Vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, etc. diets seem much more mainstream in the media these days, and meat substitutes are no longer just a bad joke, and yet the typical American eater is the greatest carnivore in all the world, with Americans consuming more meat and other animal products (per capita) than any other country. And meat consumption continues to climb, reaching record highs every year for the last five years, though this year the coronavirus may yet put a small dent in this trend.
So, just how much meat does the average American consume? Fortunately, the USDA provides plenty of data on carcass, retail, and boneless meat supply for over 100 years. Figures 1 and 2 summarize the trends from 1909 through 2017 (excluding seafood), and we can summarize things as follows:
Since World War II, a revolution in livestock, and especially poultry production, has kept per capita meat consumption high, which is now over 220 lbs of retail meat per person per year.
Chicken has overtaken beef as the number one meat consumed in America, with an astronomical number of chickens now raised to slaughter yearly in confinement systems.
The veal and lamb markets have largely collapsed in recent decades.
Not shown here, Americans also each eat about 16 pounds of seafood, with shrimp the biggest component at over 4 pounds. This represents on the order of several ten billion fish and shellfish.
Introduction and effective waste in the food system
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the patterns of American life in unprecedented
ways and with stunning rapidity, resulting in many unintended, but not unwelcome, environmental benefits, as skies clear and animals venture into newly empty spaces . On the other hand, the pandemic has also resulted in what appears to be (and is) a shocking crisis of food waste: Acute demand shocks from the almost overnight shift away from food consumption in suddenly closed restaurants and large institutional settings (including schools, universities, and many places of business) towards in-home consumption have resulted in the well-publicized farm-level wastage of whole fields of fresh produce, and the dumping of millions of gallons of fresh dairy .
Without commercial customers or the means to quickly reorient to retail supply chains,
and with limited on-farm storage capacity, some farmers have been forced to plow crops under,
bury already harvested produce, or dump milk into manure lagoons. With slaughterhouses now
reeling from COVID-19 as well, slaughter numbers are down and the dire prospect of millions
of livestock meeting their end on-farm without ever reaching a plate is raised, and the USDA now projects Americans will actually decrease their meat consumption in the coming year .
And yet, shocking images of rotting crops and animal culls belie a US food system that has long
ultimately wasted, in one form or another, the vast majority (perhaps as much as 80-90%) of all
food calories produced at the farm level, with dramatic consequences for the environment and
both animal and human health and well-being, while the pandemic could paradoxically spur beneficial changes that mitigate such waste.
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.
I too am reduced to repeating what must be said, and given this nascent blog’s readership, it seems rather likely that it will need saying again. To wit, George Monbiot recently discussed, in a melancholy but extremely important article (see also the version in The Guardian), the vanishing of so much nature and wild life before his own eyes, in his own lifetime. It is not mere false nostalgia, and he cites much published work that documents the astonishingly rapid and ongoing global loss of animal life, a process that has been variously (and by respectable scientists, no less!) termed “defaunation” in the “Anthropocene” and, more recently, a “biological annihilation.”
A new analysis drawing on 570 studies with data covering 38,700 commercial farms shows dramatic variation both worldwide and within-region in the environmental impact across all major foods, but confirms that beef in particular and animal products in general are responsible for the greater part of food’s impact on earth, which adds up to 31% of global warming emissions (including non-food agriculture), and 43% of ice- and desert-free land. Supplementary material available for free (and is very comprehensive), while the main article is for subscribers only (here).
Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.