The U.S. Department of Agriculture has big news for consumers, and even bigger news for the country's beef and chicken producers: All that kerfuffle about the success of plant-based, vegan hamburgers is well, just that. Real red meat producers still have the commanding voice in the market, thank you.
Americans' taste for red meat has been projected to rise for some years now, ever since late 2008, when rising grain prices forced a drop in meat production. Ranchers continue to struggle with drought conditions in California and quirky grain prices throughout the world.
But according to USDA projections, that's changing. This year.
Annual red meat and poultry consumption is due to reach an all-time high in 2018, says the USDA's Economic Research Service, the department that crunches all the numbers when it comes to production and consumption. At 222 lbs per person, U.S. consumption of meat products comes out to a projection of 14 percent more consumption of meat than 5 decades ago when tanking up with protein-rich beef and chicken was not only considered healthy but America's favorite dining pastime.Just think McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, which all rose to fame in the 1960s.
And as Quartz writer Chase Purdy points out, that calculation is actually " a gauge for actual consumption drawn from sources up and down the food-supply chain, not a hard-and-fast number." In other words, the breakdown of how much Americans' eating habits are contributing to the domestic food supply is a bit more complex.
The real statistic to note is the rise in animal food production. The amount of meat on the U.S. market rose more than 60 percent between 1990 and 2018, while the amount of consumption of those quintessential American meat dishes actually only rose by 12 percent.
That growth on America's farms and ranches is expected to continue. "[Meat] consumption in the U.S. is likely to undergo a noticeable shift over the next decade as production of beef and pork grows and prices decline," writes Flavius Badau, an economist with the USDA. "USDA baseline projections, which provide a longrun view of the U.S. farm sector, show that production of beef and pork will expand steadily between 2016 and 2025, driven by lower feed costs and strong meat demand domestically and abroad. Beef production and pork production are projected to grow by 11.7 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, during the period."
In other words, it has less to do with how much meat consumers buy and a lot more to do with how much surplus there is on the market.
"The reason for the price decrease has nothing to due with demand—which remains as high as ever in the U.S.—but instead with an increase in the supply of cattle," wrote Brad Tuttle, a Time.com columnist, back in 2016. More cattle-fattening corn stocks, which have been decreasing in price, yield bigger, fatter cows and yes, you guessed it, more meat for the supermarket.
Of course, cheap corn isn't the only thing driving cattle production prices. Cheaper fertilizer. The declining price of those three key ingredients of good soil, nitrogen, phosphate and potash can have a profound say in the abundance and cost of grains and ergo, the foods we eat. Consumer trends, notes Tuttle, is only a part of the reason that food producers bump up their stocks.
But as Dr. Neal Barnard, medical researcher and founding president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine asks, just because the meat industry has beefed up its stocks, should we? Do we really have to go there?
"For the health of Americans and the environment, let’s hope that this prediction proves false," says Barnard in his recent op-ed in The Hill. "Nobody outside of the meat industry would argue that eating 222 pounds of meat is healthful."
And even the USDA would agree. It's been advocating more fruit and vegetables and less meat and dairy for years, to the likely consternation of industries that would lose sizable profits if we all followed USDA guidelines to the T.
Still, Barnard points out, projections aren't always correct. People change and so do viewpoints. U.S. presidential elections are a good example of that fact, but market trends are an even better one.
The rise in popularity of products like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other plant-based alternatives suggest that Americans are quite aware that decreasing meat consumption is a smart move, both for humans and for the planet. Scientists point out that our food production methods have a role not just in our health but in the prominence of global warming.
But will the trend toward vegetarian and vegan food consumption continue? And will meat producers take the tip? Some conventional meat producers are already beginning to explore alternative options to capture the vegan-leaning consumer.
The question that is left then, is whether it's time for the USDA and its research service, ERS, to delve as deeply into the projections and benefits of alternative, plant-based foods as it regularly does of products that come from meat and dairy industries.
Perhaps it's time for a whole new category on the ERS website that touts the surprising growth of disruptor food industries; blog posts that talk about their market successes and how-to-find advice on pea protein-based organic products that are now competing with cuts of beef, chicken and pork.
Maybe projections that work far into the future (everything being relative, a decade is a long time to project a beef industry's confident rise from a recession), but within the scope our our formidable climate struggles. Projections after all, can say a lot about market trends, but they can also help map the future of industries that many of us still have a lot to learn about.
Flickr image: Kevin Jarrett
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.