Force-fed Nation: Do We Really Want More Burgers?
The U.S. government is funding the meat industry in more ways than you think
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says we’ll eat more meat this year than ever before. According to figures released last month, the department forecasts that the average American will eat nearly 10 ounces of meat and poultry every day in 2018 — nearly twice the amount we should be eating.
But are we really destined to eat more meat? And how does USDA know what we’ll be eating anyway?
The USDA says consumption of red meat and poultry will hit 222.2 pounds per person, up from 216.9 pounds in 2017 and 210.2 pounds in 1998, while egg and dairy consumption continues to skyrocket as well. These predictions are not a true gauge of what we actually eat, but based on projections for meat production divided by the number of people in the country to buy it. In other words, the USDA predicts Americans will eat more meat this year because there will be more produced.
Yet market data indicates a different trend. Demand for meat alternatives is increasing. Just two years ago, more than a quarter of Americans reported eating less meat than previous years. Half of younger people are eating meat alternatives several times a week. Meanwhile, the global plant-based meat alternative market is approaching a $5 billion industry.
But, when the USDA looks into its carnivorous crystal ball, it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. That’s because the U.S. government urges us to eat more meat than we need — even to the detriment of our health and the health of the environment.
By heavily subsidizing meat production, from opening up public lands to grazing to commodity crop subsidies and purchasing surplus production with taxpayer dollars, the U.S. government crosses the line from oversight of this industry to the promotion of it. This is evident in marketing materials, anti-environmental legislation, price-control and misleading reports like the consumption predictions released each year.
This isn’t just a marketing problem. The government’s vested interest in meat and dairy production deprives Americans of the ability to make informed decisions about their diet. Especially considering that we don’t produce enough fruits and vegetables needed to meet the USDA’s own daily recommendations. Yet nationally we produce more than 100 billion pounds of meat — a record high.
That record-breaking production is taking a toll. Increasingly cheap methods of mass production require intensive confinement in often unsanitary conditions, and demonstratively lower environmental oversight from both the USDA and the EPA.
Laws that protect us from manure contamination and limit pollution, among other things, have been slashed with pressure exerted by industry-based lobbyists. With the support of the federal government, the meat industry is able to produce and sell meat at artificially low costs. Those low prices in turn encourage more people buy it.
This is why Americans are eating more meat — more than we want, more than we need and more than is good for our environment. Publicly-funded agencies meant to regulate the industry end up promoting it. They influence consumer behavior rather than letting the marketplace determine where our personal and public funds go in the food system.
If the market was allowed to dictate production trends we would be moving toward a sustainable food system. Instead, we are being force fed by the USDA.
But we don’t have to accept it. Make eating a revolutionary act. Rather than having meat at every meal, we can substitute plant-based foods and experiment with Meatless Mondays. That’s good for the health of the planet and our bodies.
We do have a say in food policy. We can fight back with personal choices and eat Earth-friendly diets. We can push for the market to dictate agricultural production, and not the other way around. The future of our food system depends on these free, independent choices.
Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.