And that again is proving very challenging. But if you can bring those two together, then there is a route out of this doom.
Manda: Okay, so let’s look at the mass behaviour change. I got to after our last conversation, is just don’t eat anything that comes in plastic. That was my and I realised, you know, I’m incredibly privileged. We ate from our Polytunnel garden area all summer and didn’t ever go to the shops to buy food. But that’s, you know, I live in the back end of nowhere. Most people can’t do this. What would get us to where we need to go, in terms of ordinary people changing their behaviour fastest.
Rob: I mean, just stop buying chicken would be… I mean, that’s obviously not the big, that’s not the whole answer. But you take the chicken industry as an example. Chicken is the UK’s favourite meat. It makes up almost 50% of the meat that we consume. Demand for chicken is growing year on year. And this steady demand, you know, which has been more challenging in the last year or two. But the overarching picture for the last ten years is steady demand. This has prompted these big multinationals; about 70-80% of the chicken that we eat is produced by four companies who no one’s ever heard of: Avara and Cargill, these guys in the background. It’s prompted them to invest in new sheds. They’re still building new sheds, lots of them, up the River Wye, where they’re very polluting. You’ll have seen this.
Rob: But these sheds, they have a ten year lifespan there. Farmers take significant loans to build them. The contracts are there to help them pay off the loan over a ten year period. So there’s this lock in, this constant lock in. We’re locked in for another ten years. And as long as demand remains strong and steady, this is going to continue to happen. It’s very difficult to turn the corner. But in a hypothetical situation where 50% of Britain tomorrow stopped buying chicken, then that would dent the confidence. They would presumably stop building these things. Obviously, there’s lots more that needs to be done around a just transition for farmers, and a shift in terms of how we produce our food. But demand is part of what locks us in. So eating differently can shift the politics of the food system. So your individual choices aren’t meaningless, they do en masse contribute towards the future we do or don’t want to see.
Manda: Right. And a lot of the narratives that we’ve had, has been stop eating red meat. Because somehow pigs and chickens, it’s better, and and why? Why? And yes, I live near the Seven which is almost as bad as the Wye. And you’re right, there’s these extraordinary chicken factories. And we’re now in a situation where the environment Agency has said, okay, the runoff into the river is so bad that you can’t build anything anymore. Not even for people who have no homes. And you guarantee, you know, you’ve got big willow beds or reed beds or, you know, you guarantee that water coming out is a drinkable quality, just absolutely nothing. And we’re going.. But chicken factories? And they’re going, well, we need to feed people. Whoa. So stop eating chicken? Okay, stop eating chicken. That would do.
Manda: In a slightly longer term. You know,to really disrupt the industry, just actually commit to no chicken at all for a year and get all of your friends do the same. Just as an exercise of individual agency it seems to me that’s not a bad thing. Although if your neighbour has got the chicken pecking around on their land and they’ve done what it takes to turn it into something you can eat, I’m guessing that’s a different thing. How do we get…. Most of our people live in cities. They don’t have an acre of land in which to grow their own stuff. Is it the case that we could feed our existing urban infrastructure on nutritious food that they would like, without needing very long supply chains? Without burning fossil fuels to bring stuff in. Or would we have to begin the process of moving people from cities into rural areas in order to be able to create self-sufficient people? Does that make sense as a question?
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. So, I mean, we’ve been involved in some modelling… Various NGOs. I work for the Soil Association, various NGOs in this space have been looking at this question over the past couple of years. How should Britain feed itself basically. And to what degree can it feed itself through these low input, agro ecological or organic style farming systems? You’d be aware that the yields sometimes can be slightly lower when you cut out the agrochemicals, that employs more sprawling land use. Does that work when we have commitments to climate and nature and so on? And Green Alliance, another NGO, actually just had a report out on this in the last couple of weeks, modelling different scenarios. And the gist of it is that we can have our cake and eat it. We can shift to this nature friendly farming and we can free up or we can commit much more land to nature. So there’s this land sharing, land sparing debate. We can have both. And we can ensure that Britain or the UK has a healthy diet. We have adequate food. But it requires a radical shift in the way that we eat, as well as the way that we farm. It requires a move to a much more plant based diet; that is to say, more fresh veg, more nuts, more pulses, more beans and so on, less and better meat. Ruminant animals still having a really important role in this context. Far, far fewer pigs and chickens. But there is a healthy, sustainable diet that we can produce in the UK, while also meeting our commitments to nature recovery and the climate and so on. Does that require people to move out of the cities into rural areas? I’m not sure. I know there are some voices who advocate for this sort of re localisation and so on, this agrarian localism as it’s sometimes called. I think there’s a case to be made for keeping folks concentrated in cities and ensuring that nature has space to flourish as well. So yeah, I don’t know what the answer to that is.
Manda: I’ll be talking to Chris Major in a couple of weeks, so I will talk to him about that. I will find the Green Alliance report and put it in the show notes because that sounds really interesting. I didn’t know that had been done. I know that the Sustainable Food Trust had begun to look at Feeding Britain, and it seemed to me that we were kind of at the 80% margin of we could feed ourselves 80% of what we need, but we would still need to be bringing stuff in. But it seems to me if we’re going from the 19 terawatts to five terawatts and shifting our entire culture, in the ways that we’re going to need; which seem to me much more dramatic than I had previously understood. I’ve been listening to Simon Micheaux, and he’s got really interesting ideas he’s putting to the Swedish and Finnish governments, for actually engaging with what does a post carbon world look like? And his suggestion is, for instance, you have a hub built around a hospital. You need a hospital. We still need some kind of medicine. It can’t be as energy intensive as it has been, but people need good health. And then you work out how many people do you need to supply the hospital and to supply each other. And you don’t end up with a sprawling kind of London of however many millions are in London. But you have a unit and the land around it and it’s self-sufficient. And then what you’re moving around the world is information rather than goods and food and materials. Given that the material supply chains are running out quite fast.
Manda: So if we can feed ourselves… And what we need to do is change our diet. Hodmedods seem to be doing this in the UK. How do we feed ourselves the pulses that we need, without having to bring in soya from the Amazon or lentils from far off places, so the far off places can feed themselves? We haven’t looked at the micronutrients yet. It seems to me one of the catastrophes of our time, is that we let the Cargill’s and Exons of this world define our food. And our food became empty calories. It became sugar, carbs and fats of various sorts, because that’s what our bodies crave, because we still have basically Palaeolithic physiology. And that the people who are dying of type two diabetes because they’re massively overweight, are also underfed with micronutrients. They’re in some ways starving because the micronutrients aren’t there. And I remember attending a webinar with Dan Kittredge of the Bio Nutrient Food Association, who was saying, you know, vegans are busy supplementing B12, but if we were able to create the right, or restore the soil to its life, where the roots go down and make the right associations with bacteria and the MYCORRHIZAL networks, there is enough B12. It mines it. And that we should be eating food that has everything that we need because it always has had in the past. Are we looking, in the Green Alliance or the Soil Association or anybody else; are we looking at micronutrients as well as the obvious proteins, fats and carbs?
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting around B12. I hadn’t heard that. But I think there’s a there’s a case to be made for looking at micronutrients and then there’s a case to be made for looking beyond them, to towards Whole Foods. So there’s a sort of history within the processed food industry of focusing on a particular micronutrient and shoving it into a processed product, and thereby claiming it’s healthy. So there’s there’s an unhealthy way that one can focus on micronutrients. And actually what the science is increasingly showing is that Whole foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts. So they have this food matrix, as it’s called, which is this really complex biochemical structure. Packed full of, if it’s a plant, for example, lots of polyphenols and antioxidants, all the stuff. The secondary metabolites that have come through in its growth. And those polyphenols and secondary compounds we increasingly understand, have important consequences for our health. We typically focus on these sort of couple of dozen micronutrients macronutrients, whereas there are tens of thousands of these biochemical compounds in our food. And a lot of them, it seems, have important contributions to make in terms of dietary health. And one of the reasons that ultra processed foods, these really heavily processed foods, seem to be bad for us, is that all that stuff has been zapped out. It’s all been broken down. The matrix has been destroyed. And that has implications for the gut microbiome which thrives on this biochemical complexity. It has implications for the satiety system which doesn’t recognise that the food is coming through. We’re constantly hungry, partly as a result of this lost sort of complexity. Yeah, so there’s an important discussion to be had around micronutrient adequacy, in relation to different dietary patterns and making sure that we’re getting all the bits that we need. But beyond that, the best way of delivering that adequacy, it seems, is through Whole Foods and foods in their more natural form.
Manda: And presumably the precision fermentation people… I don’t know enough about that… But is lab grown stuff, does it count as a whole food in any way? Or is it just here, look, we’re going to make you something that has the texture and the taste that will fool your body into thinking you’re having, I don’t know, bacon or chicken.
Rob: So, yeah, precision fermentation is primarily around producing fats and proteins. So they’re not whole foods, if you like. It is those those component parts. And I guess if you’re just displacing… So for example, there are lots of processed foods that have industrially farmed dairy in them as an ingredient. And it seems like the first kind of use for these precision fermentation proteins might be to displace the sort of real animal proteins out of the processed product. I think it’s a few steps down the line before they’ll sort of try to compete as like a cheese or a milk product or whatever it may be. But but the short answer is no, they’re not Whole Foods in the in the sense that I’ve just been describing.
Manda: Right. And because we’re looking at potentially setting up a micro dairy, I’ve been really looking into the work that has been done on the difference between industrially produced milk and pasture fed calf on cow that I think has an emotional impact. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered, way down the line if we survived long enough as a species, that there was a difference there too. And the the level of what’s in the milk that our great great grandparents would have drunk, because it’s all that was, compared to the industrially produced stuff. It’s like two different products, but they’re labelled the same. Okay, we’re running out of time I notice, or at least time is moving on. And I really want to explore something that we touched on tangentially in our last conversation, which is that a lot of the emotive power of the meat paradox and the questions that we’re asking ourselves, seems to me to come from our very ambivalent relationship with death. Or at least actually our terror of death. And that you and I both had devastating experiences in abattoirs and as a result changed our views of, or potentially I changed my view anyway, yours was probably already there – of the nature of our relationship with the animals that we might eat. But then I began to become aware of regenerative farming, of the agriculture that you talked about, and of the devastation that is any monoculture, that all industrial farming involves killing things. It’s just less overt and they don’t have such big eyelashes, so we don’t necessarily project onto them our fear of death. And your book, The Meat Paradox, really goes into indigenous cultures and the ways that they have embedded in their different societies in different ways, to negotiate with the animals that they eat. And there seems never to be a negotiation with the plants that they eat. Maybe there is, and maybe it’s less obvious or maybe we just haven’t looked at it. However, I’m coming to a question, I promise. I listened to a really interesting podcast about the extent to which our denial of the complexity and severity and size of our current crisis, the meta crisis, is linked to our denial of death. And particularly a really interesting study, where they put people in front of a screen and asked them various questions. And at some point on the screen, the word death was flashed across so fast that it didn’t register consciously, but it did register subconsciously, and people’s political views shifted. So they had been, these were Americans, they had been Democrats and you know, they had previously stated that they would support various policies, which were Democratic policies. And that they would support various Democratic individuals, and not just Joe Biden, who to me is kind of on the David Cameron side of the political spectrum. But people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are more to the left. You flash death across the screen, they become aware of their own mortality at a really deep level, and they move it into the Trump supporting MAGA, supporting, QAnon embracing, climate denying side of the spectrum. And that struck me as something that we really need to address. Somewhere along the line, we have to get people adjusted to the idea that death is coming. And I wondered how that settled with you in all of this debate.
Rob: So what to make of our mortality and facing up to our mortality is, you know, it’s probably fair to say this is one of the oldest questions and conundrums of the human condition. And the meat paradox is, as I present it in the book, is very much tied up with that question. Because there’s this deep rooted capacity, as I describe it, to for us to identify with animals to some degree in whatever sense. And so when we’re taking their lives, that’s recognised to be a morally significant act and one which perhaps reminds us of our own mortality. So there’s something to unpick, I think, about how..yeah We’ll come back to that… About how animal death reminds us of our own mortality and the role that plays in the meat paradox. In relation to that experiment, that sounds, yeah, I guess in a sense unexpected. But also we know that the political right sort of plays on ideas of security and perhaps fear to a certain degree. So if those emotions are being evoked, then that’s a fascinating response. But in relation to the meat paradox, there’s certainly some evidence, reminders that we find animal death disturbing because it reminds us of our own mortality. And that’s one of the reasons that we’re so good at averting our gaze and looking away from from what’s going on behind our dinner plate.
Manda: Thank you. Yes. And because we put the dog down last week, and I knew that it was coming. I’ve really been immersed in what is it? What is life? What is that boundary between breathing and not breathing? Heart beating and heart not beating. And what is the difference between quality and quantity? And you were saying in our previous conversations that you were writing another book and were coming across people who think they can not die? At which I have to say I think death seems quite an exciting adventure at the moment and I really want to explore it. But taking our fear of death to the point of genuinely believing that we can avoid it altogether and remain alive on a planet that can sustain any kind of life? I’m kind of interested in how they think they can survive under four degrees centigrade of warming and escalating. But there are two questions there. One, are there genuinely people who think they don’t have to die? And how do they see themselves surviving in a four degrees C world?
Rob: So this is the transhumanist dream, if you like. And so I’ve been reading a lot about biotechnologies, genetic modification and so on. Initially, in the context of their applications on animals, that’s sort of part of the focus of the next book. But there is this group which suggests that we should be applying these technologies to ourselves, in pursuit of radical life extension, the enhancement of our cognitive and physical abilities. Transhumanism is this sort of umbrella ideology under which I gathered all sorts of fairly diverse social groups and philosophical ideas. But broadly, the idea that binds them together, is that we should apply science, technology and reason to modify what it means to become human, to overcome our biological limitations, ultimately to evolve into a post-human state. Where we’ve become something beyond what we currently recognise as humanity. And it sounds kind of wacky, but these ideas have deeply infiltrated the sort of Silicon Valley tech world. You know, the world’s richest men, and they’re usually men, who are espousing these ideas or investing in these technologies. Parts of our society are sort of implicitly oriented towards this anyway, this idea of human enhancement and ever greater integration with technology into our bodies and minds and so on. So there’s a sort of lively school of thought within that transhumanist movement which says that, yeah, we can actually overcome death. We should stop looking at ageing as inevitable and start looking at it as a disease to be treated like, like any other disease. And someday we might get there and might evolve into a cyborg along the way. It sounds wacky, but there’s science already sitting in the background, which suggests that we can be blurring the boundaries of our species in the years and decades ahead.
Manda: Okay, so my first question is to what end? And I’m also thinking they don’t mean 8 billion people doing this, do they? They mean quite a small section of probably white, probably blokes in Silicon Valley. Is there within this movement a sense of what humanity is for? Other than just surviving forever and consuming everything.
Rob: I think it’s a sense that humanity is a stage, you know, a stepping stone in our in our evolutionary journey. There’s no reason to think that we are the the end product, the final result. And actually, we now have uniquely in the animal world, the tools and technology to direct the next stage of our evolution. Sometimes this is dressed up in a sort of language of alleviating suffering and becoming wiser and more empathetic and so on. Sometimes it’s more sort of libertarian and it’s just, you know, every person should have the right to do what they want with their own body and their own genome. And, you know, if that means experimenting with, you know, novel gene editing techniques that might extend your life, then then so be it. So it’s a kind of unruly wild West, but it’s one that’s actually deeply penetrating the sort of central institutions of our society, in a way. This is the orientation of some of the technological corporations and academic institutions. This is the way they’re pointing. And obviously, there’s there’s lots to be figured out in terms of how any of these wacky, if that’s what they are, ideas, are actually delivered. But this attitude towards death, sits at the centre of it. Death is an abomination. It’s to be overcome. It’s not inevitable, it’s within our grasp to do something about it. And they even brand those who disagree with them ‘deathist’ as though they’re sort of part of a death worshipping cult, that just accepts our mortality when it doesn’t need to. So anyway, it’s a fascinating world to be looking into.
Manda: Gosh, I think I would struggle to sleep actually quite soon, in that. So I’m clearly a deathist. That’s fine. I’ll embrace that one. Are they also complete climate deniers? Because I don’t see how the idea of any significant number of people living forever… Presumably they also have the freedom to reproduce? So we’re talking about infinite exponential… Oh this is why Musk is trying to get to Mars, obviously.
Rob: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s it. So they’re typically more concerned about artificial intelligence posing an existential threat to humanity. The climate crisis sort of often slips under the radar. Or it’s seen as a catalyst. That’s the reason that we should accelerate our innovation, and focus on harnessing these technologies to alter what we are. We need to be smarter and so on, to to address this crisis. So let’s just get on with modifying our genome. And they have this attitude towards science and technology which thinks that we can only get ourselves out of this predicament with better technology, with more innovation. And they point towards a broad historical correlation between population density and innovation. So you need lots of people to come up with these innovations. So let’s let’s stop thinking about there being, you know, in inverted brackets ‘too many people’ on this planet. We need more. We need to keep the population growing and growing and growing to keep innovation accelerating, and then we’ll spill over onto another planet eventually. But you’re absolutely right to name Elon Musk. I mean, he’s got eight, ten children. This is the philosophy that he espouses. That’s why he’s, part of the reason at least, that he’s seeking to have so many kids.
Manda: Wow. Well, that was unexpected. I had no idea. I just thought Musk was was a bit bonkers, to be frank. And I had heard him say that he believed that the chances of this being base reality were so small as to be zero. And therefore, we are in a computer simulation. I thought he was just trying to level up out of the simulation. I didn’t realise he was also trying to live forever. Wow. Gosh, there’s so much we could take this, but actually that probably would be a whole other podcast. Tell you what, when the next book comes out, shall we do a podcast then? That would be kind of good, I think. Because that’s a can of worms of potentially infinite dimensions.
Rob: There’s a lot to unpick.
Manda: Wow. Okay. Well, in that case, is there anything else that you wanted to say to celebrate your paperback of The Meat Paradox? Was there anything that you wanted to unpick in the last few minutes, that wasn’t heading down that direction?
Rob: Having just got on to space travel and infinite life, it’s probably best to draw the line there. There’s lots to unpack now. The meat paradox, it’s now in all the shops. It’s available online. I’m on social media and Twitter and, and yeah, we’ve barely scratched the surface still of some of the themes in the book. So yeah do check it out and listen out for radio 4 next week as well.
Manda: Brilliant. Yes I’ll put links to everything into the show notes. And in the meantime, congratulations on writing something that could potentially change the way that we do things. It’s fantastic. Well done that, man. And thank you so much for filling in, in our emergency podcast.
Rob: Thank you for having me.
Manda: So there we go. That’s it for another week. And didn’t we just open up an enormous can of worms? I have to say, I genuinely am at this moment feeling that death is an extraordinary and exciting next step on our journey. I’m going to tell you a very brief story, which is that when we buried Abigail up the hill, I put a buzzard feather in before we filled in the grave. And then I connected with my dreaming apprentice, Lou, because I was in tiny pieces and really wasn’t in a state where it was sensible or possible even for me to check in on Abbs on her journey. So I asked if she would do that on the night. So that was a week ago yesterday, and I didn’t tell her anything else. And she had a dream, where the short version is: she was standing on a stage in an auditorium and a phoenix arose and erupted, flew up and a feather spiralled down and landed in the spotlight on the stage. And Lou wrote to me the next day saying, Don’t know much about feathers, can’t really identify. But it was definitely a raptor feather, definitely banded brown and white. And at some point, I will find a way of putting a picture somehow on this podcast, to show you the feather that I had put on the grave, which was absolutely banded brown and white.
Manda: And yes, I am really intimately involved with death at the moment. Thinking about it very deeply, in every way that I know how. And I have just finished a book which is told from the perspective of someone who dies in the first two pages. And that makes me a Deathist, I guess, because I genuinely think that death is the next step on our journey and is essential, and that delaying it for a long time or even indefinitely would be extremely unwise. So we’ll go into that, I guess at some point, when I’m a bit more emotionally stable and Rob’s got another book coming out. And in the meantime. Think about this. I’m not sure that denial of death is useful at any level. And if you think it really is, feel free to write to me and explain why, other than an existential terror of the unknown. Because that’s not a good reason to avoid something. Anyway. Right. I shall stop. We will be back next week with another conversation in which I sincerely hope not to screw up the technology such that there is no sound.
Manda: And in the meantime, enormous heartfelt thanks to Caro C for managing the sound production, whenever I send her failed files. Huge thanks also to Faith Tilleray for managing the website and me when I’m in small fractured emotional pieces. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts, and as ever to you for listening. We really would not be here without you. And I did think, I still do think, that ratings and reviews are good for our egos. They are that. I also thought they weren’t good for much else and various of you have written to explain to me that they are actually very useful. So we would really like you to spread this. Word of mouth is still by far the best way that we reach lots of people. And if you know of anybody who is interested in the ethics and philosophy and practicality of what we eat and how we find a way to eat in ways that are genuinely regenerative, then please do send them this link. But also five stars in a review would be handy if you have time. That would be lovely. Thank you. And that is it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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