Less Meat But Better Meat: Can They Coexist?

Cattle raised on well-managed pasture can help lead to 'better meat.'

It's Friday evening and I'm home a little late because of a delayed train. Hungry, and with my household under the weather, I go to the fridge to scavenge. As more of a leftover gourmand than a real cook, I spy the remnants of last weekend's meatless meat sauce and the mere scrapings of Taco Tuesday's organic chicken. Humanely raised, the package claims. Throw that into a pot, add strained tomatoes, seasoning - and voilà, pasta sauce. Such is my life.

Although this episode highlights the idiosyncrasies of my personal taste, it also shows that there are people out there like me: People who eat meat but more sparingly than the average American.

The Meatless and Meat Alternative Revolution

The surge in popularity for eating less meat and more plant protein has been unmistakable over the last several years. Reduced meat consumption has gained a cultural foothold in the United States and around the world for reasons of personal health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. It's now standard fare to find meat-free burgers and meals, to try a Meatless Monday or to practice a lower-meat flexitarian diet.

Prospects for another big year of growth in plant-based proteins and other meat alternatives are anticipated. Recent developments point to greater acceptance of meat reduction and meat alternatives, including Tyson Foods' investments in non-traditional protein companies like the plant-based Beyond Meat, and cell-cultured meat producer, Memphis Meats. On the meat-reduction movement side, the large restaurant chain, TGI Fridays, has partnered with Meatless Monday while the Greenfield Natural Meat Co. has taken the unusual step of launching a Meatless Monday campaign.

The reality is that plant-based eating is changing to go beyond the strict categories of vegan and vegetarian to include people that simply eat less meat on a regular basis. Data from HealthFocus International, a food research firm, found that 17 percent of US consumers from the ages of 15 to 70 assert that their diet is primarily plant-based, whereas 60 percent claim that they're actively reducing meat intake. The research also showed that upwards of 77 percent of people claim that their reduced meat eating is permanent, according to Steve Walton, President at HealthFocus.

Consumers can choose to not just "eat less meat" but to eat "better meat," as well - meaning meat from animals raised on well-managed pasture that restores ecosystems rather than degrades them as happens in our current industrial food system.

Put plainly, "eat less meat" has become mainstream in thought and action. But the landscape is even broader. Consumers can choose to not just "eat less meat" but to eat "better meat," as well - meaning meat from animals raised on well-managed pasture that restores ecosystems rather than degrades them as happens in our current industrial food system.

Meat's Comeback?

Even as US meat reduction continues apace, the turn of 2018 came with a forecast by USDA that it would be a record-breaking year for increased American meat consumption. The expected uptick in meat consumption stems from a glut of American-produced meat that has caused prices to drop, especially for beef, just as the economy has improved and consumers have more money available. High grain yields from a couple of relatively lighter-drought years in the Corn Belt have helped drive down feed costs for livestock and poultry, while producers raised more animals during the highly profitable years of 2014-2015. Expensive meat prices and the lingering effects of the Great Recession combined to get US meat consumption to bottom out to 202 pounds per person in 2014. A softer hit to the wallet could be the most significant factor in whether people eat more meat and reach the projected 222 pounds per person this year.

Besides lower prices, there has also been pushback emerging largely from industrial meat producers and their supporters. The USDA is the hub of much of the hubbub around meat reduction. For example, the resistance to a suggested Meatless Monday at the USDA or the rejection of proposed sustainability goals that would have scrutinized animal agriculture's significant contribution to environmental degradation in the agency's dietary guidelines. Just recently, the US Cattlemen's Association called for the USDA to require that non-meat products forgo labeling that uses the terms "meat" or "beef" unless they're made "from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner." The meat industry is trying to separate meat from meat alternatives like veggie burgers, cultured meat and even insect-based foods.

Industrial Meat Production's Big Impacts

There are many reasons that people choose not to eat meat, although ecological impacts and sustainability of meat production underlies much of it. The massive scale of industrial animal production as exemplified by the US CAFO model is of particular concern. Meat generally has a larger environmental footprint than plant-based food and proteins. This is due to meat production's substantial impacts on energy, water and land resources, as well as its greenhouse gas emissions. It must be noted that although industrially produced meat claims efficiencies, those "efficiencies" hide the true cost of the deep environmental and animal welfare problems that are masked by cheap meat prices. Pasture-raised meat can have a lighter environmental footprint, as well as significantly improved animal welfare, all of which is reflected in pastured meat's higher price.

One of the costs hidden in cheap meat is the treatment of animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These industrial settings can be detrimental to the welfare of animals as they are crowded into the facilities' confined spaces, have little to no room to maneuver, have their natural behavior restricted, fed diets that can be harmful, are more prone to disease, among other considerable problems. CAFO operators generally prioritize rapid growth and intensive production over animal health and welfare.

On the freshwater side, for example, the water footprint per unit (e.g., grams) of milk, eggs and chicken is about 1.5 times greater than for beans and pulses and six times greater for beef than pulses. As is the case with other environmental dimensions, beef has a particularly large water footprint in which the global average for one pound is about 1,800 gallons. The same amount of chicken has a water footprint of 519 gallons. For comparison, cooked kidney beans consume approximately 202 gallons per pound.

For greenhouse gas emissions, beef generates nearly four times as much emissions as chicken, and over 13 times more than dried beans. The amount of land needed for livestock feed crops and grazing are enormous in comparison to vegetables, grains, beans and pulses. Certainly meat is more energy-dense and provides more calories and other nutrients that are beneficial even in smaller quantities. Nonetheless, there is efficiency loss in calories and nutrients when crops are grown to feed livestock and poultry rather than for humans to eat plant-based foods directly. That said, beef has an outsized environmental impact as compared to most other protein sources, and the greenhouse gas emissions stand out for climate mitigation purposes. The World Resource Institute's report "Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future" does an excellent job of examining animal protein's large resource-intensity and weighs it against plant-based protein.

Is Less Meat, Better Meat For Real?

Here we are, with more US consumers choosing to eat plant protein at the same time that meat consumption is predicted to rise. How can these two countervailing trends coexist? Maybe a hint is wafting from the pot of my odd eating habits. Could it be that the slogan "less meat, better meat" is more than a simple slogan?

Using the less meat, better meat strategy we can collectively make real progress to mitigate the problems associated with industrial meat production system.

The fact is that dual consumption trends are happening simultaneously as increased plant-based foods and increased meat, especially as people continue to demand protein in evermore food options. In the US and other wealthy countries, we are in the midst of a dietary transition. Even though Americans eat more meat than people from just about any other nation, the long-term trend is towards chicken and away from beef and other red meat. This shift has shrunk the typical meat-eater's environmental footprint even if it is problematic in terms of animal welfare, since the life of a typical broiler chicken is not humane.

It's also true that not all meat is same - there can be "better meat." For instance, a recent Civil Eats piece by Ariel Greenwood, grazing manager for northern California's Freestone Ranch, explained how their pasture-raised cattle ranch restores ecological health through precise grazing techniques. There is some evidence that well-managed, pasture-raised animals have the potential to offset some of their impacts by regenerating the soil, which has the potential to absorb more carbon and water. By working to build soil health through improved practices in animal agriculture and crop production, there is potential for soil to store more carbon and offset some part of greenhouse gas emissions, while it delivers other benefits like increased water retention, reduced runoff and improved crop yields. Ecologically sound practices for other pastured animals, like hogs and chicken, are also possible although beef cattle and sheep are more commonly raised on pasture as ruminants.

Improving the Food System with Less Meat, Better Meat

Well over 90 percent of US meat is industrially produced, and thus has negative consequences on the environment and animal welfare. That's why a "less meat, better meat" strategy can be small but effective choice for people who want to lower their meat consumption but still support farmers who produce meat in a more humane and sustainable manner. Because the average American tends to over-consume meat, a more a balanced approach can give plant proteins a chance while also supporting sustainable meat producers. Since "better" pastured meats tend to be more expensive, buying and eating less can be equalized by eating often lower-cost plant proteins. This provides economic benefits for the local and regional economy when consumers seek out the farmers and ranchers whose methods and efforts they support.

Using the less meat, better meat strategy we can collectively make real progress to mitigate the problems associated with industrial meat production system. It can also be flexible and inclusive of peoples' dietary choice, alter the market and create a healthier, more humane and sustainable world. And if more people join in, maybe my one-pot leftover dishes won't seem so strange.