Meat and Cancer: Is Meat Going to Disappear from our Diet?

Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?

Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.

Reasons for Meat to Stay

I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.

The Public

Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –

“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?

The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!

And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).

All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.

The New Meat Start-Ups

Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.

While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.

Conclusion

Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.

I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.

This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.

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Pace Layer Thinking and the Lucky Iron Fish

When Achariya, an ordinary woman from Cambodia got pregnant, she was scared out of her wits. Pregnancy can become a death sentence for women in developing countries, with every year more than half a million mothers dying during pregnancy or child birth. In Cambodia specifically, “maternity-related complications are one of the leading causes of death among women ages 15 to 49”, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Out of every 100,000 women delivering a baby, 265 Cambodian mothers do not make it out of the birth room alive. In comparison, in developed countries like Italy, Australia and Israel, only 4–6 mothers out of 100,000 perish during childbirth.

While there are many different reasons for the abundance in maternal mortality, a prominent one is chronic conditions like anemia caused by iron deficiency in food. Dietary iron deficiency affects about 60% of pregnant Cambodian women, and results in premature labor, and hemorrhages during childbirth.

There is good evidence that iron can leech out of cast-iron cookware, such tools can be too expensive for the average Cambodian family. But in 2008 Christopher Charles, a student from the University of Guelph had a great idea: he and his team distributed iron discs to women in a Cambodian village, asking them to add it to the pot when making soup or boiling water for rice. The iron was supposed to leech from the ingot and into the food in theory. In practice, the women took the iron nuggets, and immediately used them as doorstops, which did not prove as beneficial to their health.

Charles did not let that failure deter him. He realized he needed to find a way to make the women use the iron ingot, and after a conversation with the village elders a solution was found. He recast the iron in the form of a smiling fish – a good luck charm in Cambodian culture. The newly-shaped fish enjoyed newfound success as women in the village began putting it in their dishes, and anemia rate in the village decreased by 43% within 12 months. Today, Charles and his company are upscaling operations, and during 2014 alone have supplied more than 11,000 iron fish to families in Cambodia.

The Lucky Iron Fish in a gift package.  Source: Wikipedia, by Dflock
The Lucky Iron Fish in a gift package.
Source: Wikipedia, by Dflock

Pace Layer Thinking

For me, the main lesson from the iron fish experiment is that new technology cannot be measured and analyzed without considering the way in which society and current culture will accept it. While this principle sounds obvious, many entrepreneurs overlook it, and find themselves struggling against societal forces out of their control, instead of adapting their inventions so that they be easily accepted by society.

We have here, in essence, a very clear demonstration of the Pace Layering model developed and published by Stewart Brand back in 1999. Brand distinguishes between six different layers which describe society, each of which develops and changes at a pace of its own. Those layers are, in order from the ones that change most rapidly, to the ones that are nearly immovable:

  • Fashion
  • Commerce
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance
  • Culture
  • Nature
Pace Layer Thinking model. Source: The Clock of the Long Now
Pace Layer Thinking model.
Source: The Clock of the Long Now

The upper layers are moving forward more rapidly than the lower ones. They are the Uber and Airbnb (commerce layer) that stand in conflict with the Government’s regulations (governance layer). They are the ear extenders (fashion layer) that stand in conflict with the unwritten prohibition to significantly alter one’s body in Western civilization (culture layer). And sometimes they are even revolutionary governmental models used to control the population, as did the communist regimes in USSR which conflict with the very biological nature of the human beings put in control over such countries (governance layer vs. nature layer).

As you can see in the following slide (originally from Brand’s lecture at The Interval), the upper layers are not only the faster ones, but they are discontinuous – meaning that they evolve rapidly and jump forward all the time. Unsurprisingly, these layers are where innovations and revolutions occur, and as a result – they get all the attention.

The lower layers are the continuous ones. Consider culture, for example. It is impressively (and frustratingly) difficult to bring changes into a cultural item like religion. It takes decades – and sometimes thousands of years – to make lasting changes in religion. Once such changes occur, however, they can remain present for similar vast periods of time. And some would say that religion and Culture are blindingly fast when compared to the Nature layer, which is almost impossible to change in the lifetime of the individual.

You can easily argue that the Pace Layer Model is flawed, or missing some parts. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, believe that our psychology is a result of our genetics – and thus would probably put some aspects of Culture, Commerce, Governance and even Fashion at the Nature level. Synthetic biologists would say that today we can play with Nature as we wish, and as a result the Nature level should be jumpstarted to an upper level. It could even be said that companies like Uber (Commerce level) are turning out to have more power than governments (Governance level). Regardless, the model provides us with a good standing point to start with, when we try to think of the present and the future.

What does the Pace Layer Model have to do with the smiling luck fish? Everything and nothing. While I don’t know whether Charles has known of the model, a similar solution could’ve been reached by considering the problem in a Pace Layer thinking style. Charles’ problem, in essence, revolved around creating a new Fashion. He had a hard time doing that without resorting to a lower level – the Culture level – and reshaping his idea in ways that would fit the existing culture.

Pace Thinking about the Israel-Palestine Conflict

We can use Pace Layer thinking to consider other problems and challenges in modern times. It’s particularly interesting for me to analyze about the Israel-Palestine ongoing conflict, from a layer-based point of view.

There is currently a wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, enacted by both Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs from East Jerusalem. I would put this present outbreak at the Fashion level: it’s happening rapidly, it’s contagious (more terrorists are making attempts every day), and it’s drawing all of our attention to it. In short, it’s a crisis which we should ignore when trying to get a better long-term view of the overall problem.

What are the other layers we could work with, in regards to the conflict? There is the Commerce layer, representing the trade happening between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If we want to lessen the frequency of crises like the current one, we should probably find ways to increase trade between the two parties. We could also consider the Infrastructure and Governance layers, thinking about shared cities, buildings or other infrastructures.

Last but not least – and probably most importantly – we need to consider the Culture layer. There is no denying that some aspects of the conflict revolve around the religions and other cultural habituations of each side. When a young Israeli-Arab gets up from bed in the morning, feels repressed and decides to murder a Jewish citizen, we need to ask ourselves why the culture around him hadn’t encouraged him to turn to other means of expressing his anger, like writing a column in the paper, or getting into politics. So the culture must change – and we need to find ways to bring forth such a change.

Obviously, these preliminary ideas and thoughts are merely starting points for a deeper analysis of the problem, but they serve to highlight the fact that every problem and every conflict can be analyzed in several different layers, none of which should be ignored, and that the best solutions should take into consideration several different layers.

Conclusion

The Pace Layer model of thinking can be a powerful tool in the analysis of every challenge, and could be used in many different cases. We’ll probably use it in the future in other articles on this blog, to analyze different situations and crises and examine the deeper layers that exist under the most fashionable and rapid ones.

In the meantime, I dare you to use the Pace Layer model to consider problems of your own – whether they’re of the national kind or entrepreneurial in nature – and report in the comments section what you’ve found out.