Natural Life Magazine

Meat, Our Cultural DNA, and Beyond

Meat, Our Cultural DNA, and Beyond
By Gene Sager

As a teenager, I flipped burgers at Uncle Lu’s Tastee Freez and Burger Bar for three years to help pay bills in my family. I ate a beef burger on my dinner break and another after we closed at midnight. My family consumed meat two or three times a day and so did everyone we knew. My father, always looking for a good volume buy, would purchase a “side of beef” and have it butchered, packaged, and stored in a meat locker warehouse. He and I would pick up meat every week from the locker.

Meat was the most important part of our diet because it was seen as “substantial” food. Without a goodly share of meat, we couldn’t be strong. Meat was protein, and protein was meat; without it, we were vulnerable. We did not research the matter; it was a cultural given. On special occasions, such as holidays, birthdays, or any time guests came over, a meat entree was essential. It was not just the taste, and not just tradition: I realize now that the meat entree was a symbol for a sense of festivity, fortune, or “the good life.” 

I use the term “cultural DNA” to refer to this kind of deep-seated, hardwired attachment. Cultural DNA is a type of identity which is not genetic but rather psychological and social. As an individual, I identified with meat eating as a sense of strength and health. On the social level, my identity was secure as a “normal,” and “moderate” person: I fit in.

I recall one odd-ball attack on our meat-based diet from a high school classmate. In our senior year, a boy we would now call a “nerd” wrote an article in the school literary magazine arguing something obscure about cholesterol, sufficient protein from legumes, preserving resources, and the unnecessary suffering of animals. But the article did not give us pause for thought. We read it as an extremist piece; we said he was known for “out there” views. The nerd earned A grades in all our classes and ended up being the valedictorian.

A few years later, I began to notice a gradual increase in the advocacy of vegetarianism. But the cultural DNA I grew up with was set against such an “extreme” concept. This cultural DNA operates on the basis of compartmentalization: a set of airtight compartments or categories which allow for no causal or other connection among them. Meat production could not damage our environment, and much less could it make us sick, protein rich as it is. “Livestock” is a concept quite different from that of pets and zoo animals. We are scandalized if a pet is abused, but the treatment of “farm animals” does not become an issue. They are in a separate compartment in our minds and in our moral universe.

By 2015, scientific research had seriously threatened my cultural DNA with three powerful reasons for avoiding meat. These reasons, all of equal importance, are health, the environment, and the suffering of animals.


In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research identified a clear link between animal protein and multiple forms of cancer. In 2009, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) reported that eating meat increases the risk of dying of heart disease and cancer. Similar results were reported by major research organizations in 2011 and 2013. But by far the largest and most conclusive study to date was published by the World Health Organization in October, 2015. It confirms that meat consumption causes heart disease, obesity and cancer.

Here in the U.S., I have watched leading HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations, which are medical insurance groups) like Kaiser move from caution concerning a vegetarian diet to advocacy, informing their members that sufficient protein and other nutrients can easily be consumed without eating meat. The tables have turned: Meat was previously thought to be essential but turns out to be unnecessary, even detrimental.


In industrialized countries like the United States, the meat industry is locked into a lucrative niche which involves CAFOs -- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Large numbers of animals are crowded into feeding facilities. All accurate reports on CAFOs agree on one major point: The amount of excrement and urine is massive, and it is totally unfeasible to dispose of it or sell it as fertilizer within a reasonable shipping distance. The result is that pollutants leach into the ground and drift into the air.

The meat industry uses large amounts of fuel and energy – from the fuel for cutting hay and growing feeds to powering slaughterhouses to freezing/cooling the meat in packing plants, on the road, and in the market. All this produces vast quantities of greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming.

The most serious environmental problem with meat production is its extreme inefficiency. Most grains are ten times more efficient than beef as a source of protein. If a farmer feeds x amount of grain to his cattle and slaughters the cattle for meat, he obtains one-tenth of the protein he could have obtained if he had eaten that grain himself. Most of the food value he feeds the cattle produces excrement and urine. That is a terrible waste in every sense of the term.

What most people don’t realize is that the inefficiency here is not just a ten times loss of grain seed or harvest. Many multiples of ten are involved: ten times the land and ten times the fuel to run tractors to cultivate the land. And, in many regions, fields require pesticides, fertilizer, and irrigation. Thus, meat production uses ten times the natural resources and pollutes in the process. The inefficiency is so extreme that careful comparisons even show that cutting meat from one’s diet saves more natural resources than switching from the average gas car to a hybrid. So, in a word, eating a burger or a steak is an extravagant action.

The Suffering of Animals

The first time I saw a feedlot I was shocked in my innocence. The lot was barren except for feed and water troughs. The cattle seemed quite unnatural because there was no normal interaction and no calves and no bulls. There was no ruminating. The animals were there only to eat, drink and relieve themselves. They were not “contented cows.”

Many people still assume that farm animals are allowed to graze in a pasture or forage in the traditional barnyard. Because of urbanization, most of us have not seen facilities like the pig confinement barracks I saw recently in Iowa. These sunless, mass-confinement structures house a thousand pigs crammed for their whole lifetime into units made of concrete, plastic and metal. No hay, no dirt, no mud. The sterile environment prohibits the essential behaviors of nesting, foraging, rooting, wallowing, etc. Pigs catch their hooves in the floors, which are slatted to allow excrement and urine to fall into waste pits below. In these concentration camps, the frustrated animals suffer from PSS (porcine stress syndrome) and gnaw on metal posts or even bite each other’s tails. I believe anyone who sees this with their own eyes feels empathetic pain. What is doubly remarkable about feedlots and this very common pork production process is that it is cruel treatment and the suffering it causes is unnecessary.

Beyond Cultural DNA

Taking into account our health, the environment, and cruelty to animals, we must say that reality refutes my outmoded, compartmentalized cultural DNA. What we eat affects everything around us: the air, the climate, animals, plants, and the people who share the planet with us. All are in mutual dependency with us. This is the real world wide web, not a virtual or merely conceptual web. If we bring unnecessary harm or depletion to animals or our resources, we harm ourselves. Surely this shows that our identity is in this web, not as separate individuals or species.

This identity – this knowing ourselves as integrally linked to the world and its plants and animals – this can be more than a mere recognition of fact. It can be a linkage we embrace, a harmony that gives us a sense of belonging. If we embrace our identity with the web of life, it becomes a “spiritual DNA.” Spirituality is essentially a sense of unity with our world as sacred or of divine intention. Beyond genetic DNA and beyond cultural DNA, spiritual DNA brings with it a moral impulse, a universal compassion. And compassion translates into specific actions: sustainable use of resources and a healthful diet that causes minimal harm to animals and to all who share in the web of life.  

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.


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