Soapbox Monday: Is beef still on the table?

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Interesting things have been going on with the nation’s meat consumption.

In December, a U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock report indicated that “another sharp drop in U.S. domestic meat and poultry consumption is coming in 2012.”

It also said the news should come as no surprise, but that looking at the historical context of the past few years, the trend was “rather shocking.”

Their numbers show that, on average, Americans will eat 12.2 percent less meat and poultry than they did in 2007.

A chart shows turkey and pork consumption holding more or less steady since 1960, although both have dropped slightly since 2007.

The chart shows broiler consumption — chicken — rising steadily through 2007, when it nearly equaled the consumption of beef. Beef, on the other hand, has been dropping since the late 1970s. Now, for the first time, the lines have crossed. Chicken consumption is higher than beef.

The report cites growing exports (so less is available here), higher costs and “the fruition of 30 to 40 years of government policy” as factors in reduced meat consumption.

“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,” the report said.

Beef, in particular, has certainly been a target in recent years. It seems to have started with health concerns over the fat content more than anything else.

Lately, however, environmental groups have focused on the methane emissions of cows’ digestive tracts. The U.S. EPA counts these overall as the second-highest source of human-related methane emissions, behind natural gas systems and well ahead of landfills.

The other problem environmental groups cite: The “cost” of eating this high on the food chain. It takes many pounds of corn, for instance, to produce a pound of beef.

This has been changing, the industry points out.

A study published in December in the Journal of Animal Science found that raising a pound of beef in the United States today uses significantly fewer natural resources.

Washington State University researchers concluded that each pound of beef raised in 2007 used 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy than equivalent beef production in 1977. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, shrinking the carbon footprint of beef by 16.3 percent in 30 years.

That shrinkage has only continued.

Overall, improvements in cattle husbandry between 1977 and 2007 yielded 13 percent more beef from 30 percent fewer animals.

“As the number of mouths to feed increases and the quality of diets in many areas around the world improves, the demand for nutrient-rich protein like beef will increase,” said lead researcher Jude Capper. “At the same time, resources like land, water and fossil fuels will become increasingly scarce. These realities are like two trains speeding toward each other on the same track. If we listen to alarmists shouting at us to slow down, we could face a head-on collision of epic proportions. The only way to avoid this disaster is to accelerate the pace of progress.”

Since this is Soapbox Monday, we invite you to comment below. Do you still eat meat - beef, in particular? Why, or why not?

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