Yet despite increased pressure to eliminate meat from our diet, consumption rates have been slow to budge. Americans are eating less beef, but chicken sales are on the rise. China has committed to cutting its meat consumption in half, but other developing nations are expected to eat more meat and dairy in coming years. With rising incomes, population growth and the spread of Western diets, the trend toward heavily animal-based diets looks as though it’s here to stay.
So how do we move the needle on meat consumption — can we do it in one fell swoop? Will extreme approaches succeed in making a lasting change? While the determination of vegans and vegetarians is laudable, too often the “all-or-nothing” message turns people away from reducing meat in whatever style or at whatever pace feels most comfortable — in fact, those in the vegan community can feel uncomfortable or even threatened by their compatriots if they stray from the no-meat path. Ultimately, folding a “less meat” message into health and nutrition guidelines and making it easier to find non-meat options may be the best method to achieve behavioral change and move toward the larger goal of cutting down on global meat consumption.
To that end, I co-founded a whole new campaign called “reducetarianism” to encourage people to eat fewer animal products without trying to force them to quit cold turkey. Reducetarianism is the practice of eating less red meat, poultry and seafood (as well as less milk and fewer eggs). A core concept of reducetarianism is that demanding people cut out meat entirely is neither effective nor sustainable. Despite decades of activism, polls show that only 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans are vegan and vegetarian and that 84 percent of vegans and vegetarians eventually go back to their meat-eating ways. By supporting efforts to reduce the consumption of animal-based foods regardless of the degree of reduction or the motivation behind it, the reducetarian campaign aims to create an inclusive community, shifting focus away from generating “pure” vegans and vegetarians and instead toward us decreasing societal meat consumption.
Changing minds and behavior takes time, but this incremental progress can be complemented and accelerated by redesigning the “food environment”: the social and physical space within which we make our daily eating decisions. Some of the strongest drivers of food choice are convenience, price and taste — and meat is pervasive, cheap and (according to most of us) darn delicious. By lowering the marketplace barriers to alternative food options, we can empower consumers to intuitively turn toward easy and enjoyable animal-free choices.
With a growing global demand for meat and dairy, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and the “good food” industry are uniquely posed to create an affordable market of readily available and tasty alternatives. The tech industry is rising to this challenge with an increasingly wide variety of nature-identical meat options that extend far past cleverly disguised tofu — producing the world’s first cultured “meatball” and a bright yellow “egg” yolk you’d swear was the real thing.
Grown in labs, cultured meat sidesteps the negative externalities of the traditional meat production system, but the development of this new technology will take time and resources before economies of scale can be reached. In the meantime, plant-based alternatives are already gaining in popularity, with start-ups producing cow-free burgers and milk, alternative chicken and pork, and even shrimp from plant protein. By 2050, plant-based and “alternative” protein could represent up to a third of the protein market, and a 2015 report projects that the market for global meat substitutes is on pace to exceed $5 billion by 2020. The undeniable growth potential for these alternative foods suggests we may see a similar story once cultured animal products hit the shelves.
A meat-free future is possible. Importantly, this shift can happen without asking meat-lovers to forgo their favorite flavors and meals, and without pressuring the not wholly convinced to turn away from a burger on the Fourth of July. Investing in cultured meat and plant-based substitutes can fill the gap between aggressive policy approaches and lower-impact awareness campaigns — changing the food marketplace to make it easy for consumers to embrace sustainable, healthy and humane diets.