Downsizing Meat Consumption

February 26, 2013 in Food Economics, Foodland, Foodland Chronicles, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Do we need a little more motivation to cut back on meat consumption? I afraid I know the answer to that question; and it is an anguished one for a grandma whose children and grandchildren, not to mention dear friends, include so many who are so passionately attached to what the nutritional and health guidelines would regard as excessive and dangerous quantities of meat. It seems that so many people love their meat. They do not want to think about cutting back on how much they eat. If anything, they would like to eat more of it. So yes, the people I know and love need a LOT MORE motivation.  The rational mind can see the reasons for many national and international groups seeking to lower excessive meat consumption. But it just keeps going up. Consider some findings on the issue:

In a report issued in (2006) the UN shared that cattle raising generates more global warming greenhouse gases than transportation. The UN then suggested that urgent action was needed to improve animal diets and production methods. Seven years later, it seems that we’re still at square one in this regard. The report said “With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons.

The problems are not limited to greenhouse gases and water pollution, but also include the deforestation of forests – especially in South America; for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. In addition, the herds cause degradation of pastures by overgrazing, compactation and erosion. In some areas it is leading to desertification of the dry lands. And water resources are being polluted from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and from the pesticides used to spray the feed crops. The run-off from the chemicals is creating dead zones in the seas, toxic algal blooms, and killing fish.

Certainly, if the report from the Drovers Cattle Network – America’s Beef Business source is correct, the reported 4.35 billion pounds of meat produced in 2012, was up 5 percent from the 4.12 billion pounds produced in 2011. Separating Beef from other meats, its production went from 2.26 billion pounds and was 7 percent above the previous year. You can read the report for veal, pork, beef, sheep, lambs, and mutton – all up for the past year.

Last week the UN Environment Programme suggested that the ‘rich’ countries of the world (essentially Europe, Australia and the U.S.) cut their meat consumption in half in order to provide an opportunity for the poor nations to begin to include more meat in their diets without further damaging the environment.

Currently Americans consume the most meat of any country, eating an average of 11 ounces per person, per day. Since some of us are not eating 11 ounces that means that some are eating far more than that. The global average is 4 ounces per person and the USDA’s suggestion is for a range of 5 – 6 ½ ounces from the protein food group. We should keep in mind that the USDA’s protein food group includes not only meat, but in addition: poultry; seafood; eggs; nuts and seeds; beans and peas.

The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) revealed that 80 percent of the fertilizer used in farming globally is for meat production – principally to fertilize pastures and feed crops. The especially sad part of this issue is that the crops don’t absorb more than half of the fertilizer put on the fields and the resulting pollution is killing rivers, creating dead zones in the oceans and encouraging alien species in rivers and lakes and adding to acid rain and climate change.

One of the goals made by the lead author of the UN report, Mark A. Sutton of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Natural Environment Research Council, is that fertilizer be used 20 percent more efficiently by 2020. Another of Dr. Sutton’s suggestions is that the rich countries all eat less meat. You can read some of the approximately 150 peer reviewed papers authored by Sutton in the NERC Open Research Archive.

Sutton coined a term “demitarians’ meaning, “eating half as much meat as usual. It was discussed that even in rich countries, significantly less meat was eaten one and two generations ago. This increase in meat consumption has resulted to a massive expansion of intensively farmed livestock, which of course, has lead to the diversion of vast quantities of grain from human to animal consumption. That diversion requires intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and leads to water and air pollution that is damaging human health. Sutton said that society must think about livestock and food choices much more, for both the environment and health.

The facts about meat consumption and the damage it does to the environment and to individual health are compelling.  But statistics notoriously do not motivate individual behavior. These and even more alarming statistics about diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular health do not seem to motivate people until their doctor announces some dire diagnosis.  Even then, many are not sufficiently motivated to really change. I know people who say they would rather die. I have heard obese comedians get laughs from proclaiming their commitment to die first. Maybe these foods just mean too much to them. But as so often mentioned in these blog posts, and by others, taking small steps is the best way to approach big problems. It seems to me that we, as a people, may be able to be motivated to do something for those in need in the poor countries and for the earth, that we would not be motivated to do for ourselves.

Sutton and his group suggested that progress could be made via a simple prescription: more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. He gave some very sound advice: “Eat meat, but less often – make it special.” In addition, he suggested that portion size is key – many portions are too big. One option is to have meat every other day.

I’m not certain why Sutton felt that the US would be a “tougher nut to crack” than Europe. He proposes that the change in diet be pioneered in Europe. I hope he’s wrong – I hope that we American’s will do what we have so often done before. Having seen a need, we Americans set about the process of attaining the goal.  It is, of course, for our own benefit. Not just on the grand scale of benefits to the earth and its population, but indeed, the small scale of health benefits for each and every one of us. Let us, learn small but effective ways to eat meat sparingly and substitute more non-animal sources of meat.

One of the easiest changes is to substitute chicken for beef. Sutton said; “Chicken is one of the most efficient (meats) as it grows very quickly and (to reduce chemical fertilizers) you can collect the manure.” Here Sutton is motivating environmentalists, not us meat consumers.  We can indeed switch to less harmful meats like chicken and turkey, and especially fish.  However we do it, we need to develop some individual habits. We do not have to stop eating our favored meats, but partake as special treats, not as daily fare nor in such large quantities.  But millions of us will not change unless one of us, then another then another, changes. Added together, it can make a gigantic difference.

This is definitely one of those issues that will prove that individuals making small changes can lead to significant, improvements in both individual health and the larger environment.