Protein. Eaters crave it. Chefs obsess over it. Farmers produce it.
Protein is what's for dinner (and breakfast, lunch and snacks in between). Protein is in such demand in the United States and elsewhere because it's an essential macronutrient; a building block of life that just so happens to taste great. And do most people think of when they think "protein"? Meat and dairy. Meat is often the protein at the center of the meal, the slab that can take up most of the plate.
To ponder the bounty of meat, dairy and other proteins - as well as all the resources and effort directed towards its production - is to recognize its significance. To a great extent, the food system is in the service of protein production. This is very much true in the United States.
To a great extent, the food system is in the service of protein production. This is very much true in the United States.
As the perpetual focus on production goes unbroken, it has created a certain mentality within consumer society. One aspect is the notion that eating increasingly more protein as part of one's diet is healthy. Witness the plethora of protein-enhanced drinks, snacks and supplements on store shelves that show consumers remain interested in protein-rich foods. While eating protein is vital, most people consume far more protein than needed to maintain their health.
Another aspect is the impression that meat is the only way to get complete protein. This trend is perpetuated by low carb, meat-heavy diets like Atkins, Whole 30 and Paleo, let alone the meaty standard American diet. The reality is that there are many sources of good protein in plant-based foods. To oversimplify, protein really is in everything.
Protein Aplenty: How Much Protein Do We Really Need?
In US and other wealthy countries, most people eat much more protein than needed to maintain good health. In fact, Americans eat more protein than recommended by daily requirements, which ranges from about 40 to 70 grams for most people who aren't that physically active. Yet the American average protein consumption is far greater, at 120 grams of protein per day between all protein sources, whether animal or plant-based.
As trends go, most people in the US aren't attempting to lower their protein consumption. Instead, a recent survey finds that 64 percent of Americans are trying to up their protein intake. Most people surveyed cite the desire for improved personal health as the reason for eating more protein, an admirable goal that may not always be necessary.
No Protein But Animal Protein?
Not only do people in wealthy countries typically eat large amounts of protein, the protein disproportionately comes from meat, dairy and eggs. In effect, the overconsumption of protein is linked to the overconsumption of animal protein, with the standard American diet particularly excessive. According to the USDA, the average American eats around 189 pounds of meat annually (as of 2015). That outsized meat-eating places the average American near the top of global per capita levels, with consumption rates about three times the global average. The same excessive consumption rate extends to other animal products, too. In 2015, Americans ate approximately 628 pounds of dairy products and 33 pounds worth of chicken eggs.
It is undeniable that meat, dairy and eggs are the popular if not go-to protein source in the US and beyond. We know that there are eons of taste and culture wrapped up in a bite of grilled beef or roasted chicken, but this habit is not without consequences. Meat and animal production is known to have especially big costs for the environment and resources.
The Environmental Cost of Our Meat Habit
Per portion eaten, meat tends to have much larger environmental footprints by almost any measure. This is because, in comparison to plant-based foods, meat production uses, emits and impacts significantly more resources like water, energy, greenhouse gases, land and more. For instance, the water footprint for one pound of beef is about 1,800 gallons, while the same amount of pork has a water footprint of 719 gallons. (For comparison, tofu consumes about 303 gallons.)
For heat trapping greenhouse gases, beef generates 15.23 kg CO2e/kg while pork generates 4.62 kg CO2e/kg. (Tofu generates 0.70 kg CO2e/kg.) Land use requirements to graze and grow feed for livestock are also staggering, with such animal products as dairy, poultry and pork requiring orders of magnitude more land than fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses (e.g., beans). Land use for beef production - as with every other environmental footprint metric - vastly exceeds all others protein sources in its enormous requirements.
For a good illustration of animal protein's tremendous resource-intensity as compared to that of plant-based protein, see the chart below (taken from the World Resource Institute* report "Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future"):
These resource requirements and impacts are important as the earth's resources and capacity to absorb pollution are finite and animal protein production exhausts the natural ability to adapt and snap back. This is particularly difficult as the worldwide demand for meat and dairy are projected to grow up to 80 percent by 2050 from 2006, due to an expected rise in global population and prosperity from an emerging middle class. As higher animal protein demand ramps up around the world, the meat production challenge is more frequently being met with the US export model of factory farms and all the environmental, public health and social problems they spawn. If everyone is to eat meat at the rate of wealthy countries today, there could well be difficulties meeting consumer demands within the environmental boundaries of the planet.
The Less Meat, Better Meat Path
So what to do when a person likes to eat meat but realizes that their current consumption is high and has negative consequences? One practical strategy is a walk down the Less Meat, Better Meat path. This is a strategy that acknowledges that people have their own food traditions and preferences and that vegetarianism and veganism, while excellent options for some, are not feasible for all. It also has the benefit of uniting many people who want to change how much meat they eat as well as how that meat is produced.
The two-step Less Meat, Better Meat strategy is as simple as it says: A move away from heavy meat-eating and towards a more plant-based diet. This strategy can be tailored to a person's individual lifestyle and eating habits with the understanding that reducing meat and animal product consumption is the goal. One of the stark reminders inherent in this approach is that it's easy to get high quality protein in one's diet, whether it's meat, dairy or vegetables. For instance, there is the same amount of protein in 3.5 ounces of chicken as there is in a half cup of refried beans. That's not to say that refried beans is always a perfect substitute for chicken, but to say that many food options are possible. From whole grains to lentils to nuts to the latest-and-greatest meat substitute, there are seemingly endless varieties of protein-packed plant-based foods.
This approach also tackles the issues involved in industrialized meat production by nudging people to choose to eat meat that is humanely and sustainably produced. Although "better meat" is often more expensive, buying and eating less of it balances out when more (and cheaper!) plant proteins are on the menu. Less meat then presents a range of options, from those who eat meat once a day or once a week, to those who opt out of animal products altogether. There are many ways for heavy meat eaters to go to reduce consumption, whether by deemphasizing meat in a meal (e.g., a stir fry), to lowering meat portions (e.g., eight to five ounces), to observing Meatless Monday. If personal meat reduction becomes part of a societal trend of collective action, then substantial progress to stem the harmful impacts of meat production can also be reduced by 10, 20 or 50 percent: to wit, real benefits are gained.
At root, the current meat-guzzling eating habits are excessive and unsustainable. and meat for every meal is a subjective choice available to everyone, but not a dictum by which to live. A more balanced approach to eating protein means a dietary shift, as outlined in the World Resources Institute report. This need not be a radical transition, but clear strides taken to balance diets. Those diets may include meat and other protein produced in more sustainable and resilient food system. As Dr. Vaclav Smil, scientist and thinker who has closely studied meat production and consumption, concludes in an article, "Eating Meat: Constants and Changes":
Producing 30 percent or 50 percent more meat simply by the extension of current practices is possible but it is neither rational nor sustainable. As always, specifics are impossible to predict but I think that during the next two to four decades, the odds are more than even that many rational adjustments needed to moderate livestock's environmental impact (changes ranging from higher meat prices and reduced meat intakes to measures moderating environmental burdens) will take place - if not by design, then by the force of changing circumstances.
Rather than to have meat reduction forced upon them, it's helpful for people to recognize the opportunity now to make a dietary shift to a better system of growing and eating food. If making a food system more sustainable and durable is part of the process, then people must take that opportunity to move markets as consumers and form constituencies as citizens. And just as with a sustainable shift in the food system, like on the plate, protein is at the center.
*Chart courtesy of World Resources Institute, Creative Commons 4.0 license. Ranganathan, J. et al. 2016. "Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future." Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: WRI. Accessible at www.wri.org/shiftingdiets.