More money = more meat. In the U.S. and most of the Western world, that equation has held strong since the 1930s. But the math no longer adds up.
Meat consumption is dropping across Europe and now in the U.S. While still among the countries with the biggest meat appetites in the world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports meat eating in the U.S. is on the decline, three decades after health concerns first started denting demand for beef. After peaking at 184 pounds per person annually in 2004, Americans now eat an estimated 167 pounds today, according to the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank, with consumption at its lowest level in more than a decade. (This is boneless weight for beef, chicken, turkey, and pork rather than the higher estimates that include whole carcasses).
The trend is driven by a number of factors. Rising prices have hit people's pocket books. Demand is shifting away from expensive cuts, and so companies are increasing exports overseas where consumption is booming. The decades-long drumbeat of health warnings from doctors and health agencies have also had an impact. All of this is drawing praise from advocates of healthier diets that go easier on the planet: obesity, degraded ecosystems, and greenhouse gas emissions are all exacerbated by modern meaty diets and the factory farms that feed them.
Yet in the developing world, history is repeating itself. From Brazil to China, growing wealth had fed a voracious appetite for fat and protein, most of it from livestock (typically at the expense of tubers, cereals, and other plants that compose traditional diets in poorer counties).
That’s, of course, good news for many countries where malnutrition and growth stunting remains a problem. But it also spells trouble for global health of people and the planet.
Around the world, more than a third of adults are now overweight or obese, up from 23% in 1980. Most of the super-sizing has occurred in the developing world, reports the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a U.K. think tank that focuses on development and humanitarian issues. Although meat-heavy diets are not solely to blame, the rising incidence of some cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and strokes are all correlated with excessive fat consumption and obesity.
This growth is eventually expected to taper off. For now, however, in the developing world, the correlation between money and meat is strong. In China, increases in income almost exactly track rising meat consumption, reports the ODI.
And China has a long way to go still before people get their fill of animal protein. China’s meat consumption is just half that of the U.S. as it stands. It’s on a trajectory to join the U.S. at the table (although the preference runs much stronger for poultry and pork rather than beef). Rapidly growing demand has so worried China that it has created its own strategic pork reserve to buffer against price shocks and shortages, similar to those that exist in the U.S. for crucial resources like oil and gas.
Eventually, the Earth Policy Institute suggests we may be meeting somewhere in the middle, given that meat consumption is dropping in the U.S. and Europe (which already consumes less than America) and rising consumption across the developing world.
One trend that could disrupt this dynamic is the slew of new protein options hitting the market and being developed in the lab. Modern Meadow is trying to make bovine muscle cells grow in a lab culture (and make them palatable). BeyondMeat and Hampton Creek Foods envision a new kind of vegetarian "protein" aisle in the supermarket. Whether these companies will have mainstream success at getting people to kick their meat habit, however, remains to be seen.