Are we still a land of 'meat and potatoes?'

Beef cuts are on display at a supermarket in New York. Americans are consuming less meat.

Kai Ryssdal: Depending on the menu at the Super Bowl party you went to yesterday, there's probably plenty of chili con carne for leftovers today.

Commentator Mark Bittman says probably not as much as you might think, though.

Mark Bittman: America eats more meat than any other country in the world; about one-sixth of all meat consumed, though we're less than one-twentieth of the world's population.

But that's changing. You might even say the numbers are plummeting.

The Department of Agriculture says that our meat and poultry consumption will be about 12 percent less in 2012 than it was in 2007. Beef consumption has been in decline for about 20 years, chicken is way down in the last five, and pork also has been slipping.

You might say holy cow. What's up?

The industry blames a familiar quartet: draught, recession, exports -- especially to China -- and ethanol, which is causing an increase in the price of feed. And although it's all true -- meat is more expensive, and much more is being exported -- there's a factor that the industry doesn't like to talk about. That factor is a conscious decision on the part of many of us to simply cut back.

Availability may be down, but it's not as if we're going to the supermarket and finding empty meat cases or deli counters filled only with coleslaw. And even if people are buying less meat because prices are high, that's still a choice; we could cut back on junk food, or shirts, or iPhones.

Some people are eating less meat for the right reason. It's called flexitarianism -- where people eat mostly vegetables, but will also indulge in meat. It's an idea that may not have set the world on fire, but it's clearly a trend. One recent survey of home cooks found that a third said they ate less meat last year. Another found that half of Americans were aware of the movement toward Meatless Mondays, and more than a quarter of those were actively reducing their meat consumption.

Ask anyone you know: most of them are eating less meat, or trying to. And ask this: Is anyone in this country eating more meat than they used to?

A 12 percent reduction in just five years is significant, and if that decline were to continue for the next five years -- well, few would have imagined that. This is something only meat producers could get upset about. The rest of us should be celebrating.

Ryssdal: Mark Bittman is a columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of "How to Cook Everything."

About the author

Mark Bittman has been an avid home cook since 1968, a journalist for nearly as long (longer if you count his high school yearbook), and a professional food writer since 1980.
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Flexitarian is not a real thing, neither is pescatarian. A vegetarian is actually a dietary vegan, an herbivore. If you eat meat [including fish] you are an omnivore. It is great that people are reducing the meat they eat, but it sucks that people think they deserve credit while still supporting the exploitation and murder of other sentient beings. Its like having a term for someone who is only racist some time, or who cut down the amount they rape by 50%. Animals are not ours to abuse, objectify, oppress, exploit, or murder. Period. We are able to determine right from wrong, and we all [hopefully] know it is wrong to exploit, abuse, or kill a dog. So why it is any less wrong to do the same things to other animals? Because we choose to give them a different label, or because we want to profit off of them, or because we enjoy the taste of their flesh? None of these are acceptable excuses for objectifying and murdering others. While reducing consumption is beneficial to many individual animals who won't be exploited or murdered, it is in no way enough. It is time we recognize that animals too have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is time we GO VEGAN.

I have to take issue with Mark Bittman's suggestion that we reduce the consumption of meat, and replace it with more vegetables. While I am all for eating more vegetables and agree that just about everyone one of us would improve our health by doing so, I don't believe most people will replace meat with vegetables, Instead, it's clear that over the past 20 years of declining meat consumption, people have replaced meats with an increased consumption of refined carbohydrates. Think about it, carbs, especially, junk carbs, are now everywhere, at the grocery store, in vending machines, gas stations, at the checkout aisle at Best Buy, Home Depot, or just about anyplace you go. Maybe that explains the huge increase in diabetes, and obesity, and surprisingly, the increase in heart disease. A recent Danish study* actually suggests that reducing saturated fat intake does not reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially if saturated fat intake is replaced by high glycemic carbohydrates. According to that same study, it is those same carbohydrates that are associated with cardiovascular disease.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a cattle producer, who raises and sells grass-fed beef. However, I am also a former vegetarian. I not only now eat meat, I raise meat, because I believe that when it is raised right, the meat will likely benefit our health. Just as important, the rotational grazing system we use also improves the health of our land, by increasing the organic matter of our soil. For thousands of years, it was grazing animals, whether it was on the Great Plains, or in pastures, around the world, that improved soil. In Europe, it was the rotation of crop land into pastures that rebuilt the soil organic matter that was destroyed by tillage done to grow crops. The same principles still apply. We don't need to give up meat and get rid of livestock, instead, we need to make wiser choices about how our meat is raised, so we can get livestock out of the feedlots and back out onto the land, doing what nature intended them to do.

*Saturated fat, carbohydrates and cardiovascular disease. Authors: Kuipers RS, et al.
Neth J Med. 2011 Sep;69(9):372-8.

University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. remkokuipers@hotmail.com

This article is encouraging because it tell us that Americans are beginning to be thoughtful about food. Eating animals is a practice that should be thought about, as factory farms are not only a place where animals are subjected to egregious cruelty but are large contributors (over 50%) to GHG emissions, but also major wasters of grain and water. Meat from local or "humane" farms are a better choice, but from the last stat I found, organic or humane meat only accounts for less than 5% of meat consumed. For more info visit www.awfw.org

Janet Weeks– Nice to see the Humane Society of the United States talking point trolls are out in full force as usual with an agenda that makes even Mark Bittman look ‘middle of the road’. Do you get paid by the word or by the hour? Funny how H$U$ expects everyone to eat local if they have to eat meat, but NOT give locally to the animal shelters and humane societies which actually do help animals rather than simply funding their ‘non-profit’ employee pension funds to the tune of millions of dollars each year.

In many ways it is not surprising that The Old Gray Lady, having long ago lost her teeth of journalistic integrity, allows Mark Bittman to process her food information for her via commentary in a regular column. What is alarming, however, is that NPR Marketplace would provide Mr. Bittman with a similar platform to regurgitate unsubstantiated and often misleading opinion about our food supply without so much as a brief rebuttal from anyone who actually produces our food. Mr. Bittman self righteously assumes that the conscious decision to cut back on meat consumption is the result of in large part his conscious effort to change consumer’s behavior while conveniently glossing over the outstanding economic factors.

Overall, we have been in the midst of a recession since 2008 – consumers typically purchase either less expensive protein (chicken) or meat in smaller portions as their disposable incomes shrink. Conversely, as incomes rise and standards of living improve consumers purchase more protein – with choice beef often at the pinnacle of desirability followed by pork and then chicken, etc. As Marketplace has reported numerous times before – China and to a lesser degree India’s per capita income and standard of living continues to improve leading to greater imports of grain and meat. While Brazil has grown as a major world supplier of beef rivaling Australia, U.S. cattle numbers have been reduced significantly first by drought (NOT draught) in Nebraska and the Great Plains until 2007 and now a severe drought in Oklahoma and Texas. Due to the biological cycle of cattle and high beef prices, herd numbers have been slow to recover as ranchers are either forced to reduce their herd or decide to sell potential replacements as the result of higher prices. Demand rationing has not caused the typical increase in production and reduced prices because the supply of domestic beef is already significantly restricted. Mr. Bittman is either sorely ignorant of macro economic intelligence or more likely has a radical agenda and is choosing instead to misrepresent existing economic conditions in an effort to prematurely corroborate and then congratulate himself.

There are other factors industry does not like to talk about: (1) consumers are finding out about and are appalled by factory farming systems in which animals are so intensively confined under conditions so appalling and cruel, we are no longer willing to support them, (2) consumers are learning about “standard industry practices” and procedures done to animals without anesthesia such as tail docking, castration, teeth clipping, ear notching, beak trimming, horn removing, hot-iron branding, and others, and are shocked and horrified that such bodily mutilations are performed without pain relief, (3) consumers are realizing the unconscionable wastage of animal lives as new-hatched male chicks are ground up alive and new-born male dairy calves are either killed at birth or kept in crates a few months and then killed for “veal,” (4) consumers are coming to grips with the huge negative impact of industrial animal “farming” on the environment and refuse to contribute further to its degradation or global warming, (5) consumers understand we cannot continue consuming animal products at the rate we do and also feed the world’s hungry and poor, (6) consumers are discovering the wonderful health benefits of a plant-based diet. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE&feature=share

After reading about the paleo diet, Why We Get Fat (by Gary Taubes), Wheat Belly and the Great Cholesterol Con books, the meat consumption for my entire family has doubled in the last year.
As a Registered Dietitian, I have to say you should read the science. The real science, not "Healthy Whole Grains" story you are told to eat. I understand personal and moral reasons for not eating meat. Perhaps if everyone ate paleo like us there might not be enough to go around. Enjoy your Meatless Mondays!

It's interesting that you understand the moral arguments but are able to sweep them under the rug. Perhaps there is something to the paleo diet, even if that were true, isn't it problematic to adopt a lifestyle that is that antiquated, given all the different environmental and societal changes? Animals raised in this country are given antibiotics, hormones, are chained, kept in crates in which they stand in their own feces and can't turn around, castrated without pain killers, and many other horrible things...You are going to the store and buying it. Not eating raw flesh or cooking under an open fire like in the time you are trying to emulate. Just writing this makes me think how ridiculous the paleo diet is. Its another form of foodie snobbery.. My only hope for you is that since you seem curious, look into the moral side a bit more. Watch undercover footage from factory farms (they are not isolated incidents). With everything available (since we aren't in the paleolithic era anymore), we have the ability to choose compassion over cruelty, and mercy over murder. Think about it.

Granted I haven't read this miracle defense of meat-eating book...And, I'm on the side of the argument that IF people choose to eat meat it should be local, grass-fed, non-hormone, organic, etc... all I have to say to you is... should people insist on clinging to their meat-eating, I hope the sustainable choice practices catch on en masse so that it drives the price up making it analogous to eating cavier

Local organic meat is the way to go if/when you eat meat, for sure. Still, eating less meat is going to go a long way for your health, the planet, protection of animals from cruelty, and creating larger spaces for growing grain, which can feed a lot more people in the long term. Plus, it never hurts to expand your diet. Cutting out meat opened me up to a world of foods I otherwise would not have discovered, full of diverse nutrients (including protein), and YUM - delicious!


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