Americans love to eat meat—or so we thought. Figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that U.S. meat consumption has been steeply declining. The USDA report blames global market forces and government propaganda. But as a society, we’re choosing to eat less meat of our own free will, a trend that could make a big difference in controlling climate change, of all things.
According to a report analyzing 50 years of data the USDA expects U.S. meat consumption to go down 12.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, a trend described as “shocking in historical context.” U.S. beef consumption has been in decline since the mid 1970s. But the consumption of every meat category measured, including chicken, pork and turkey has dropped dramatically in the last five years.
Why is U.S. meat consumption dropping?
The Daily Livestock Report, prepared by the USDA for commodities traders who are no doubt sweating over the decline in U.S. meat consumption, points the finger at globalization. As citizens in big, densely populated countries such as China and India improve their lifestyles, they develop a taste for meat. U.S. meat exporters benefit, but U.S. consumers pay higher prices. Ethanol production is also driving up the price of meat as corn is grown for fuel rather than livestock feed.
Those are inarguable reasons for the decline in U.S. meat consumption. But the Daily Livestock Report invites controversy by declaring that the federal government has been “waging war on meat protein consumption” with public information campaigns. That claim outrages New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who calls out the USDA for hypocrisy.
Holes in the USDA argument
Bittman points out that the federal government has a long history of subsidies for corn and soy fed to livestock and a lack of regulation on environmental degradation and animal abuse and antibiotic use on factory farms. He also notes that the USDA bought $40 million worth of chicken products last summer in a move to reduce surplus and raise prices that didn’t work anyway.
Government conspiracy theories aside, other data show that baby boomers, the largest segment of the U.S. population, are consuming less meat as they age. And people may be choosing to eat less meat for environmental and ethical reasons. In fact, meat is a bigger contributor to climate change than the entire global transportation sector.
Eat less meat, save the planet
Researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that if a person became a vegan they would have a bigger impact on climate change than ditching the SUV for a hybrid. Inspired by data from a Carnegie Mellon University study, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recommended that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. He was ridiculed in the press.
Be a flexitarian
Bittman believes American consumers could be choosing to eat less meat for “all the right reasons.” He cites the rise of an eating style called “flexitarianism” that cuts back on meat without going vegetarian. Flexitarianism was named one of the top five consumer health trends for 2012 by the Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications. Last summer, 27 percent of the respondents to a survey reported actively reducing their meat consumption.
Are you eating less meat that you used to? The trend may make the meat industry nervous, but the possibility of a healthier, cleaner nation in the future should be something to celebrate.