Why Is France Having a Cow Over Meat?

A French politician has ignited a fracas, or should I say, contretemps, over men barbecuing meat. Lest you think culture wars are an exclusively American preserve, leading members of the French political establishment have been exchanging barbs over whether the French male’s attachment to his sizzling steak must be abandoned for the sake of the planet.

Sandrine Rousseau, a member of the Green Party, rose to her feet in parliament to declare that “we have to change our mentality so that eating a barbecued entrecote is no longer a symbol of virility.”

Hoo boy. The land that gave us the terms “steak frites” and “boeuf bourguignon,” to say nothing of “filet mignon,” erupted. “When the grotesque reaches its climax,” exclaimed Gaullist Eric Ciotti on Twitter, begging to “Stop the madness!” French talk shows and headlines are buzzing about l’affaire barbecue, reports The New York Times, with some political alignments you wouldn’t necessarily have predicted. Fabien Roussel, the general secretary of the French Communist party (yes, inexplicably, it still exists) offered that:

“Meat consumption is a function of what you have in your wallet, not in your panties or your underpants.” He had previously courted controversy during the presidential campaign by saying, “A good wine, good meat, good cheese, that is French gastronomy.” He was accused of xenophobia.

Rousseau’s beef is that French men consume 59% more meat than women, and cattle farming is a notoriously climate-unfriendly practice. Raising livestock is responsible for an estimated 15% of human-caused greenhouse gasses. OK, but rather than examine whether men might also consume more eggs, fish and vegetables than women (they are, on average, about 15 to 20% bigger after all), she went straight for impugning masculinity. “If you want to resolve the climate crisis, you have to reduce meat consumption, and that’s not going to happen so long as masculinity is constructed around meat.”

And she’s surprised that men recoiled? Listen, of all the activities to slander, grilling steaks for your family and friends ought to rank pretty low. Don’t we want men to do more of the cooking? As for virility, there are thousands of ways to “construct” (she’s clearly a postmodernist) masculinity that are far less benign than standing around a hot grill with tongs. Would it be preferable for them to buy muscle cars? (Definitely bad for the environment.) Or have affairs? Or start bar fights?

Some female choices are also harmful to the environment. Cosmetics, for example, can harm wildlife when they leech into waterways. Women are responsible for 80 to 90% of all beauty product purchases. If a male environmentalist noted this gender differential, he’d be accused of misogyny.

Let’s assume the unthinkable and posit that men do eat more meat than women, even accounting for body size. (SET ITAL)Sacre bleu!(END ITAL) How about not blaming them, not judging them, not assuming that they are working out their masculine identities by getting splattered with grease, and simply looking for alternatives that they will enjoy?

Meat alternatives like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat patties are plant products engineered to taste like meat. They’re already being served at fast food restaurants and are available at many supermarkets. And lab-grown or cultured meat is coming. It’s meat that is grown in vitro using actual animal cells. While it’s not yet on the market, it soon could be with a little investment. While these methods aren’t yet able to make a filet for grilling, the technology could first be used to supply a goodly share of ground beef. That would mean far fewer cows being grazed, lower greenhouse emissions and no one having to give up their summer barbecues.

The point of environmental activism should be to find practical solutions to climate change that do not demand huge lifestyle changes. People already know that eating too much red meat is bad for their own health, not just for the planet’s, and yet they have shown no ability or willingness to cut back. There are, thankfully, other paths to a more secure and green future. The French are in the vanguard in one sense because they already get 80% of their electricity from nuclear power.

We can embrace human ingenuity and innovation, or we can point fingers at men who like to barbecue. Clementine Autain, a Rousseau ally, objects that “There’s a difference between the sexes in the way we consume meat, and people who decide to become vegetarians are mostly women. So if we want to go toward equality we have to attack virilism.”

Actually, you don’t have to attack anything, you have only to open your mind and imagination to real solutions.

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