To achieve global food security, defined by the World Health Program as people who “have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”, our global food system must be sustainable. Sustainability is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organisation as “the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations”, to allow for current and future populations to have access to food they need. Animal agriculture threatens the sustainability and therefore security of our food system. We must switch to a meat-free food system and diet to enable food security for now and in the future. Switching to a meat-free diet may not line up with consumer’s food habits and preferences, but I believe that something other than our taste buds is standing in the way of this transition – fragile masculinity. Fragile masculinity is typically understood as “ the woundedness that many boys and then men carry as a result of their restrictive gender role experiences”. Fragile masculinity affects men globally and is variably experienced in countries in Europe, North America, Latin America, South Africa, Asia and in the Middle East and North Africa and is standing in the way of men transitioning to a meat-free diet.
How would a meat-free food system allow for global food security?
A key component of food security includes always having availability and access to sufficient food. This is threatened by the unsustainability of our current meat-inclusive food system and so stands the argument that we should reduce our meat consumption. The animal agricultural sector generates 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions, uses millions of litres of water daily and is a leading cause of global deforestation, draining our available quality land and water resources. But how will the animal agricultural sector sustain its meat production to provide sufficient food whilst depleting the resources needed to do so?
But how is fragile masculinity providing a barrier to the transition of a meat free diet?
The gendering of meat – why is meat manly?
The consumption of meat has always been linked to men and masculinity. Historically, men hunted animals to provide for their families, linking male strength, violence and success to the killing and eating of animals. This strong association between men and meat has carried into our generation, as can be seen within this Singaporean meat product advertisement that links meat to the male dominated, sexualised female body. The meat-masculinity link also lives on through the common suggestion that men need to consume meat to gain the strength needed to perform traditionally male activities.
What is standing in the way of men eating less meat?
This strong association between meat and traditionally masculine ideals, such as strength, violence and dominance, allows men to secure their masculinity through the ordering and consumption of meat. Traditional masculine identities are fragile and the foundations of being a ‘real man’ can be threatened by lifestyle choices that conflict with the traditional ideals of a ‘real man’. For example, wearing pink, being emotional or being vegetarian all threaten traditionally masculine ideals. A study showed that men who experienced a threat to their masculinity then chose and ate meat and experienced a decrease in stress and their male identity was reaffirmed. Vegetarianism and environmentalism are perceived as feminine attributes. Women are seen as being closer to nature than men and feminine attributes are traditionally linked with negative connotations of being weak and emotional. Vegetarian men experience threat to their masculinity from the judgement of other men perceiving them as not having the essence of a ‘real man’. However, although infrequent, deviance from this narrative exists, as can be seen in India where 22% of the male population identify as vegetarian, influenced by religion and culture. Even so, meat eating is inherently patriarchal as it supports the idea of male dominance over lesser living beings (animals and women) and the control of their bodies, allowing for meat consumption to secure the traditionally masculine ideals of power and supremacy.
Although men eating meat reinforces male dominance over women and animals, these traditionally masculine traits linked to meat eating are toxic for men too. This masculine identity men reaffirm themselves with by eating meat provides a constricting framework in which they are allowed to identify. This toxic masculinity denies men the right to express their emotions and has been linked to male suicide, which is the highest cause of death amongst men aged 20-49 in the UK.
How can we encourage men to eat less meat in support of a more secure and sustainable food system?
1. Let’s make vegetarianism manly
An overlap between vegetarianism and masculinity that could be emphasised is the ideals surrounding courage and strength that encourage men to protect those more vulnerable and dependent, complementing the ethical motivations behind vegetarianism. Alternatively, the traditional masculine traits of self-interest and discipline could also be expressed through vegetarianism if followed in the pursuit of bettering one’s health and fitness. High profile male vegan athletes, such as the UFC fighter Mac Danzif, are leading the way in showing the complementation of meat-free diets and inherently masculine traits, such as strength and self-discipline.
2. Let’s deconstruct toxic masculinity
A better way to encourage men to eat less meat in the fight towards food security would be through attempting to deconstruct toxic masculinity, so men no longer feel the need to secure their fragile masculine identities through meat eating. Recent research conducted by Emma Roe found that men want to eat less meat but they feel they need societal permission to do so. We shouldn’t encourage men to eat less meat by trying to infiltrate patriarchal, restrictive traditional masculinity into vegetarianism, ultimately confirming the undesirability of a meat-free lifestyle due to its feminine connotations. We should encourage men to challenge what it means to ‘be a man’ whilst fighting for a more secure food system by leaving their fragile egos at the door.