How Our Growing Fondness for Meat is Damaging the Planet – And What We Can Do to Fix It


Photo by Edson Saldaña on Unsplash

Let’s face it – Americans are a nation of carnivores.

While there has been a growing shift towards plant-based diets in recent years, as a whole, Americans are still consuming more than the recommended amounts determined by the USDA. In fact, in 2018, the country set a new record not only in terms of the amount of meat that it consumed, but also in the amount of meat that it produced.

So, what is it about meat that makes American want to eat so much of it, despite its known health and environmental impacts? And what can be done to change this habit?

Agricultural practices

Americans’ fondness for, and reliance on meat as a staple part of their diet can be traced back to colonial times. Not only did immigrants to America have access to much more land than they could’ve ever dreamed of back in Europe, but the use of that land was not regulated in the same way that it was back home. For example, archaic property rights often restricted land ownership to the aristocracy, who had the final say on what that land was used for. Combined with the fact that animal husbandry was an expensive enterprise, and hunting rights were restricted (again, to the benefit of the nobility) the amount of meat available for consumption was limited, which meant that the average person had to rely on a predominantly plant-based diet, with the occasional bite of meat at Christmas and other feast days.

Therefore, when the first pilgrims arrived in America, they found huge tracts of ‘unclaimed’ land on which they could hunt and farm at will. In addition, the practice of granting of large parcels of land was often used to incentivise more settlers to make the oftentimes perilous journey to America to help ‘develop’ the colonies. This led not only American settlers eating a significantly higher quantity of meat than their European cousins, but also to much larger farms, which helped keep the price of meat at affordable levels, even for the poorer classes.

These factors helped paved the way for intensive agricultural methods, such as the centralisation of production at a limited number of regional centers, the packing of animals close together to minimise profits and the questionable slaughtering and feeding practices that frequently feature in the news today.

A Cultural Phenomenon

Thanks to the ready availability of cheap meat, eating lots of it became a defining tenet of being American. This helps explain why pretty much every major American event is associated with a meat product – turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, hot dogs at ball games, BBQ for Independence Day, and steaks for romantic dinners.

However, the land of the free is also the land of the fad diet, with the result that Americans have a bit of a complicated relationship with meat. While the federal government has been issuing guidelines relating to food since the 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the policymakers began to notice a growing health crisis, which led to the introduction of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980. Despite the good intentions of policymakers to create a healthier diet for Americans in order to cut obesity rates and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, industry lobbyists were able to skew the recommendations in their favour, in order to allow them to preserve their profits and influence.

As people also began to notice their expanding waistlines, even though they may have been following the latest governmental guidelines on healthy eating, they began to take matters into their own hands. While dieting has been a part of our relationship with food since at least the Middle Ages, it really took off in the 1990s with the explosion of the fad diet phenomenon, many of which advocated conflicting approaches to meat-eating. For instance, vegetarian and vegan diets advocate the reduction or complete elimination of meat, while others, such as the Paleo and the Keto diet, encouraged increasing meat and fat consumption at the expense of carbs.

While health practitioners often deride fad diets as having no basis in scientific data, the fact is that there is still much that we do not understand about how our bodies interact with the food that we consume, and what is healthy or unhealthy.

Environmental Impact

Despite the questions surrounding the healthiness of meat consumption, there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear – our reliance on meat is wrecking the planet.

A recent report published by Chatham House (an independent policy institute) and supported by the UN highlights the damage that intensive agricultural practices (particularly animal husbandry) causes. Not only is intensive farming responsible for such environmental phenomena as deforestation, drought, greenhouse gas production, and water pollution, but it has been suggested that it will lead to more infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans, as has been the case with SARS and now Covid-19.

So, what can be done?

According to the Chatham House report, the single, most effective action that we can take on an individual level is to dramatically decrease our meat consumption. The report advises that if for the majority of us, meat could move from a diet staple to an occasional treat then this would free up huge amounts of land that can be rewilded or used for more environmentally friendly farming. This would not only help reverse some of the environmental damage that we have wrought on the planet, but could also help slow down global warming by trapping and storing up to 72 billion tons of carbon.

The move towards diets based around less meat has picked up speed since the introduction of the Beyond Meat Burger, and Singapore’s recent approval to allow meat to be grown in a lab. But, we do not need to rely solely on innovative products to cure us of our meat addition.

Simple (and cheap) changes that you can introduce are opting for locally sourced meat, organic and/or free range over intensively farmed, as well as substituting meat once or twice a week with other foods such as beans, lentils or mushrooms.

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