Grim new facts about meat’s impact on livestock, workers, and the planet seem to emerge every day, and when it comes to animal agriculture’s impact on the climate, the figures are particularly dour: The international livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, while the cattle industry is the main culprit in the deforestation and destruction of the Amazon, which releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Against this apocalyptic backdrop, some of the most sophisticated plant-based proteins ever developed are marketing themselves as no less than potential planet savers. Impossible Foods aims to “save meat, and earth,” while Beyond Meat bills itself as “the future of protein.” Both hawk plant-based meat alternatives, most notably in the form of ground beef-like bricks or patties that “bleed” just like the real thing.
The impulse of these startups to replicate beef rather than back away from burger-like proteins entirely in their quest to save civilization shows how daunting a task it is to get people, especially Americans, to give up meat: In the U.S., eating meat has long been intertwined with grand representational ideals. Beef especially defines classic notions of masculinity, with hamburgers in particular often representing “American” identity, whatever that means. (As a result, beef often becomes an object of political performance.) Despite clear evidence that animal agriculture harms the planet, as of 2018, just 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and only 3 percent as vegan, numbers that have held steady for years. And meat consumption is still growing in proportion to the rest of our diets. Until the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, meat consumption had steadily risen in the U.S. each of the previous five years, with the average American eating 224.3 pounds of beef, pork, and poultry in 2019.
It’s true that beef consumption is actually on the decline, with the average American eating less in 2019 (58.1 pounds) than they did during the 1970s, when the average person peaked at around 88.8 pounds a year. But meat consumption overall is on the rise, and during the early days of the pandemic, some were surprised to find that consumers actually turned to beef more than usual: An additional $5.7 billion in beef sales took place last year compared to the previous one, amid coronavirus-related shutdowns. “I’m surprised how strong beef demand was in the face of COVID-19, because we often think of beef consumption happening at the higher-end restaurants around the country, and many of those restaurants have been closed,” says Scott Brown, associate extension professor in the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources. “It tells us that that’s probably a shift from restaurant consumption to at-home consumption or takeout consumption.”
If Americans keep eating as much meat as they have been, the outcome will be cataclysmic, argues Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, an animal protection organization that advocates for a vegan lifestyle. “It’s a catastrophic risk to the future of our planet, food security for future generations, and to our healthcare system to continue to irresponsibly consume animals,” says Garcés, author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry. “It’s really a math problem. We don’t have enough land to keep raising animals in this way, and instead, we should be using the land to raise crops directly to feed ourselves. And we should be thinking very, very clearly about future generations and protecting the environment and the health of ourselves and others as we move forward.”
And the way forward, some argue, is to make giving up meat feel less like a sacrifice — and more like participating in a movement.
Why the beef?
Since 1909, the federal government has tracked how much meat — beef, pork, poultry, and otherwise — the public consumes, and not surprisingly, those figures usually parallel economic trends. Beef sales, last year exempted, tend to coincide with periods of economic prosperity: In 1932, while the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression, U.S. beef consumption per capita hit a low of 32 pounds. In contrast, as the nation ushered in a wave of economic stability in 1976, beef consumption hit its high, only for an economic downturn in the early 1980s to dip sales once more.
Something else happened in the ’80s, too: The decade saw the publication of studies that linked red meat — beef and pork — to a risk of developing serious medical problems such as heart disease and cancer. By the time Oprah Winfrey swore off hamburgers over concerns about mad cow disease in 1996, beef sales were plummeting. Chicken became the nation’s top protein, and beef was badly in need of a rebrand.
In recent years, the beef industry has been selling a comeback: Some suggest that technological advances, such as genetically modified beef, can make beef more palatable to the public. “The use of genetic changes produces different beef today than was the case 25 years ago,” Brown says. “Changes in the genetic makeup of the average cattle herd are putting beef products in front of consumers that they like more than they would have in the ’90s.” It’s leaner, tastier, and more tender, he explains. On the other end of the spectrum, as beef-eating increasingly becomes a partisan issue, the masculine sheen around beef could be one of its larger selling points.
But a major factor in continued beef consumption is, not surprisingly, money: Garcés points to the power of meat lobbyists to explain why beef consumption is rising. “In other countries, for example, in Europe, there are caps on how much lobbying and how much money and campaign funding can go to a candidate,” she says. “Here, we don’t have real regulations, so money is given and promises are made. This has created a very skewed interest toward increasing meat consumption and doing whatever we can to bend the market toward increasing consumption, like making the product unnaturally cheap. ... It’s very challenging to fight those powers.”
From 2010 to 2020, the meat industry more than doubled its contributions to political candidates and parties, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. But even as these contributions have grown, so has consumer consciousness about meat’s impact on the environment. This increasing awareness has inspired some meat-eaters to actively incorporate more plant-based meals into their diets, a growing trend known as flexitarianism.
A flexitarian future
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about Kimberlie Le, co-founder of the plant-based meal startup Prime Roots, is that she’s vegan, she says. While the direct-to-consumer meals her company sells are all meatless — made with protein-rich koji fungi grown in the San Francisco Bay Area — Le is a meat-eater.
“I consider myself a flexitarian, which is actually the majority of our customers,” says Le, who started her year-old business at the Alt: Meat lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Flexitarians eat meat but also regularly consume plant-based meals, and the demographic is a sizable one, according to the marketing firm Packaged Facts. A survey it conducted in August found that 36 percent of consumers identify as flexitarian. “A lot of people consider themselves flexitarians once they hear the term and know what it’s all about,” Le says. “We’re not trying to get everyone to turn vegan, because it’s not right for everybody. It is really hard, given that there isn’t a plant-based version of every single thing in the grocery store.”
Le felt inclined to lower her meat consumption and launch a plant-based food company because she was concerned about the meat industry’s environmental impact. When Le was growing up, she never thought much about how a burger was produced or the cow from which the beef came, she says. Food simply brought her family and friends together for joyous occasions. But, today, she says, the public doesn’t have the privilege of ignoring meat production’s impact on the planet.
Although the most obvious answer to mitigating meat’s impact on the environment would be to simply stop eating it, convincing Americans to become flexitarians, like Le, may be a more attainable goal. “The way I look at it, what seems easier?” Garcés asks. “To turn half of America vegetarian or have half of Americans’ meals be vegetarian? Obviously, the latter is more achievable ... and that’s the kind of thing we should be aiming for. It would have a huge impact on our environment, our health as a country, and on animals.”
The fanfare that’s greeted the plant-based proteins of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — part of what the New York Times recently called a “meatless gold rush” — could very well inspire more consumers to try mock meats. In recent years, both companies garnered global headlines due to highly promoted collaborations with fast-food chains such as KFC, Burger King, and McDonald’s, which bring their products to the millions of people who consume fast food daily. In 2019, Beyond Meat became a publicly traded company with the best-performing U.S. public offering in recent history, and speculation persists that Impossible will go public as well. (Cattle ranchers and lobbying groups have taken notice, with 30 states announcing legislation that would limit the products’ ability to use the word “meat”; the Washington Post notes the changes come amid the “enormous political power” of cattle associations.)
Despite the considerable buzz surrounding Beyond and Impossible, the retail value of the U.S. plant-based meat industry is about $1 billion, compared to the meat industry’s estimated retail value of $95 billion, meaning the former isn’t likely to overtake the latter as the nation’s dominant protein anytime soon. A wider flexitarian consumer base, along with more awareness about beef’s impact on the environment, could move the needle.
Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, which promotes sustainable agriculture solutions, understands why many activists want the public to reduce its meat consumption. But he argues effective climate strategies are “not as simple as eating less beef.” Focusing on whether or not to eat meat, Gunther says, is part of a greater need for people to reconsider their lifestyles, which entails looking beyond meat consumption to consumption more broadly. Buying televisions, airplane tickets, iPhones, or new clothes are all consumption habits with an environmental impact.
When it comes to meat specifically, “it’s where and how the beef was produced,” he says. “Perhaps we should actually look at the amount of meat we eat, whether that’s fake meat or otherwise. ... We may be eating too much. ... In the middle somewhere is the solution, where we need to eat what is a nutritionally appropriate amount of proteins from a sustainable source.” Gunther points to research from the University of Oxford and the University of California, Davis indicating that a path exists to make animal agriculture climate neutral. Other researchers have conducted studies that found feeding cows red seaweed dramatically reduces the number of methane emissions they release into the atmosphere through their burps.
And the meat industry itself must be held accountable. Sara Amundson, for one, is encouraged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears to be taking the livestock sector’s effect on global warming seriously. Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, notes that the USDA “now has somebody specifically tasked on climate change. So, there’s got to be some acknowledgment that methane, and animal-based agriculture as part of that, are contributing [to global warming].”
Amundson’s group would like the federal government to give farmers incentives to stop the intensive confinement of livestock. It also wants the government to support the development of plant-based and lab-grown meats to combat climate change.
Gunther points to a need “to focus on improving the way we farm.” That means getting rid of the herbicide and crop desiccant glyphosate, respecting animals as an integral part of the agricultural system, and creating a sustainable farm of the future, he elaborates. In such a model, farms would share energy, ruminant animals would freely graze the land, and consumers would eat the right amount of food at the right time of year.
“Whatever our solution is, it needs to be capable of feeding the planet,” according to Gunther. Amundson agrees, noting that “there are some emerging countries where we’re seeing growth in animal-based agriculture.” That, she says, is concerning, “because quite honestly if we are going to wrap our heads around how to deal with this crisis from a global perspective, we obviously need to be sensitized, aware, and willing to take on animal-based agriculture.”
As a sustainable-farming advocate, Gunther asserts that revolutionizing the agriculture system is a major way to fight global warming. Consumers can work toward that goal by purchasing pasture-raised beef rather than the industrial variety. This shift can make a dent, if only a small one, in the climate crisis. “We could cut down on the amount of beef we eat because I’m guessing nutritionists would say we eat too much,” Gunther says. “We could demand that [cattle] are outside on pastures that we can’t use as humans. Then, it becomes pretty darn sustainable.”
Nadra Nittle is a senior reporter for Civil Eats. She lives in Los Angeles. Yadi Liu is an award-winning visual artist who is passionate about finding the optimum balance between illustration and modern art.
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