By Margaret Morris

In a recent article (1-27-08), New York Times food columnist, Mark Bittman, predicted a “sea change” in Americans’ meat consumption, a change equivalent to our embracing fuel efficient vehicles instead of gas guzzlers. The average American, who normally eats a half pound of meat daily, about twice the global average, must soon come to terms with the overt and hidden costs of this diet and cut way back.

cow_and_calf1.jpg Article summary: With increased global affluence, per capita meat consumption between 1961 and 2007 more than doubled, with even stronger growth in the developing world. This demand, in turn, has further encouraged factory farms where animals crowded in unhealthy conditions are fed an artificial diet of grains and routinely dosed with antibiotics, promoting resistant bacteria and decreased antibiotic effectiveness. These farms produce huge pools of noxious wastes, polluting water supplies, and contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions.

As greater amounts of corn, soy and other grains are sucked into this system, the cost of staples for the world’s hungry rises, and grain replaces huge tracts of the planet’s rain forests.

Do we really need this much meat, which contributes to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer? Our average 110 grams of protein a day already is double the recommended allowance. “It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day,” Bittman says, “virtually all of it from plant sources.”

He suggests several solutions: eliminating subsidies, improving farming practices and better waste management, as well as turning the animal waste into fuel. Returning cattle to grazing could produce a healthier “grass fed” product and a healthier environment, but will require eating much less beef.  In the long run, “meat without feet,” growing animal cells in vitro without the animal, is no longer “lunacy,” according to Bittman.

Unfortunately, experts quoted by Bittman doubt price alone will reduce consumption much. The best hope he sees is public awareness. “If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps a combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty” will shift the dietary balance more to plants over animals. He sites eco-friendly trends among the planets’ educated and affluent classes, leading the way.

Bittman writes the “Minimalist” column in the Dining In and Dining Out sections of the New York Times. His book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, was published last year.