In bad news for environmental, health, and animal welfare advocates, the latest numbers show that U.S. meat consumption is on an upswing, thanks to dropping prices.
So much for all those Meatless Mondays. The message that it’s important to cut back on meat is not getting through to Americans, who continue to pound back the pounds of beef, chicken, and pork at an exponential rate.
According to Dutch bank Rabobank’s recent analysis, American meat consumption increased by 5 percent in 2015 – the biggest increase in 40 years. The report described 2015 as “a momentous year for U.S. animal protein… the largest increase in U.S. meat consumption since the food scares of the 1970s.”
This may come as a surprise to those who believed that meat was trending down in popularity over the past decade and that vegetarianism was on the rise. That was true. Vox reports that in 2014, Americans ate 18 percent less beef, 10 percent less pork, and 1.4 percent less chicken than they did in 2005 – great news for environmentalists, animal rights advocates, and health workers at the time.
But now matters have taken a turn in the other direction. Vox cites William Sawyer, author of the Rabobank report, explaining why per-capita meat consumption is expected to reach all-time highs:
“There’s a roller-coaster effect here, and we are about to start an upswing… All those U.S. consumers that got priced out of the beef market are going to be able to come back to price level that they haven’t seen for five to six years.”
So what’s going on?
Unfortunately, it appears that the reason why people weren’t eating as much meat was because they couldn’t afford it, not because they were concerned about its environmental impact. Prices were high and supplies were tight; but now, since last year, the cost of beef has come down 22 percent, pork 7 percent, and chicken 5 percent, and it’s once again easy and cheap to maintain a meat-centric diet.
This is distressing news for a number of reasons, not least of all because the industrial-scale animal agriculture is rife with problems that affect our environment and health, and those are only going to get worse if we eat more meat. Animal agriculture has been linked to climate change, to water and air pollution, to antibiotic resistance, to poor stewardship of resources that could be allocated elsewhere for more effective uses. The industry is notorious for its abuses and cruelties toward animals, enabled by a knowing public that turns a blind eye to killings that are, arguably, unnecessary.
It’s hugely frustrating that the ‘go meat-free’ message has largely been ignored. All those documentaries, the books, the online lectures, the op-eds, the campaigns and pledges, etc. haven't really worked, if meat-eating is on the rise once again.
Or perhaps the time for change just isn’t ripe yet. There are still huge gaps in American stores, restaurants, and schools that make it genuinely challenging to imagine giving up meat. Good-quality, fresh vegetables should be more widely available, as well as vegetarian protein sources like tofu, paneer, tempeh, lentils, and beans. Americans need to learn that a plant-based diet is delicious; they should learn how to prepare those foods from a young age in school, otherwise it’s too daunting for many. Plant-based meat substitutes, many still in the early stages of development, can help smooth the transition.
At this point, all we can do is keep trying, following a dietary path that reflects our own priorities and hoping that our example will inspire others to follow suit.