Commentary: Where’s the beef? Oh right, it’s still everywhere…


Sustainable cattle farming creates a smaller carbon footprint in Freiburg, Germany. But is sustainable cattle ranching feasible on the large scale that the U.S. beef market demands? (Shandra Furtado/Planet Forward)

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Beef: it’s what’s for dinner. Hearty, rich in iron and high-quality protein, it does a body good.

Sound familiar? Welcome to America, where the average citizen consumes a staggering 217.5 pounds of meat each year, a figure that far exceeds the global average of 41.3 pounds per capita. Meat is part of our culture; many of us grew up with meat at the center of our dinner plates, under the impression that it was good for us. Yet, in recent years, mounting evidence has suggested high levels of meat consumption may not be the healthiest option for our bodies and our planet. So why are we still married to meat, despite the warning signs?

Nutrition scientists have been investigating meat for years. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat as a carcinogen, and red meat as a probable carcinogen. The WHO and American Cancer Society next urged the public to limit meat consumption. Diets rich in animal protein are also linked to increased cardiovascular risks and all-cause mortality, while those high in plant-protein show protective effects.

From a sustainability standpoint, livestock has a higher water and carbon footprint than any other food, emitting significant amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases from their farts and burps. Researchers estimate that it takes about 100 times the amount of water to produce animal protein compared to vegetable protein. This all goes without mentioning, of course, the animal welfare concerns many have surrounding commercially raised meat.

With climate change an urgent threat, and historically high rates of chronic, preventable disease, we must put down our forks and assess if we are engaging in best-practice dietary-initiatives for our bodies, the planet, and humanity at large.

Seeing as the food system contributes roughly a third of the greenhouse gas emissions, and that 5 of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are diet-related, there’s a real opportunity to better our health and protect the planet.

Yet we often eschew this opportunity, allowing convenience and fleeting preference to trump ethical considerations surrounding the food choices we make. We blissfully fail to acknowledge the impacts of meat, drowning out uncomfortable thoughts with the sizzling sound of bacon frying on the stove. The time is now, however, to push for decreased consumption of meat.

A colossal task, meat reduction strategies historically have have been met with deep resistance. When a school in Texas attempted to implement a Meatless Monday policy, offering just one meatless meal per week, backlash erupted, and the measure was seen as overly coercive. And when reduced meat consumption was proposed for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, heavy meat-industry lobbying ensured the suggestion did not make the cut.

What opposers who denounce such initiatives as overly paternalistic fail to realize, however, is that their taste for a meat-heavy diet is a result of a preference that has been architected for them. The government uses tax dollars to feed our meaty appetites, spending billions on agricultural subsidies, a bulk of which support commercially raised meat, often incentivized by “big meat’s” hefty political contributions to persuade lawmakers.

And the meat industry’s power extends beyond its pocketbooks. Marketing campaigns have established cultural norms that contribute to our meat-heavy mindset, telling us our bodies need “high quality” animal protein or we will become malnourished or anemic, and that eating only plants is unsatisfying and emasculating, all contributing to resistance to shift away from animal protein. After all, believing these notions is far easier than changing something so personal and emotionally charged as our diets.

But if we continue to consume meat at the present rate, we set ourselves on a trajectory for resource depletion, irreversible damage to the planet, and a multitude of preventable health risks. Moreover, we jeopardize the right for future generations to food access and a healthful planet.

With momentum growing in the plant-based food movement, there has never been a better time to nudge for reduced meat consumption. Incentivization of Meatless Monday practices, continued advocacy for reductionist messaging in dietary guidelines, and education about meat’s impacts, may prove monumental.

Even if national policy is presently out of reach, we can begin by adjusting our own diets and work on changing the social norms around meat. And we don’t have to push the world into veganism overnight to make a difference. By eating a little less, applauding when meat-free options are offered out of the home, and celebrating plant-based meals, we can decrease meat demand and foster a cultural shift where plants become preferential. Doing so can shrink our ecological footprint, improve our health, and ensure sustainable food choices for future generations. If there is a true desire to make a positive impact for health of humanity or the planet, it’s time to put the money where our mouths are, and back off the beef.

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