Meat is sacred?

The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did the unthinkable this week.

Rajendra Pachauri suggested people scale back on their consumption of meat, in part by eliminating it from their diet for one day a week. Pachauri’s logic was that nearly 20 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by meat production, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

But a firestorm has erupted in response, with London’s mayor calling the suggestion “bull” and saying “the whole proposition is so irritating that I am almost minded to eat more meat in response.”

A column in the Sydney Morning Herald declares: “Not content with raising the cost of everything, terrifying small children and ruining the fun of driving, the gloom merchants of global warming now want us to stop eating meat to save the planet.”

And an editorial in Mumbai’s Daily News & Analysis sarcastically calls the recommendation “a new rule to abide by, for the virtuous earthling,” comparing it to a forthcoming big-brother style ban on smoking in public places.

What does this fierce opposition tell us about people’s desire to halt climate change? It turns out you can suggest people dump their gas-guzzling cars in favor of public transportation, but people’s diets are off limits.

The opposition isn’t a surprise, considering similar calls for reduced meat consumption by the working class were ill-received in the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Melanie DuPuis, a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz who specializes in the sociology of food.

“Your choice of what you eat can be considered sacred to people, and when somebody suggests you change your food habits, they’re really kind of attacking your identity,” DuPuis said. “As any food anthropologist or sociologist would tell you, food and identity are very much tied together.”

DuPuis noted that people choose certain foods for social or cultural reasons, for comfort, or for personal preference. By eating something, a person incorporates it into his body, which makes it “the closest thing in the world to a symbol of who you are,” she said.

Pachauri, a vegetarian, made the suggestion in London on Monday, noting he wasn’t in favor of mandating a reduced-meat diet.

“But if there were a (global) price on carbon, perhaps the price of meat would go up and people would eat less,” he said. “If we’re honest, less meat is also good for the health, and would at the same time reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”

To be fair, The Times of India came out in favor of the proposition, asking “why not take up his suggestion?” if it can help the environment and a person’s health.

And DuPuis said there are segments of the population who have become vegetarians for environmental reasons.

“But people don’t necessarily make their food decisions based on the abstract terms like ‘I’m going to give up steak for the sake of the polar bears’. There’s a lot of steps between those two decisions,” she said.

“Anyone that thinks declaring meat is something we should do without is going to get this kind of reaction because they’re not paying attention to the reasons why people choose to eat what they eat.”