The terms vegan, meatless, vegetarian, and flexitarian all share common ground in that they refer to diets that incorporate less meat than conventional diets. Increasingly in countries like the US, where meat consumption is among the highest globally, people are opting for meals that are less rich in meat and other animal products like dairy and eggs. Yet meat reduction strategies are not only the responsibility of individuals. Meat reduction is also a matter of aligning public policy with the goals of public health, animal welfare, and environmental protection.
WHAT IS MEAT REDUCTION?
Meat reduction relates to decreasing both the production and the consumption of meat, whether in the name of better health, improved environmental outcomes, or compassion for farmed animals.
On the production side, meat reduction means raising fewer animals for food. Achieving meat reduction will rely on individual actions by farmers and policymakers to shift production from growing animals to farming alternative crops. Still, these individual actions are shaped by the systemic force of collective social norms and public policy such as farm subsidies.
On the consumption side, meat reduction refers to eating less meat overall by substituting other foods in place of meat. Individuals make conscious decisions about what to eat, but larger systemic forces affect food access and the quality and variety of food choices available to individuals. Reducing meat consumption relies on both individual willingness and supportive public policy such as health-based dietary guidelines and reforming farm subsidies that support industrial meat production.
The importance of meat REDUCTION
On average, people in the US consume more meat than any other region in the world. Per capita, US consumers ate around 225 pounds (by retail weight) of red meat and poultry in the year 2020, with average meat consumption exceeding amounts that are recommended in federal dietary guidelines. Consuming this much meat raises the risk of many chronic health problems, making it crucial to find ways to reduce average societal meat intake.
However, changing how much meat people eat is complicated because meat consumption in the US is not simply about sustenance. Raising animals is a strong part of traditional US rural farming identity. US agricultural policy has long subsidized meat production and the farming of commodity crops used as animal feed. Meanwhile, eating steak, hamburgers, hotdogs, and chicken strips has become deeply ingrained in US culture. Availability of abundant and relatively cheap meat, combined with marketing and public health messaging emphasizing the importance of dietary protein, has normalized high meat consumption.
These factors have created a US food system and a national identity closely linked to both farming and consuming animals.
BENEFITS OF REDUCING MEAT CONSUMPTION
Reducing or eliminating meat consumption is often linked with the mission of the animal protection movement. In the food system, animal rights and animal welfare advocacy seeks to benefit farmed animals by questioning the values that underlie meat consumption and addressing the welfare concerns inherent within industrial animal agriculture. Regardless of the motivation, reducing meat consumption has the potential to provide a range of intersectional benefits to society, to animals, and to the environment.
IS REDUCING MEAT GOOD FOR HEALTH?
Consumers in the US eat more meat than any other nation and nearly twice as much daily protein as necessary for optimum health. According to an analysis by the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, over half of US adults consume more protein than is recommended, primarily from meat and poultry sources. In addition, protein source has significant consequences for health. Prominent national and international health professionals, including the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, agree that cutting back on meat can reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Population-wide studies have shown that the risk of mortality increases with additional daily consumption of meat—especially red and processed meats—and decreases with rising consumption of plant foods, whole grains, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and legumes. A “plant-predominant” diet that emphasizes minimally processed plant-based foods is associated with beneficial health outcomes, including better heart health and improved management of diabetes.
In addition to improving dietary health through reduced consumption, reducing meat production can support health by minimizing the significant air and water pollution generated by raising farmed animals and disposing of their manure. In the US, nearly all farmed animals destined for human consumption are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where large amounts of animal waste are gathered in manure lagoons. Pollution generated by CAFOs has been linked to a host of health impacts affecting residents of communities close to industrial animal farms.
Shifting meat consumption in the US toward plant-based alternatives and reducing the number of farmed animals raised in the US food system—especially those living in CAFOs—are essential steps for increasing human health.
IS MEAT REDUCTION GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Deciding to eat less meat reduces demand for industrial animal agriculture, one of the most significant contributors to environmental degradation. Compared to consumption of plant foods, consumption of animal-based foods is associated with far higher rates of ocean acidification, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land use, and pollution of waterways with excess nutrients that disrupt ecosystem balance. In particular, animal agriculture releases high quantities of methane, a potent GHG that traps heat within the atmosphere and accelerates global climate change.
Even half a degree of climate warming carries severe consequences for the planet. In some regions, climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of extreme heatwaves and droughts. In others, a changing climate will contribute to more powerful tropical storms, flooding, and seasons of intense cold weather. Worldwide, a changing climate means rising plant and animal extinction rates, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. Agriculture in a changing climate will have to contend with more erratic and extreme weather and lower crop yields, affecting food supplies and displacing or endangering the livelihoods of farmers and farmworkers.
Meat production is a leading contributor to global environmental degradation and climate change, making production shifts and diet change crucial steps toward a more sustainable future.
IS MEAT REDUCTION GOOD FOR ANIMALS?
In the CAFOs that house nearly all US farmed animals, animal welfare is largely disregarded to maximize profit. For instance, the US hog industry raises millions of pigs per year in extreme confinement. In many of the nation’s CAFOs, female pigs selected for breeding are confined in gestation crates roughly the size of their bodies, making it impossible for them to engage in natural behaviors or even to turn around and face another direction.
Lowering meat consumption removes incentives for the industrial animal agriculture industry to increase the number of animals raised in CAFOs, which may ultimately translate into fewer animals born and raised within the industrial meat system. Replacing meat at mealtime with plant-based alternative foods can strengthen supply chains for alternative proteins, including support for small and mid-size farms practicing sustainable agriculture, and help to present financial incentives for meat producers to turn toward non-animal farming opportunities.
WHY ARE PEOPLE REDUCING MEAT CONSUMPTION?
Consumers from all backgrounds are finding the motivation to lessen their reliance on meat from a combination of ethical concern for animals, anxiety about worsening environmental crises, awareness of health benefits, and the cost of purchasing meat. Yet among these, a desire for greater health is consistently the leading reason why people are choosing to eat less meat.
HOW INDIVIDUALS can CONTRIBUTE TO MEAT REDUCTION
There are multiple ways that individuals can contribute to lasting change in the current industrial food system and industrial animal agriculture. Change can come from the actions of individuals within systems of power or outside of them, and effective strategies for change can be personal, cultural, or political. Individual actions include choosing to de-emphasize meat at mealtime, contributing to community advocacy, and taking action to hold policymakers accountable for driving systemic policy action in favor of reducing meat.
PERSONAL: GOING PLANT-BASED
Research on behavioral change suggests that simply calling on people to do less of a harmful activity is not as effective as working with them to take specific and measurable steps toward a goal within a particular time frame. While the idea of meat reduction risks being cast as a pure negative, various communities built around lifestyle choices exist to affirm any decision to eat less meat and may help a broad section of the population make lasting positive behavioral changes.
The term plant-based diet is often used to refer to a vegan diet, an eating pattern consisting exclusively of whole plants such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, as well as processed products that are made entirely with plant ingredients. Living plant-based can extend beyond the dietary realm to lifestyle practices such as wearing clothing free of animal materials and refusing to purchase personal care products that are tested on animals.
Yet the term plant-based can also denote a diet that does incorporate some quantity of animal products while maintaining consumption patterns predominantly composed of plants. Choosing to eat plant-based was liberating for Plant-Based Bre, a food blogger, and sociologist. Bre identifies as plant-based rather than vegan, in part because of her history with eating disorders but also because she occasionally eats meat. For people like Bre, being plant-based means positively choosing to center her eating on the abundance of choices and flavors that plants offer while reducing meat intake.
For individuals interested in reducing their meat consumption but unsure how to refocus their eating around plant foods, there are many ways to prepare satisfying meals with adequate dietary protein exclusively or primarily from plant-based sources:
Beans and pulses are popular staple foods around the world. There are many varieties to choose from, including but not limited to soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, mung beans, black beans, and lentils, each of which contains high levels of protein that can supplement or replace protein of animal origin.
USDA dietary guidelines recommend making at least half of the grains you eat in a day whole grains rather than refined grains. Examples of whole grains are brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and whole-wheat versions of bread, chapati, cereals, and crackers. Refined grains include white bread, pasta, white rice, masa, cream of rice, pearled barley, and refined-grain cereals.
Tofu is another healthy and versatile way to replace meat. Originating in China, tofu is made from soybeans, which are an excellent source of whole plant protein. Depending on preparation, some varieties of tofu also contain high levels of calcium. While tofu is a stand-alone ingredient in Chinese cuisines and was not originally developed to replace meat, tofu has gained widespread recognition and longstanding popularity elsewhere in the world among consumers aiming to reduce or eliminate meat intake.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Chia seeds, hemp hearts, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and tahini are also versatile pantry alternatives for those who are looking for ways to eat less meat. Nuts and seeds add texture, protein, and flavorful, filling, healthy fats to meals and possess a robust nutritional profile that includes amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
COLLECTIVE: COMMUNITY AND REGIONAL ACTIONS
Individuals can also contribute to broader change in their local and regional food systems through individual support for actions that have a multiplier effect. Introducing actions like embracing meat alternatives in collective spaces such as community groups, schools, and local government can help to support alternative food systems and normalize diets that do not center on meat.
Grassroots advocacy can lead to local and regional change. The Block Corporate Salmon campaign by nationwide student-led advocacy group Uprooted and Rising is an example of individuals working together within a framework of food sovereignty to advance systemic change through institutions. Uprooted and Rising organizes students to pressure food service companies that supply cafeterias and institutions to refrain from selling genetically modified salmon.
Another model for collective action is New York City’s successful Meatless Mondays campaign to serve vegetarian meals on Mondays at all public schools in the city, within the existing Free School Lunch For ALL program that currently provides free breakfasts and lunches to students under 18. Campaigns such as these can influence food purchasing and norm-setting by municipal, state, and national governments and generate enthusiasm for additional public policies in support of meat reduction.
POLITICAL: SYSTEMIC ACTIONS
Many individual actions are constrained by the architecture of the food system and by social inequality in both food production and food consumption. Individual actions from personal consumption decisions to community organizing rely in part on systemic factors such as food availability, food access, and the overall policy frameworks that structure the activities of the food system.
Agricultural policy mechanisms such as the Farm Bill shape financial incentives for farmers and influence the action of agribusiness corporations that control US food production. The economics of farm production in turn influence what crops or animals are economically feasible to produce in which areas of the country, and whether family farms will be able to stay afloat. Actions by policy makers, committees, and government agencies define what types of food production will receive government-backed crop insurance, what agribusiness mergers will be allowed under anti-trust laws, and what funding will support the alternative protein industry. Importantly, policy at both national and state level also defines how segments of the farmed animal industry will face enforcement if they fail to abide by standards for environmental protection, workers’ rights, animal welfare, and corporate ethics.
REDUCing MEAT CONSUMPTION IN THE US
Refocusing the US system away from industrially farmed meat will require many coordinated local, regional, and national actions happening in parallel. In addition to the individual and collective efforts mentioned above, there are many civil society organizations with projects and missions focused on reducing US reliance on meat:
- The Reducetarian Foundation hosts public events for multi-stakeholder discussion and provides educational resources to foster thinking focused on meat reduction.
- Veganuary encourages individuals to try eating a vegan diet for the month of January, and works with food companies to expand their vegan offerings.
- Default Veg advocates for making plant-based dishes the default in a range of public and private food service settings while allowing animal products as an add-on for those who wish to order them.
- World Animal Protection offers individuals a free starter kit with recipes and information to facilitate the transition toward eating less meat.
- The Food Empowerment Project website contains suggestions for meat substitutes and articles connecting antiracism to meat reduction.
- Factory Farming Awareness Coalition leads informational outreach presentations in schools and universities to publicize the harms of industrial animal agriculture, and works with institutions to adopt plant-based menus.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine encourages both home cooks and food businesses to serve “Universal Meals” free of animal ingredients and many of the most common food allergens.
Meat reduction efforts ultimately rely on individuals taking action from the dinner table to the halls of US Congress, and addressing both the farming of animals for meat and the food purchasing decisions made by individuals and communities. Reducing meat production and consumption nationwide for our health and that of animals and the environment will require that individuals be willing to take actions large and small, and that systems of power respond constructively to enable food system transformation.
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