The Meat Paradox

Rob Percival / Pegasus Books / 352 pages

As Rob Percival, author of The Meat Paradox: Eating, Empathy, and the Future of Meat, recounts, an Inuit shaman stated a century ago that “the greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.”

Percival is head of policy for the Soil Association, a UK-based organic farming charity and, admittedly, a meat eater. Yet he advocates for “ethical meat consumption,” which he defines as eating less meat and eating only that which is produced under sustainable, organic, and higher-welfare conditions.

The tension between necessity and murder—that is the crux of the meat paradox, according to Percival. He begins with the assumption that there are significant ecological, nutritional, and financial barriers to giving up meat entirely. While applauding vegans for “speaking the truth” about the immense animal suffering caused by factory farming, he also recycles industry arguments that humans are omnivores by design and that farm animals would disappear without meat consumption.

It’s clear that Percival is as conflicted about eating meat as the indigenous hunters he describes, who revere animals, yet butcher them to survive. In one illuminating passage, the author stands in a stun cage at a slaughterhouse, staring into the almond eyes of a cow facing imminent death. He uses this haunting image as a launching pad to discuss our emotionally and ethically complicated relationship with meat, one that is fraught with myriad contradictions.

As humans have evolved, Percival notes, they have constructed narratives and performative rituals to reduce the cognitive dissonance arising from caring about animals and eating them. More recently, many of us have elected to remain willfully ignorant of the meat-processing industry as we disassociate the pork on our plate from the pig on the farm. 

This book offers a provocative examination of the nature of empathy and the origins of species bias. From an environmental perspective, Percival also concludes that “we are eating our way to extinction.” If we have any hope of saving the planet, he argues, we must drastically reduce our meat intake.