The Hazards of Rising Rates of Meat Consumption

By Genevieve Cottraux

The socially conscious Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) investor initiative, established by Jeremy Coller of Coller Capital, looks at environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of investment opportunities.  FAIRR estimates that between 1992 and 2016, global meat consumption increased five-fold.  This rise has worldwide implications for human health through increased obesity and rising rates of cancer and diabetes, as well as the environmental consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, and deforestation.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumer will eat a record-breaking 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018.  The demand for chicken eggs is also expected to hit a new record high, and the demand for dairy products will rise as well.  Conversely, prices have been dropping, except in the case of eggs, adding to the rising consumption rates.

chicken farm
Chicken farm, picture by sodia (Morguefile)

Although there is a growing trend toward high protein, low carbohydrate diets, many people following these diets overlook the fact that the USDA includes vegan sources of protein in its food guidelines.  The Protein Foods Group includes beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and processed soy products.  The benefits of the low carbohydrate approach may be negated by the high volume of animal proteins being consumed—the USDA also estimates that the average American will consume about 10 ounces of meat and poultry daily in 2018, far beyond the recommended 5 to 6.5 ounces of protein.

Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, points to a study in the European Journal of Cancer that even eating 7 pounds of meat a year increases the risk of breast cancer.  The consumption of 222.2 pounds of animal protein is more than double the amount that will increase the risk of breast, colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, stroke, diabetes, and death from heart disease.  In rating the safety and effectiveness of diets, the meat-heavy Dukan, Keto, Paleo, and Atkins diets were ranked last by U. S. News and World Report.  The World Health Organization reports that diet factors into about 30% of all cancers in Western countries and 20% in developing countries, with those who avoid meat “much less likely” to develop cancer.

As regards the environmental consequences of increased demand for and production of meat and dairy, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lists beef, lamb, butter, shellfish, cheese, pork, veal, chicken, and turkey as 9 of the top 10 greenhouse gas emissions-producing foods.  (The remaining food item in the top 10, asparagus, makes the list due to the carbon-intensive air freighting required for the delicate vegetable.)  Beef, accounting for 4% of the retail food supply by weight, represents 36% of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions.

On the economic front, the farmers who supply meat and dairy to the market aren’t the ones who profit.  A Pew Charitable Trusts study found that 71% of poultry farmers live at or below the U.S. poverty line.  The USDA estimates that the average large-scale chicken or livestock farm is over $1 million in debt, while a few large, consolidated agribusinesses control the market and spend millions of dollars a year lobbying politicians.  Democracy Forward, working on behalf of the small-farmers group Organization for Competitive Markets, filed a lawsuit December 14, 2017 accusing the USDA with “arbitrary and capricious” behavior in its rollback of Obama-era protections for small farmers.

There is good news, however, as the trends toward high protein demand and clean eating merge into an increased interest in meat and dairy alternatives.  Data from the group HealthFocus shows that 17% of American consumers between the ages of 17 and 50 claim to eat a predominantly plant-based diet.  According to a report on the top trends in prepared foods from 2017, 6% of Americans now identify as vegan, up from 1% in 2014.  The meat substitutes market is expected to reach $5.96 billion by the year 2022.  Restaurant industry analyst Michael Whiteman told the Chicago Tribune that he estimates “the demand for plant-based foods will grow by 10 percent annually in the coming years.”  Non-dairy milk sales, led by almond, soy, and coconut milks, have grown by 61% since 2012.  Other plant-based milk options are increasing and now include such diverse options as pecan, quinoa, and flax.

There is also good news for farmers.  A report from the Humane Party analyzing land use, efficiency, and profitability of animal farming versus plant farming found that plant farming is more productive and efficient.  Animal agriculture overall generates more money—$35 billion—than plant agriculture, but it does so at a much higher expense.  The Humane Party report states that “plant-based agriculture grows 512% more pounds of food than animal-based agriculture on 69% of the mass of land that animal-based agriculture uses.”

By switching to a plant-based diet and eliminating the demand for animal products, consumers will benefit their own health, the environment, farmers who make the switch to plant agriculture, and ultimately, the animals themselves.