The future belongs to the vegetarians

But first, a disclaimer: As you may have gathered, I only eat vegetables (& fruits, etc.). My reasons to give up being happily carnivorous were largely environmental: the burden of producing meat so greatly exceeds that of vegetable products – here’s just one example – that I felt uncomfortable continuing to consume it. While I do believe people should eat considerably less meat, that doesn’t mean I think everyone should be vegetarian. In this post, I outline a few reasons they might not have much of a choice.

In the 1950s, the average American consumed 7 pounds of meat a year. In 2004, American meat consumption peaked at 184 pounds/person. This year, the expected number is down to 166, and that’s a trend I think likely to continue. It’s nice to imagine people are choosing to eat less meat solely out of an increased sense of responsibility for the planet or animal welfare, but the declines are more likely the product of health concern and increased cost due to competition with consumers from rapidly-developing countries.

In this post, I would like to highlight a few emerging technologies, discoveries, and trends that could accelerate the decreased consumption, and push levels closer to where they were in the 50s:

One) The cost of real meat will go up, and there’s not much you can do about it: This morning, the US Department of Agriculture declared a natural disaster in more than 1,000 counties across 26 separate states. The reason? Drought. To help you visualize the extent of the natural disaster, it’s a map!

Drought is, of course, the product of high temperature, and the first half of 2012 was the hottest half-year on record. Given recent trends  in both climate and human behavior, global warming is likely to continue apace. What does all this have to do with beef? Well, raising cattle is a rather water-intensive activity; it takes about 2,500 pounds of water to produce one pound of beef. Or, as Newsweek once put it, “the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer.” As water becomes more scarce, its cost will go up. And you thought it was tough not watering your lawn.

Two) The cost of synthetic meat – real, edible, synthetic meat – will go down: You’ve probably heard about the $330,000 synthetic burger set to be served as early as October. But you might not have heard of Beyond Meat, the chicken substitute that “badly” fooled New York Times ‘Commander in Chef’ Mark Bittman in a blind taste test. Beyond meat is a mixture of soy and pea powder, carrot fiber, and gluten-free flour subjected to heat, cold, and pressure before being extruded into chicken-like shreds. And if that sounds like too much of an industrial process to you, it’s probably worth checking where your meat comes from now. These products will undoubtedly encounter some resistance from consumers, but if they can compete on price – and Beyond Meat insists its product will sell for less than real chicken – they could make a serious dent in consumer habits.

Three) A PETA superweapon is now possible: In 2008, PETA offered a $1 million bounty to the first person to serve a test-tube chicken. The developments described in Two) mean that this bounty might realistically be collected before the June 2013 deadline. But if PETA wants to make a real difference in American consumption patterns, I would suggest they look to the University of Virginia, where one researcher has discovered that the bite of a specific variety of tick could make you allergic to red meat. In the words of Emily Main, writing for Men’s Health – because, obviously, eating meat is a manly thing to do – the tick transmits “an antibody that causes the immune system to overreact in the presence of sugars found in red meat, leading to an allergic reaction that usually shows up as itchy, burning hives all over your trunk and back.” Forget the too-sexy-for-the-Superbowl ads: once PETA weaponizes this antibody, it could be the end of meat as we know it.

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