Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 1–17 | Cite as

Why is meat so important in Western history and culture? A genealogical critique of biophysical and political-economic explanations

  • Robert M. ChilesEmail author
  • Amy J. Fitzgerald


How did meat emerge to become such an important feature in Western society? In both popular and academic literatures, biophysical and political-economic factors are often cited as the reason for meat’s preeminent status. In this paper, we perform a comprehensive investigation of these claims by reviewing the available evidence on the political-economic and biophysical features of meat over the long arc of Western history. We specifically focus on nine critical epochs: the Paleolithic (200,000 YA—10,000 YA), early to late Neolithic (10,000 YA—2500 BCE), antiquity (2500 BCE—550 CE), ancient Israel and early Christian societies (1550 BCE—379 CE), medieval Europe (476 CE—1400 CE), early modern Europe (1400–1800), colonial America (1607–1776), the American frontier (1776–1890), and the modern industrial era (1890—present). We find that except under conditions of environmental scarcity, the meaning and value of meat cannot be attributed to intrinsic biophysical value or to the political-economic actors who materially benefit from it. Rather, meat’s status reflects the myriad cultural contexts in which it is socially constructed in people’s everyday lives, particularly with respect to religious, gender, communal, racial, national, and class identity. By deconstructing the normalized/naturalized materialist assumptions circling around meat consumption, this paper clears a space for a more nuanced appreciation of the role that culture has played in the legitimation of meat, and by extension, the possibility of change.


Meat Agricultural history Environmental history Sustainability Nutrition Culture Consumption 



The authors would like to thank Jack Kloppenburg, Daniel Kleinman, Doug Maynard, Craig Thompson, Bryan McDonald, and Jason Turowetz for their helpful comments and feedback. Any errors or omissions are the authors’ alone.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, Department of Food Science, and Rock Ethics InstituteThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental ResearchUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada

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