By SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS (AIMS Senior Fellow)
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 eating meat is becoming increasingly controversial, as is selling it. In foie gras-friendly France, as an example, there has been an increasing 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. No such reports in Canada yet, but something is clearly happening here.
For years, voluntarily committing to a special diet was a tacit choice. These choices are now allowing a growing collective to go on the offensive. Estimates from a recent Dalhousie University study suggest that Canada harbours over 2.3 million vegetarians, and over 850,000 vegans. The number of vegetarians in Canada is almost equivalent to the population of Montreal, one of Canada’s largest cities. But what is more worrisome for the meat industry is that 52% of all vegetarians are under the age of 35. As for vegans, that number is 51%. The younger generation can influence our food economy, much more significantly than older generations. In other words, these numbers can only go up in time.
These days, becoming a vegetarian or even 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 offering plant-based options now. 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 the next food guide will be different, very different. Plant-based choices will be strongly encouraged and eating more animal proteins will virtually be frowned upon. Switzerland just released its new food guide in July, which encourages consumers to reduce their meat consumption by 70%. It’s happening everywhere. It’s true that many Canadians see the food guide as pointless policy, but 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 recent 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 like 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 a little under 100 kilos of meat per year. Australia, Argentina and France are the other significant meat eaters. Canada is ranked 9th, with yearly meat consumption per capita at about 70 kilos. 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 embrace and 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 which can co-exist and be appreciated by the marketplace. The refrain in agriculture has often been to dominate the market over other commodities. Consumers today expect choice, discovery, and flexibility in addition, of course, to 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 consumption altogether. However, meat deserves its continued place in our diets. But the meat industry should also recognize that balance is the ideal point that most should aspire to reach. Selling to the average meat lover is very different from courting a conscious carnivore. An increasing number of consumers are speaking out, and our meat industry friends should listen and try to understand where the market is going.
SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS, Dean of the Faculty of Management, Professor in Food Distribution and Policy, Faculties of Management and Agriculture, Dalhousie University.