I think we need to start viewing meat consumption like smoking cigarettes. Because despite the negative impacts on human health, despite the cruelty to animals, and despite the environmental degradation, human beings are still eating too much meat. It truly boggles the mind. We still have a ways to go in terms of shifting culture to a healthier, more compassionate, and more environmentally responsible world.
A new study published in Science reveals that meat consumption is not declining as quickly as it should be, despite all of its negative consequences.
Meat consumption is:
- Static or declining in higher income countries
- Remains low and is stable in lower income countries
- Is increasing rapidly in middle income countries
Shouldn’t meat consumption be in rapid decline everywhere?
The data in favor of why humans should be eating less meat are overwhelming. In addition to being cruel to animals, meat consumption has serious health and environmental consequences. You can see some compelling data related to this in my post “Important Stats on Why We Should All Be Eating a Plant-Based Vegan Diet.”
Looking at climate change alone, the meat industry is a huge culprit in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the study in Science revealed, the meat industry’s contribution to GHGs far outweighs that of plant-based foods.
Meat and Its Impact on Climate Change
The problem is that meat consumption is increasing in countries where wealth is increasing, including China and countries in East Asia. While people obviously eat meat for the nutrition, sadly, it has also become a status symbol.
The China I Experienced in ’85
I traveled to China on a high school trip in 1985. A memory that’s imprinted in my mind is when we visited an outdoor market in Beijing. I remember watching an ancient woman with impossibly tiny feet (undoubtedly from the era when they bound young girls’ feet to keep them small), looking at a bunch of dead rats that were lined up on a cloth on the street. She was poking them with her cane, evidently trying to determine which one would be the best to bring home, cook, and eat.
Teenage me, a vegetarian at the time, was appalled. Despite my judgement, I knew enough to understand that this lady didn’t have many other options for protein. I was surviving on rice and beer on that trip. We couldn’t eat the vegetables due to the risk of typhoid, and I wasn’t finding tofu anywhere. Our teachers allowed us to drink beer when there was no bottled water available.
Beijing in the 1980s vs. Today
I haven’t been to China since that trip, so the images I see of China today are unrecognizable from the country I visited over three decades ago. Gone are images of people in black and navy blue Chairman Mau suits riding simple black bicycles. Now, I see images of staggering high rises and super highways with Audis and BMWs. And stylish Chinese men and women with Louis Vuitton laptop bags. So, if that old woman’s great grandchildren are enjoying Chicken McNuggets and McDonald’s pork burgers today, I understand why.
But just as cell phones leapfrogged land lines in developing countries, I sure wish plant-based eating would leapfrog meat consumption in these developing world countries. I want to scream:
‘Learn from our mistakes! See our heart disease and water pollution! See how we love our pets and other animals! Don’t f#@% things up the way we have so you have to work so hard to fix it all!’
Countries Where Veganism Is on the Rise
One country whose wealth is increasing but where meat consumption is not increasing is India. This is due to India’s longstanding cultural beliefs around vegetarianism. In India, 35% of people are vegetarians. Culture dictates our food preferences, and I think it’s going to be the most critical factor in moving more people to plant-based eating. We’re already starting to see veganism flourish in the U.S. and elsewhere.
- In 2014, only 1% of Americans said they were vegan, while in 2017, that number has risen to 6%.
- In the UK, over the past decade, veganism has risen by 350%.
- In Portugal, over the past decade, the number of vegetarians increased by 400%.
Even China is trying. According to FoodRevolution.org, the Chinese government is encouraging its 1.3 billion people to reduce their meat consumption by 50%. And research suggests that China’s vegan market will grow more than 17% by the year 2020.
The Cultural Shift
Margaret Mead said, “It’s easier to change a man’s religion than his diet,” and we all know, it’s pretty damn hard to change people’s religions. I get that meat can be an important source of protein and nutrients for people, but the fact remains that we don’t need it to be healthy, or to even enjoy life for that matter. But food habits are hard to change. I know there are economic and geographical factors that make transitioning to a plant-based diet more difficult in some countries than in others. Heck, it’s even more difficult in some U.S. states than others. But I truly believe that meat consumption is a cultural problem, and that it needs to be solved with cultural means.
In addition to scientists and doctors studying the problems associated with meat consumption and sharing the data with the public, animal rights activists and vegan chefs, athletes, celebrities, and other influential people are making it easier and even inspiring for people to transition to a plant-based diet.
We Need a Meat Tax
I’m also in favor of taxing meat the way we do cigarettes. The article in Science noted an experiment in Denmark that took place in 2011-2012. Danes put a tax on foods that contained saturated fat, which raised the prices of some meat products by 15%. The tax resulted in reduced consumption of food products that were high in saturated fat, including minced beef. Then, they modeled long-term health outcomes, and the results suggested a reduction in non-communicable diseases and premature death.
Examining Our Thought Processes
Meat is simply outdated in our modern world because it’s so problematic. But too many people still view it as normal. According to the study by Science, “Studies of how people justify to themselves the consumption of meat show that belief that it is ‘natural, normal, necessary, or nice’ explains the large majority of variance in consumption… Precisely because meat consumption is a ‘normal’ part of the diet, often the routine center of the main meal, the ‘choice’ to consume it goes largely unexamined.”
To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat: Which Side Are You on?
Veganism: the New Normal
We need to stop making meat eating normal. It’s too destructive to be “normally acceptable” behavior anymore. In the 1970s, smoking cigarettes was normally acceptable behavior. Whereas today, in most parts of the U.S., smoking is frowned upon. As someone who has food addictions, I empathize with people who are addicted to nicotine. Too many addictions are incredibly hard to kick. But if your culture and society are unsupportive in helping you to kick your addiction, it can be nearly impossible.
The tide is turning, we just need to make it happen faster – for our own health, for animals, and for or planet. Come on, my nature- and animal-loving friends, let’s keep pushing the envelope!