Meat alternatives barely put a dent in global demand for land-grazing animal products

EUGENE, Ore. — Despite a push toward more meat “alternatives,” a new study finds the demand for beef is not dropping. University of Oregon scientists say the popularity of fish and chicken has done little to curb the wide-scale global production and consumption of land-based meat sources, requiring tons of energy. Researchers analyzed 53 years worth of international data and records to reach these conclusions.

“If you have increases in the production of poultry and fish, it doesn’t tend to compete with or suppress other meat source consumption,” says sociologist Richard York in a media release. “It would be great if more poultry and fish production and consumption would reduce that of beef, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

York has spent his career focusing on energy consumption in relationship to economic issues including power, inequalities, and politics. Back in 2012, York had led a somewhat related study that concluded the same trend holds true regarding the transition away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable options. Just like more chicken or fish doesn’t necessarily lead to less hamburger production, most people haven’t abandoned gasoline just because there are more eco-friendly options out there.

“They end up not in competition,” he explains. “Adding more wind doesn’t really result in using less coal. If we use more energy sources, we use more energy. Likewise, when additional meat choices are offered, that additional variety tends to, more simply, increase overall meat consumption.”

As populations grow, the public still wants their beef

The researcher says this latest study provides a “baseline” view of meat consumption rates during the post WWII industrialization era. In the 1960s and 1970s particularly, chicken consumption increased fives times per capita, in large part due to a growing population. This development led to a legitimate alternative to beef, mutton, and lamb. All three of those meats are “land-grazing” sources that require tons of energy to produce.

Similarly, seafood consumption (fish, clams, mussels) increased two-fold over the same period. Pork eating habits doubled between 1961 and 2013 as well. The underwhelming impact that alternative options like wind power and salmon have on beef and fossil fuels is called a displacement paradox in the scientific community.

“Consumer demand does not make that big of difference,” York adds. “Some people reduce their driving to do their part to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel. That doesn’t mean that the oil industry is reducing production. If enough people drive less that makes the price of gas go down. That, in turn, means driving more becomes more desirable to others because fuel costs are lower.”

“Rather than simply increasing renewable energy production, we need to actively suppress fossil fuel production instead of just giving more options,” he concludes. “With meats, we may need to address the level of subsidies given for meat consumption to realize a desired reduction in meat production.”

The study appears in the journal Nature Sustainability.

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