Our Addiction to Meat

Our Addiction to Meat

Aug 29

Okay, maybe the title is a tad bit melodramatic, but there’s no denying that meat consumption per person has continuously increased worldwide in the last 50 years. People in almost every country in the world are eating more meat, on average, than they were in 1960. And we’re certainly not getting any healthier. (According to the Humane Society, people in the U.S. consumed 222 pounds of meat per person in 2007, up from 161 pounds in 1960.)

Laura and I believe in paying a higher price for more nutritionally dense meat that we eat less often. When asked about this by a friend not long ago, I cited the increase in meat consumption, specifically the large amount of meat consumed in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world. She questioned the accuracy of this, and I had no good response. But, after a little research, I can now validate that multiple studies show that the U.S. consumes more meat per capita than most other countries.

According to one article in the New York Times, we eat twice the global average, consuming 15 percent of the world’s meat even though we represent only five percent of the world’s population. However, according to my own calculations (using this data from the Guardian), the U.S. actually consumes more than twice the global average, eating 124.8 pounds per person in 2002, when the global average was 46.75 pounds per person. And if you aren’t convinced by averages, this report from 2000 shows that the U.S. ranks in the top twenty consumers for pork, poultry, and beef.

For most of human history, meat has been a wealthy indulgence. Every step up the food chain requires more energy to sustain by a factor of ten. This means that every calorie of beef requires ten or more calories to produce, including those in the cattle’s feed, those needed to slaughter and butcher the animal, and those needed to cook the resulting meat. It’s not a cheap process.

Only recently (say, the last 50 years?) has meat become more financially accessible. Bringing a formerly elite product to the masses certainly sounds like a benefit of modern technology and human ingenuity, until you look at how it’s accomplished. This includes:

  • subsidies by the federal government using taxpayers’ money,
  • treating animals inhumanely,
  • administering synthetic growth hormones that dramatically speed up growth,
  • genetically modifying DNA to force animals to be more productive,
  • feeding animals waste products from other farming operations,
  • feeding animals petrochemicals,
  • spreading concentrated amounts of pollutants and waste on arable land, and
  • replacing humans with robots at every step of the process.

The effects of all these things lead to increased health care costs, disruption of ecosystems, less nutritious meat, greater risk of bacterial infection, and a reduction in the amount of diversity that contributes to the health of both humans and the environment. This is why there is no such thing as cheap meat.

And if that’s not convincing, this 2003 report from The Journal of Nutrition shows (unsuprisingly) that “the main determinant of per capita meat consumption appears to be wealth.” Here’s a graph of per capita meat consumption in relation to GDP. Meat seems to be cheap in the U.S. (99 cents for a hamburger), but the fact that the wealthiest nations eat the most meat should serve as proof that, in the long term, it is not.

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