Bacon Shortage Looming. But the new Flexitarians might not Notice…

September 26, 2012

NBCNews:

The droughts that ravaged crops across North American and Russia have had a huge impact on the food supply, livestock and farmers but now it may be time to hit the “panic” button – one pig group is predicting a BACON SHORTAGE.

“A world shortage of pork and bacon next year is now unavoidable,” the National Pig Association in the UK said this week.

The droughts meant less feed to go around and farmers had to take drastic measures. One farmer fed his cows candy to survive, while others have pared their herds. The NPA warned that he number of slaughtered pigs could drop by 10 percent in the second half of next year and that could cause theprice of pork products to DOUBLE.

The group is taking the situation so seriously, they have launched a “Save Our Bacon” campaign.

The price pressures on food and meat are no joke.  Recent unrest in the middle east was in large part sparked by rising food prices following droughts in grain producing areas like Russia and Argentina.  This year’s crop failure in the US may bring unpredictable consequences in the coming year.

But in an interesting parallel development, US consumers seem to be eating less meat – a trend worth noting due to the impact of industrial animal husbandry on climate, water, and land resources.

NYTimes:

Americans eat more meat than any other population in the world; about one-sixth of the total, though we’re less than one-twentieth of the population.

But that’s changing.

Until recently, almost everyone considered their dinner plate naked without a big old hunk of meat on it. (You remember “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” of course. How could you forget?) And we could afford it: our production methods and the denial of their true costs have kept meat cheap beyond all credibility. (American hamburger is arguably the cheapest convenience food there is.) This, in part, is why we spend a smaller percentage of our money on food than any other country, and much of that goes toward the roughly half-pound of meat each of us eats, on average, every day.

But that’s changing, and considering the fairly steady climb in meat consumption over the last half-century, you might say the numbers are plummeting. The department of agriculture projects that our meat and poultry consumption will fall again this year, to about 12.2 percent less in 2012 than it was in 2007. Beef consumption has been in decline for about 20 years; the drop in chicken is even more dramatic, over the last five years or so; pork also has been steadily slipping for about five years.

No. It’s not the non-existent federal War on Meat that’s making a difference. And even if availability is down, it’s not as if we’re going to the supermarket and finding empty meat cases and deli counters filled with coleslaw. The flaw in the report is that it treats American consumers as passive actors who are victims of diminishing supplies, rising costs and government bias against the meat industry. Nowheredoes it mention that we’re eating less meat because we want to eat less meat.

Yet conscious decisions are being made by consumers. Even buying less meat because prices are high and times are tough is a choice; other “sacrifices” could be made. We could cut back on junk food, or shirts or iPhones, which have a very high meat-equivalent, to coin a term. Yet even though excess supply kept chicken prices lower than the year before, demand dropped.

Some are choosing to eat less meat for all the right reasons. The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an Allrecipes.com survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.

Ecorazzi:

What’s Driving the Trend?
We needn’t wonder about the cause of this drastic drop, since we can ask the experts themselves. CME Group—one of the world’s largest derivatives exchanges and owner of the Dow Jones Index—issued its own analysis. CME points to increased feed costs, which raise the price of animal products, and revealingly, they also note:

“Add in the efforts of a large number of non-governmental agencies that oppose meat consumption for reasons ranging from the environment to animal rights to social justice and one could conclude that it was amazing that consumption held up as long as it did.”

Exactly. People are choosing to eat fewer animals, and not just to save money—although that’s a compelling reason. The signs to support this idea are all around us.

A Kansas State Study concluded that animal protection campaigns have tangibly reduced demand for poultry and pork; aNation’s Restaurant News cover feature titled, “Veggie-heavy brands see growth in sales, popularity with consumers,” touted the growth in meat-free eating; and a global food-industry consulting service made clear that the campaigns about the problems of mass meat production are “impacting consumer markets.” A USA Today article from March summed it up: “Whether due to rising prices, concern for the environment, or a growing emphasis on health, Americans are eating less meat.” The pressure is being felt all over, and for the first time in decades, our overconsumption of meat is beginning to get reined in.

The Big Surprise
Interestingly, the numbers and headlines aren’t being driven by an influx of new vegetarians and vegans. Last year, a national poll found that the number of vegetarians in America remained at about 5 percent. But the same poll found that a whopping 16 percent of people now eat vegetarian more than half time. In other words, take 50 million people and put them on a so-called “flexitarian” diet, and the shrinking figures for meat consumption start making sense. Put another way, while Americans may not exactly be turning to vegetarianism in droves, tens of millions of people are deciding that the American diet need not be so heavy in animal products. And anyone concerned about animal suffering, the planet, or public health should be able to agree that’s a good thing.

 

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12 Responses to “Bacon Shortage Looming. But the new Flexitarians might not Notice…”


  1. What exactly are the concerns about meat production/consumption and the environment, public health, animal suffering?

    If you are saying that livestock production is bad for the environment, be sure one’s statistics are correct, and one is not simply parroting the incorrect green myths about water and grain use. I found this article to be pretty enlightening:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/87/

    Re public health, what compelling evidence is there that meat should not be part of a healthy diet?

    I can see animal suffering, but surely we do much to alleviate/minimize that although efforts could certainly be improved. Outlawing Kosher/ Halal butchering procedures would go a long way. On the other hand, we are omnivores and killing in order to eat seems ethical to me.

  2. Wes Says:

    The issue in this that few people want to touch at all is the population limits of the Earth. With our current technology and choices, we are way past the population that the Earth will support. Forecasts of over 9 billion by 2050 are forecasts of ecosystem collapse. Neither the above comment or the article it references take this into account. The problem is not just resource depletion for food and housing, it’s mainly the process we use to dispose of our waste.

    We are poor students of history in that there is little awareness of “the tragedy of the commons” and no mention of it in the election rhetoric. We dump our waste product – CO2 – into the commons of our atmosphere and walk away. We drill for natural gas using chemicals that we won’t name, and we dump them into the commons of the underground water table. Then when people can light on fire the water coming out of their faucet, no one is responsible.

    Carbon pricing is an effort to put a cost on pollution of the commons. That’s why it’s being fought by industry so strongly. It sets a precedent – the commons is no longer a free dumping ground. If adopted, the idea will spread, and those that profit from free dumping are determined to stop it. Even if it causes another mass extinction in the indefinite future. Because they’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem.

  3. Nick Carter Says:

    I have always LOVED my Tenderloin and Ribeye, but I’ve gone flexitarian to keep the gout in check. 6 months flare up free! Anybody want a bottle of A1? Got two in the cabinet. ;)

  4. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    I wonder if pigs are smarter than people??

  5. howelljd Says:

    I agree that it’s absurd to be feeding animals food that is appropriate for direct human consumption. As we move closer to 9 billion people, and as the impacts of climate change simultaneously hammer the globe’s food-producing capacity, feeding grain to livestock is going to become economically and socially untenable.

    But, that doesn’t mean that we have to stop eating meat. Ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, and goats aren’t physiologically designed to consume grain. Their digestive tracts contain massive fermentation vats called rumens that are full of cellulose-digesting microbes. Ruminant herbivores co-evolved with the grasslands and rangelands of the world, where biological decay of plant material seldom takes place due to environmental conditions that are too dry, cold, or hot for microbes to survive. But where do they survive? In the gut of the ruminant herbivore (in addition to horses, elephants, rhinos, rabbits, and rodents, which are not ruminants but have a fermentation vat called the cecum). The high fiber plant material breaks down in the gut of the herbivore, and returns to the soil surface via dung and urine, where it is more readily incorporated back into the topsoil.

    The presence of these animals in these grassland environments (which comprise over half of the earth’s land surface area) is critical to the cycling of carbon and minerals, functional hydrology, and high levels of biodiversity. When these animals are removed, these environments tend to accumulate a net annual buildup of undecayed biomass, species richness declines, soil surfaces tend to become capped (inhibiting water infiltration and seedling establishment), and there is an overall reduced level of ecosystem funtionality.

    But, this is only if the grazing animals are behaving the way nature intended, which in a pristine context always included pack hunting predators. The presence of predators keep herbivores bunched and moving, and their movements tend to result in both heavy impact and grazing (for short periods), followed by recovery periods that permit plants to recover their leaf area and root mass prior to the return of the migrating herds.

    There are very few grasslands of the world still functioning this way, and the degradation that has resulted due to both overgrazing (which happens not when plants are grazed heavily, but when animals rebite plants as they’re trying to grow back, not giving them a chance to recover) and overrest of plants and soil surfaces, is massive. Included in this degradation is a huge loss of soil organic matter, which is now in the atmosphere. Overuse of fire (in an attempt to keep overrested, improperly grazed, overgrown grasslands alive) has also resulted in enormous degradation, especially in the tropics. Estimates I’ve read indicate that between a quarter and half of our current atmospheric carbon overload is due to land use change (the rest due to fossil fuels), a huge component of which is the way human management has degraded the world’s grasslands.

    So, we can use livestock to mimic the migratory behavior of the herds of old, and indeed this is one of the key ways that we are going to actually sequester the enormous load of carbon that needs to be pulled out of the atmosphere. The majority of land on which we’ll do this is too dry, steep, or rocky to use for crop production (again, about half the world’s surface area). This land is dominated by native perennial plants as well, and when properly managed with livestock, there is no need for fertilizers or herbicides, and very little antibiotic use in the livestock is typically necessary. The key point is that it’s not the cow that’s the problem, but the way the cow is managed that’s the problem. It’s not the tool, but how the tool is used.

    This more holistic approach to ranching and grassland management was pioneered by a Zimbabwean, Allan Savory, beginning in the 60s. It is now practiced by ranchers all over the world. Meat produced from livestock raised holistically, in the image of nature, is good for the planet, and indeed is a key element of battling the challenge ahead of us.

    Making this transition to properly managed livestock is going to be complex and hard. It’s as much a cultural issue as anything else. But, it has to happen. You can help incentivize this type of meat production by sourcing meat from ranchers practicing this type of grazing management. A good source is eatwild.com, and to learn more about this type of land management, look up savoryinstitute.com.

    Jim Howell

    • greenman3610 Says:

      great. very helpful – but as you mention, there are cultural barriers to overcome. The American
      Great Plains could and should be a testbed for this idea.

      • howelljd Says:

        Peter–the shift is happening, with an estimated 40 million acres around the world being managed this way, from Canada to Patagonia to Australia to southern Africa. That’s a drop in the bucket relative to what needs to happen (there are 12 billion acres of grasslands globally), but the idea is tested and proven and we’re working hard to overcome the barriers to its expansion.

        I’m involved with the management of several ranches in the northern Great Plains–western South Dakota and eastern Montana, in addition to my family’s ranch in western Colorado. We’re making progress.

        Thanks for your excellent stream of information on climatecrocks.

        Jim


    • Jim

      If you read the article I linked to above, you will see that livestock eats very little true grain that would normally go to feed humans. The get the roughage – stuff like corn stalks, not the corn.

      But this IS categorized as grain – very, very misleading.

      Another very misleading statistic is about how much water is supposedly dedicated to livestock production. Almost all of this water is rainwater that falls on grasslands and croplands – yet it is ascribed to livestock production. Again, creepily dishonest.

      And grain and water use are the two largest objections to eating meat.

  6. howelljd Says:

    Roger,

    Yes, you’re right that much of the actual biomass grown in the process of producing grain are fibrous byproducts that only cattle can consume. Indeed, throughout most phases of the beef production cycle, beef cows are consuming feedstuffs that humans can’t digest, even under the current traditional production model. In the USA, the only exception is the final finishing phase of young cattle in the feedlot, which right now accounts for nearly all of the of the beef sold at retail. This final finishing phase accounts for about the last 5 months of life (of an average 21 months of age at slaughter), and the rations of these feedlot cattle are indeed loaded with starchy grain. This is the phase of beef production that is going to become untenable as global grain stocks continue to decline in the face of climate change and population growth.

    As you rightly state, beef production gets a lot of negative and horribly misleading publicity. It is commonly stated that cattle are inefficient converters of grain, taking 10 lbs. of grain to put on one pound of gain, etc., and when this figure is quoted, it is typically implied that grain is the only thing that cattle consume. This claim totally misses the point that the vast majority of feed that goes into the production of beef consists of forages grown on land unsuitable for grain production (or consists of byproducts of grain production, like corn stalks). If we quit producing beef via the harvest of these non-competing feed inputs, that’s what would be inefficient and wasteful. And, as I stated in my last post, when cattle are managed properly, their presence on the land, harvesting these forages the way nature intended, can actually increase its ecological resilience.

    And, you’re right regarding water as well. There is a massive range of estimates surrounding how many gallons of water go into the production of a lb. beef. The anti-meat camp typically quotes the high end. This number is so high that the only way it comes close to making sense is if you count all the rain that falls on the grasslands that the cows are grazing. This rain would be falling on that land whether the cows were there or not. It is not water that is taken away from some other use. And, when the livestock are managed properly, their presence actually increases the capacity of the soil to capture the precipitation, helping to recharge springs and aquifers, and limiting runoff and erosion and evaporation. In other words, properly managed livestock can actually increase not just soil carbon sequestration, but soil water sequestration as well.

    Jim

  7. skeptictmac57 Says:

    Ironically,Texas is experiencing an infestation of feral hogs (about 2 million) that is doing a great amount of ecological and agricultural damage.
    Texas landowners would love to be rid of these pests.


  8. [...] Bacon Shortage Looming. But the new Flexitarians might not Notice …Sep 26, 2012… impact on the food supply, livestock and farmers but now it may be time to hit the “panic” button – one pig … Climate Denial Crock of the Week … [...]


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