Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy, faculties of management and agriculture, Dalhousie University.
This time of year, most Canadians are enjoying summer with picnics and barbecues. Meat often plays a central role when choosing the menu for gatherings among family and friends.
But it seems the meat industry is becoming increasingly controversial. Foie gras-friendly France, for example, has seen a growing number of reported anti-meat incidents. In recent weeks, several butcher shops and slaughterhouses were sprayed with fake blood. Other protesters choose to use words, voicing concerns about meat consumption. There have been no such reports in Canada yet, but something is clearly happening here.
Estimates from a recent Dalhousie University study suggest that there are more than 2.3 million vegetarians in Canada and more than 850,000 vegans. What is more worrisome for the meat industry is that 52 per cent of all vegetarians are under the age of 35. As for vegans, that number is 51 per cent. The younger generation can influence our food economy much more significantly than older generations, as these numbers can only go up in time.
These days, the act of becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, or other types of self-imposed special diets, points to a much politicized movement against the meat industry. The plant-based diet narrative is overpowering almost everything else. A growing number of grocers, processors and restaurant chains are now offering plant-based food options. What may make matters worse for the meat industry is what’s coming up this fall: Health Canada is due to publish its long-awaited new food guide in November. Many believe this food guide will be very different from what came before. Plant-based choices will be strongly encouraged and eating more animal proteins will be frowned upon. Switzerland just released a new food guide that encourages consumers to reduce their meat consumption by 70 per cent. It’s happening everywhere. While many Canadians may see the food guide as pointless policy, institutional buyers do look at it and so do schools. Training programs for dieticians and nutritionists will likely be modified as well. Over a generation, the food guide will ultimately change our relationship with food.
All of this is happening quickly and for several reasons. Consumers are more aware of vegetable protein alternatives. We can thank social media for this, as information has become more readily available to consumers. Few current health-related studies are encouraging consumers to take in more animal proteins. And if we add environmental and animal welfare concerns to the health argument, the case for eating meat is getting weaker by the day. But most important, consumers are starting to figure out that plant-based diets are less expensive. Sources of vegetable proteins such as chickpeas or lentils are much cheaper than beef, pork, or chicken.
Americans are by far the biggest consumers of meat in the world. The average American eats almost 100 kg of meat a year. Australia, Argentina and France are the other significant meat eaters. Canada is ranked 9th, with yearly meat consumption at about 70 kg per capita. Canada is also the 10th largest producer of meat in the world, all commodities combined. These figures have not moved in a few years, but many expect consumption per capita for all of these countries, including Canada, to decrease.
Many in the meat industry are still in denial, but a profound societal change is happening in how we relate to animals as a food source. Our culinary traditions, including our love for barbecuing, will no doubt remain. But things are getting a little more complicated. As a result, the meat industry will need to befriend the plant-based movement in some way. It is no longer about one choice over another, but rather selecting ingredients that can co-exist and be appreciated by the marketplace. The strategy of agriculture to this point has been to dominate the market at the expense of other commodities. Consumers today expect choice, discovery and flexibility as well as good prices and convenience.
The meat industry is certainly being challenged these days by more vocal groups advocating against meat consumption. Some are suggesting we ban meat eating altogether. However, meat deserves its continued place in our diets. But the meat industry should also recognize that balance is needed. Selling to the average meat lover is very different from courting a conscientious carnivore. An increasing number of consumers are speaking out and our meat industry needs to understand where the market is going.