A landmark report from the UN released this year has warned that we need to drastically re-think meat consumption and the way we use agricultural space. The report is referring to factory-farmed meat – in other words, the mass-produced meat products that fill our supermarket shelves. In fact, the meat industry is under more media scrutiny than ever in terms of animal welfare and the environment.
But has the average American consumer reacted? And if they haven’t yet, will they any time soon?
Are Americans eating less meat?
In short, the answer is no. Americans are actually eating more factory-farmed meat. The total US per capita consumption of meat has been creeping up over the past five decades. Americans ate an all-time record of 222 pounds of meat per person in 2018.
What has changed is that Americans are eating different types of meat. Even though nothing is more American than the classic hamburger and fries, beef consumption has declined by about one third since the 1970s. Pork has stayed roughly the same, whereas chicken consumption has doubled. Nine billion chickens were processed in the US in 2017.
The causes for this aren’t fully clear, but they could be down to the lower cost of chicken and growing health concerns regarding red meat. This has interesting implications for both the environment and animal welfare. Cattle are, without a doubt, the biggest offender when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, so in that regard it is a good thing beef consumption has fallen.
However, it is chickens who suffer the most in terms of animal welfare. In a time when more information is available online than ever, why do Americans continue to eat animals farmed in poor conditions?
Is there an ethical aversion to factory farming?
On the surface, Americans do care about livestock treatment. According to a survey by the Sentience Institute in 2017, 75% of US adults believe that they eat meat and dairy products from animals that are ‘treated humanely’.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible for all of these people to be correct. Data suggests that 90% of farm animals are factory-farmed globally, rising to 99% within the US. So, despite the contrary beliefs, very few Americans actually eat meat sourced from niche open-air farms where animal welfare is a priority.
Last year, California passed a ballot measure for cage-free eggs and minimum space for calves and pigs – winning with 61% of the vote. Although consumers may be able to purchase meat or eggs from ‘cage-free’ chickens with their peace of mind intact, they remain unaware that these chickens often have similar space to a caged bird – they are simply loose on the floor of a large shed. In many ways, this is even worse as the birds will peck each other (sometimes to death) in a confined, high-stress environment.
The data suggests that people do care about animal welfare, they’re just living in the false belief that their meat is already ethically sourced. The harsh truth is that the meat industry is big business, and more space and kinder living conditions for livestock raises prices and eats into profits.
Writers such as Leah Garces have attempted to bring factory farm conditions into the spotlight. Videos of shocking conditions made their way into the New York Times, but ultimately failed to make a major impact on public opinion.
This isn’t to say that the meat industry is totally unconcerned about PR. Cargill, one of America’s largest meat companies, has been investing in blockchain technology in an effort to show meat buyers where individual birds have come from. Technology such as drones, sensors, and wearable technology could make it easier to monitor the health and productivity of animals – if farms consider it to be a worthy investment.
If anything is going to change the trend in factory-farmed meat consumption though, it’s unlikely to be an ethical aversion. There’s more information available than ever, but it’s simply too easy to be dissonant. The general population are either willing to ignore the facts about factory-farming or are happy to buy into the peace of mind offered by the ‘cage-free’ style marketing.
People may be able to switch off to the plight of farm animals, but can they ignore an existential danger to themselves?
Will people eat less meat to save the planet?
By 2050 we’ll be sharing the planet with 3 billion more people. As the world’s population grows and middle classes swell in developing countries, so does the global appetite for meat and dairy.
The meat and dairy industries as a whole produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gases, estimated by some to be on a par with the transport industry. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that livestock are responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse emissions.
About 60% of all the animals living on the planet are livestock. Massive areas of natural land, often initially inhabited by natural populations, are cleared every year to make more space for farm animals to live. The billions of farm animals occupying this space produce a huge amount of sewage and toxic run-off which usually ends up in the sea or other parts of the ecosystem.
Everything that humans eat needs space to grow. We can’t create more land, so we need to make the land that we’ve got work harder. Ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, goats) are notoriously inefficient in this regard.
Ruminant livestock take up two-thirds of global agricultural land and contribute half of agriculture’s production-related emissions. Even though we’ve seen beef consumption drop in the US, cattle still account for 43% of agricultural land while only producing 3% of the calories consumed. Every factory-farmed beef burger also costs 2,400 gallons of water to make.
Compare this to the humble pulse (lentils, beans, etc.) in terms of sustainability. They use 20 times less land than beef, require far less water, and produce 20 times less greenhouse gas to deliver the same amount of protein.
The agriculture industry itself should have a vested interest in slowing climate change as farming is hit hard by droughts and extreme weather events. Some farmers argue that going back to smaller local farms that sell meat as a premium expensive product is the path to sustainability.
It remains to be seen whether US consumer or industry habits will change in light of the growing environmental evidence. Going by the global response to the longer-established impacts of fossil fuels, it seems unlikely that even the gravest statistics will reduce meat consumption on their own.
Meat – but not as you know it
Realists recognise that it will be impossible to turn the majority of the US vegan over the next few years, regardless of any increased attention on animal welfare or the environment.
Plant-based ‘meat’ brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are beginning to hit US shelves and aiming to reach grocery stores across the country. The fact that these products so closely mimic real meat suggest that conscientious carnivores do exist. These people have an appetite for the taste and texture of meat but may prefer a product that hasn’t come from a factory farm.
Early signs are promising. Burger King outlets offering Impossible Burgers saw a 6% boost in sales compared to stores that didn’t. KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, White Castle, and Tim Hortons have all recently trialled meatless products. Growth in the chicken sector is at only 1%, whereas the plant-based protein sector is seeing growth at 9%.
These products are close to real meat. Consumer feedback has in general being positive about the taste and texture of plant-based burgers. Some are even able to ‘bleed’ in the way that a meat-based burger would. However, many remain sceptical that these products can make a dent in the amount of factory-farmed meat consumed.
What if there was an alternative to factory-farmed meat that looked and tasted exactly the same, except it was healthier, better for the environment, and no animals had died in the process? This is not science-fiction. Lab-grown or ‘cultured’ meat is getting closer to hitting the mass market. It has big money backing it too, with the likes of Bill Gates already investing.
Cultured meat is identical to meat from an animal, except it has been grown in a lab from cloned animal cells. If it grows in popularity and can compete with factory-farmed meat at a similar or cheaper price point, then it could provide serious competition to the status quo. It could cut out a whole section of the meat industry’s value chain. Product would move straight from the lab to distribution, skipping out livestock breeding, feeding, slaughtering, and processing.
The meat industry’s response seems to be ‘invest or innovate’. If lab-grown meat is to usurp traditional products, it is likely the biggest players in agriculture will still get a piece of the pie. Tyson Foods, a US meat giant, have invested in two lab-grown meat start-ups (Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies) through their venture capital arm, Tyson Ventures. Kellogg, Hormel Foods, and Kroger have all recently introduced their own plant-based products.
It remains to be seen how the general public will react to cultured meat. Many people are immediately put off at the thought of eating something ‘unnatural’. Marketing and education will be key to winning hearts and minds.
What could the future hold for American factory farming?
The UN report is clear that current rates of meat consumption are simply unsustainable as the global population grows. There will ultimately be no choice but to cut down as a species in the long term.
The meat industry will keep a wary eye on the public response to factory farm conditions, the environmental crisis, and competition from plant-based and lab grown meat. Some companies will look to protect themselves through PR, greener operations, or investment in the emerging competitors.
For now, though, global meat consumption is set to increase. In the short to medium term, there appears to be little for the US meat and poultry industry to be worried about in terms of a slowdown. Even if there was to be a gradual shift in US consumer attitudes to factory farming, the industry may be able to turn more attention to exporting. A McKinsey report estimates that China will account for nearly 30% of incremental demand for meat by 2025. With consumption also set to increase in traditionally poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, a mass market for meat and poultry will exist for many years to come.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of the death of the meat industry have been greatly exaggerated.