Earlier this summer, the biggest news in the food world seemed to be about a hamburger. But not just any hamburger — a burger that, despite being made entirely from plants, could bleed, sizzle, and taste just like its cow-based brethren. Vox wagered that it might become the “Tesla of food.” Food and Wine declared that, with the Impossible Burger, we had entered “the era of plant-based meat.” The wall between plant-based protein — long pushed aside as the tasteless dominion of dedicated vegetarians and vegans — and meat-based protein seemed to be crumbling. The idea that the world could truly enter a post-meat world didn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it might have years ago.
As it turns out, that world is probably not going to materialize any time soon. Americans still love to eat meat — and in 2015, they increased their consumption of it faster than any other year in four decades.
According to the research and advisory firm Rabobank, the average American in 2015 ate around 193 pounds of beef, chicken, or pork annually, a five percent increase over 2014. And Rabobank predicts that by 2018, meat consumption will reach historic levels, with an average American eating around 200 pounds of meat per year.
— Tamar Haspel (@TamarHaspel) August 16, 2016
That is bad news, and not just for the handful of meat-replacement food start-ups that have snatched headlines in recent months. Study after study has shown the detrimental affect that large-scale meat production has on our environment. Meat production has a huge carbon footprint, whether it’s the methane from ruminants like cows and the manure that they produce, or the fossil fuels spent shipping, processing, and packaging meat. Meat production has a huge water footprint, with a single four-ounce hamburger requiring around 450 gallons of water to produce. Meat production also has a huge impact on other animals — according to a 2015 study, meat-associated land use changes are probably the leading cause of modern species extinctions.
“Meat production has a huge carbon footprint.”
The list of environmental problems created by industrial-scale meat production goes on and on. According to a report released earlier this year by Environment America, an environmental advocacy group, five big meat companies — Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and Perdue — produce a combined 162 million tons of manure every year. Combine that with the amount of fertilizer needed to grow the feed grain that sustains large-scale animal feeding operations, and it’s easy to see how the waste from our industrial meat complex can literally seep into our waterways, causing everything from local water pollution to massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Another Environment America report found that Tyson, one of the biggest meat producers in the world, is responsible for dumping more toxic pollution into waterways than companies like ExxonMobil or Dow Chemical.
The Rabobank report does have a silver lining, which is that Americans continue to gravitate away from beef and toward proteins like chicken and pork. Beef used to be the most popular animal-based protein consumed in the United States, peaking at 91 pounds of beef per person per year in 1976. By 2012, however, that number had fallen to 52 pounds per person per year — a 46 percent decline.
Animals like chicken and pork tend to be more efficient to raise, and therefore have smaller carbon footprints than cows. According to Vaclav Smil, scientist and author of the book Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, it takes 3.3 pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken meat, 9.4 pounds of feed to produce a pound of pork meat, and 25 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef — and every pound of feed that is saved keeps both greenhouse gas emissions and fertilizer runoff from making their way into the atmosphere or water. Chicken and pork also tend to come out ahead on their water footprint compared to beef — according to a 2014 from Bard College, beef uses 11 times more water than chicken, pork, dairy, and eggs.
Which is not to say that pork or chicken are perfect, either. Industrial-scale pork production in North Carolina — which is the nation’s second largest producer of pork — has had a major impact on both local air and water pollution, so much so that residents near hog operations have filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA. Maryland, which is one of the largest chicken-producing states in the country, has such an excess of chicken manure that the state has had to literally put itself on a pollution diet, limiting the amount of manure that can be applied to farmland in an effort to staunch the flow of phosphorous and nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay.
There are a lot of reasons why Americans eat so much meat: all of that industrial-scale production has made meat extremely cheap in America, even more so than in other developed countries. According to Rabobank, meat consumption is also increasing thanks to an increase in the amount of pork and chicken being produced, and the strength of the dollar.
But over-indulging in meat is also a uniquely American tradition thanks to the extreme political power of the meat industry, which has opposed any legislation or regulation that might increase the cost of production or decrease the appeal of eating meat altogether. The livestock industry was a strong force behind blocking the EPA’s first real attempt to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases in 2008. And when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suggested updating dietary guidelines to encourage consumers to choose vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts over animal-based protein, the meat industry sprung into action, lobbying for the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to ignore those recommendations when crafting their guidelines. In the end, sustainability — and a move away from meat — was cut from the updated guidelines.
Other countries do not have this problem. In China — which has seen some of the most rapid growth in meat consumption in the world over the past decade (consumption increased 25 percent between 2003 and 2013) — the government is actually telling people to stop eating so much meat. This year, the Chinese government released dietary guidelines urging citizens to limit their meat and egg intake to 200 grams — or around 0.4 pounds — a day. (By contrast, the average American eats about 419 grams of meat and eggs daily.)
The Netherlands did the same thing last year, urging citizens to eat no more than two servings of meat per week in its most recent dietary guidelines. That amounts to about 500 grams of meet per week — only 100 more grams weekly than an average American consumes on a daily basis. The U.K. has also directed its residents to cut back on meat consumption, releasing dietary guidelines earlier this year that suggested residents switch from meat-based protein to plant-based proteins, and cut their dairy consumption by 7 percent. And Sweden has been recommending that residents make environmentally-friendly food choices — like cutting meat consumption — since 2009.
“One of the easiest ways to reduce the environmental footprint of meat is to simply start eating less of it.”
None of this is to say that meat production, worldwide, should cease entirely. Livestock production is the primary economic livelihood for 987 million poor people living in rural areas, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. That means that roughly 70 percent of the world’s “extreme poor” depend on meat production to survive.
One of the easiest ways to reduce the environmental footprint of meat, while still ensuring that those that need access to livestock can have it, would be for people in developed nations that don’t depend on meat for food security or their economic livelihood to simply start eating less of it. A handful of countries have already started doing just that — but the United States still isn’t one of them.