Bad news for the meat industry, good news for the planet: Americans are eating less meat. The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that U.S. meat consumption will decline for the fifth straight year in 2012 – a decline of more than 12% since 2007. Beef, in particular, is no longer what’s for dinner in America: per capita beef consumption in the U.S. has declined nearly 25% since 1980.
Economic forces are one probable reason behind the decline. According to the USDA, U.S. prices for beef hit a record high in December 2011. The average price of ground chuck rose to $3.27 per pound that month — up from $2.70 per pound in 2007. Severe drought in the southern United States and wildfires in Texas created challenging environmental conditions for cattle last year and drastically drove up the price of livestock feed; in response many cattle farmers were forced to reduce their herds.
Consumers, still struggling to recover from a devastating recession, have responded to higher meat prices by choosing lower-priced plant-based protein alternatives at the grocery store. But falling incomes and rising food prices aren’t the only factor driving a change in the way Americans think about eating meat.
Rising public awareness of the negative impact excessive meat consumption can have on the environment — and specifically, climate change — has been shifting attitudes toward meat as well. According to WaterFootprint.org, on average, it takes 2,500 – 5,000 gallons of water to create one pound of beef — that compares to just to 244 gallons of water to create a pound of tofu. And the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology estimates that producing one pound of beef generates nearly 42 pounds of carbon dioxide — far more than most vegetable foods.
Environmental organizations have made serious efforts over the past decade to raise Americans’ awareness of meat’s negative impact on the environment, and recent initiatives focused on encouraging Americans who are not willing to adopt a fully vegetarian lifestyle to reduce the amount of meat in their diets have met with increasing success.
The Environmental Working Group offers a Meat Eaters’ Guide that uses simple graphics to show the environmental impact of meat and encourages consumers to make more eco-friendly choices. The Meatless Monday movement trumpets the health benefits of eating more meatless meals in addition to promoting ecological advantages, noting that people who skip at least meat once each week may benefit from a lower risk of cancer and heart disease.
As New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman notes, a recent survey shows that half of American adults now say they are aware of the Meatless Monday movement, and 27 percent of those who have heard of the campaign have responded positively by choosing to cut back on the amount of meat they eat.
This shift in American attitudes toward meat eating has the potential to be a hugely positive development for the global environment. People in the U.S. consume more meat than any other population in the world; one sixth of the world’s meat supply is eaten in the U.S. yearly, even though the country only holds one twentieth of the world’s population.
But the Earth’s gains from Americans’ reduced interest in steak dinners could soon be swallowed up — literally — by sharply growing consumer demand for meat elsewhere. In December, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a World Livestock Report that predicts global meat consumption will rise more than 70 percent by 2050. That prediction is based partly on projections that the world’s population may increase by as much as 35 percent by that date. But the biggest factor behind the UN FAO’s prediction of a sharp increase in global meat demand is not the projected increase in the world’s population but an increase in the amount of meat the average person in 2050 will want to consume.
As globalization has led to drastic lifestyle changes worldwide, over the past decade, people in developing countries have dramatically increased the amount of animal products they consume. In China, between 1990 and 2005, average yearly meat consumption rose from about 57 pounds per person per year to 119 pounds per person per year. Even in India, where the prevalence of Hinduism makes vegetarian diets popular — the average Indian eats roughly one tenth the amount of meat the average American does — per capita meat consumption rose to a record high in 2011.
Even as Americans make some small progress toward a less meaty, more sustainable diet, much of the rest of the world seems to be moving toward a more Americanized, less sustainable cuisine. To prevent Americans’ unsustainable food habits from spreading across the globe, people of all nations may want to consider officially adopting Meatless Mondays. And Tuesdays. And while we’re at it, why not Meatless Wednesdays, too?
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