Given the huge amount of resources consumed by livestock in the US and the big climate footprint (in addition to health impacts), it's good news that our country seems to have passed "peak meat" - meat consumption is dropping, reports Janet Larsen for the Earth Policy Institute.
Since 2004, when the US hit a high of 184 pounds per person, by 2011, the amount of meat eaten dropped to 171 pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Early estimates for 2012 show it is dropping further, to an estimated 166 pounds - a 10% drop over 8 years.
After years of increasing consumption, Americans began cutting back on beef in the 1970s as health and cost concerns about red meat pushed people toward poultry.
Falling from the 1976 peak of 91 pounds, beef eating per person is projected to sink to 52 pounds in 2012, a 43% drop. The national beef cattle herd is now smaller than it has been in any year since 1962.
Intake of poultry surpassed beef in the mid-1990s and then surged ahead, only recently beginning to falter. If 2012 forecasts play out, consumption will be down to 70 pounds per person, more than 5% below the 2006 peak.
U.S. pork consumption is also trending down. Annual pork intake per person hit its all-time high of 54 pounds per person in 1944; 2012 consumption is projected at 44 pounds, 19% lower.
Higher prices combined with a weak economy have led people to put less meat in their grocery carts. Corn, the primary livestock feed, has been in high demand by fuel ethanol producers (spurred by government usage mandates), and stocks have been tight. As corn prices have increased, so has the cost of producing meat, milk, and eggs.
Cultural factors are also in play - attitudes about meat are changing. Rather than considering meat a requisite at every dinner or an indication of wealth, many people deliberately choose to eat less meat than before, often citing concerns about health, the environment, and the ethics of industrial meat production.
Eating less meat is one of the key ways Americans can reduce U.S. carbon pollution. 15% of emissions could be eliminated (one billion tons) just by collective personal actions that require little to no cost.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analysis shows it can be done by: reducing unwanted catalog subscriptions, decreasing vehicle idling, using a programmable thermostat, replacing seven lightbulbs with CFLs, setting computers to hibernate mode, shutting off unused lights, and eating poultry in place of red meat two days per week.
Doing these simple things also reduces home energy use, transportation and food costs.
Worldwide, agricultural activity, especially livestock production, accounts for about a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural methods (organic vs petroleum-based) and shipping food around the world contributes the largest measure of GHG emissions.
Read Organic Farming Can Cool the World.
Read about what Sweden is doing: