Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wonder why American meat consumption is declining?

Back in the good old days...
It helps to know that eating less meat is good for both us and the planet. I love beef, especially pot roast, beef stew, and chili made with hamburger. But the rising cost of meat in recent years has been converting me to vegetarianism. To make chili for the kids the other night, I paid $5.00 per pound for two pounds of the cheaper 80% lean ground beef. For Christmas dinner 2014, I planned to fix a beef roast, but the prices at my local supermarket scared me off, and I made pot roast instead, which cost me $15.00.

So I'm among those becoming a Vegan, not by choice, but by necessity. Over at the Christian Century, Steve Thorngate asks: What will it take to downsize the American meat habit? Um, see above... Seriously, though, Thorngate talks about nutrition as well as sustainability, etc., and he introduces some news in the meat industry:

I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years. Now I'm a sort of sometimes-meat-avoider: my wife and I keep a meatless kitchen but eat whatever when someone serves it to us and sometimes when we're out. As I've written before, the virtuous identity marker "vegetarian" is less important to me than it used to be. But I still think eating way less meat is the single biggest bit of lifestyle "greening" most Americans could do.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines restrict their official purview to nutrition; they don't address the other considerations that go into food choices. But last week, AP reported that this year's update to the USDA guidlines might include a focus on environmental sustainability—specifically, as a reason to eat less meat.

Well, not if the beef industry's lobbyists have anything to say about it. And in Washington, they have a lot to say and powerful contacts to say it toLast month, lawmakers attached a "congressional directive" to the Cromnibus spending bill, expressing "concern" that "agriculture production practices and environmental factors" might figure into nutritional guidelines (put out by the federal department in charge of agriculture). This wasn't legally binding on the USDA, but some combination of pressure from legislators and directly from lobbyists appears to have made the feds stand down. The new guidelines will be, as usual, just about nutrition.

Is eating less meat more nutritious? For a given individual, it's hard to say. It depends (just for starters) how much meat you're eating now, what kind, and what you'd be likely to replace it with. But for Americans collectively, there's little question. We just eat tons of the stuff, despite what we know about the health risks.

What's more, arguing that nutrition has nothing to do with environmental sustainability requires a pretty narrow lens on food. When we harm the earth, we harm farmland. We harm biodiversity. We jeopardize our own future; that's why they call it sustainability. It is shortsighted and dangerous to imagine that human and planetary health are separate categories. And large-scale meat production—especially of cattle and other ruminants—wreaks serious havoc on the land.

The good news is that American meat consumption is slowly declining, even without much help from the USDA guidelines. Yes, we're still averaging the better part of a pound a day each. But one reason the beef industry's on the defensive is that the American diet is already headed in a more sustainable direction.

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