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Opinion Is reducing meat consumption in the U.S. possible?

Cuts of meat are displayed at the meat section of a Cub Foods grocery store in Burnsville, Minn. (Jayme Halbritter/Associated Press)

In May, the Chinese government announced plans to cut its country’s meat consumption in half — partly for public health reasons, but also to reduce the carbon footprint left by livestock. But China is far from the only place moving in this direction. Experts across the world, including one of the top nutritional panels in the United States, recommended similar meat reductions for the same reasons.

Among scientists and health experts, there seems to be a pretty solid consensus: Humans would be better off if we ate less meat. About a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the resources needed to farm cows, chickens, pigs and other animals. Not to mention the waste from livestock can have some pretty terrible effects on natural resources and the water supply. Meanwhile, health experts say the U.S. could cut health-care costs by hundreds of billions of dollars if people just stuck to dietary guidelines that recommend less meat consumption.

Yet the demand for meat is still high worldwide, just as it has always been. Is this just another tragedy of the commons? Is it possible for society to transition to a lifestyle of reduced meat intake — or what some call a “reducetarian” diet?

We often advocate for social change in a way that places blame on a few actors contributing to the problem. When it comes to carbon emissions, for instance, it’s popular to criticize the few big fossil fuel companies, as opposed to suggesting that millions of Americans drive less or use less fuel to heat their homes.

There’s a similar problem with meat, except there’s really no proposed alternative — the fix is either to reduce consumption or abstain altogether. And in reality, most people eat meat in large quantities and find no problem with doing so. Want proof? Just check out the comments section of any article about the negative effects of meat consumption. Indeed, The Post was recently accused of declaring a “war on meat.” Such reaction — as well as the ridicule levied at vegetarians and vegans (remember that story about the vegan who died trying to climb Mount Everest?) — seems to suggest that the obstacles are immovable when it comes to changing public perception about meat.

And that’s understandable. Meat, in addition to supplying hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the economy, has been an essential ingredient to America’s largely agrarian history, and it likewise adds an important flavor to our culture. The hot dogs at baseball games, the cookouts on the Fourth of July, the turkey in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” painting — meat is a huge part of our country’s ethic.

In large swathes of American society, the idea of reducing meat consumption is probably just as provocative as ending smoking was 60 years ago. Yet tobacco use in the U.S. has fallen significantly, in large part due to experts declaring it bad for society. We can find similar trends for teenage drinking or driving without a seatbelt — they fell thanks to government-led information campaigns, bans, sin taxes and litigation, despite resistance from industry lobbyists and a mistrustful populace.

There’s already been a social push for healthier diets among Americans, and that movement has made some progress. We’ve already seen some slack in the U.S. meat markets in the past decade, as Americans have reduced the amount of red meat eaten in favor of poultry.

But what’s the next step? Will social pressure and dietary guidelines alone have a legitimate impact on meat consumption in the long run? As an ecological issue, will we naturally reduce our meat intake, or will we have to follow the example of China and use the government to force it to happen?

Over the next few days we’ll hear from:

Brian Kateman, co-founder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau

Laura Wellesley, research associate at Chatham House