A year or two ago, if you had seen me in the grocery store, my cart would be packed with produce and little else. Sure, occasionally there was the box of pasta, pre-made taco shells, or frozen black bean patties, but mostly it was vegetables. While I wouldn’t necessarily identify myself as a vegetarian, I was. I didn’t care for meat and I didn’t think it was good for me, so I didn’t eat it. Early in our marriage, our dinners consisted of three-bean chili a-plenty and soy-crumble tacos. Zucchini enchiladas and vegetable risotto. I know what you’re thinking — my poor husband.
But today even I’m surprised to see my grocery cart is full of meat. There’s sliced pepperoni and a thick slice of ham. There are not one, but two rotisserie chickens and a jar of spicy marinara that will be served with tonight’s ground venison spaghetti. A couple packages of uncured chicken sausages and thick-sliced deli turkey top my hull off.
I still don’t particularly love the taste of meat, but I do have to admit it’s a lot easy to come up with meals my husband won’t scoff at, dinners I can toss in the crockpot, or dishes I can freeze and have ready ahead of time. The change isn’t necessarily by choice, but I don’t know whether it’s something that will go away either. I initially started really re-eating meat as a staple when we found out my son was allergic to wheat, dairy, and soy. I was breastfeeding which meant I also couldn’t eat wheat, dairy, or soy. My typical ravenous appetite plus the extra calories burned from nursing were no match for a vegetarian diet free of three entire food groups. I’m sure I could have figured it out, but I didn’t have the time, the energy, or the patience to figure it out. It was easier to just eat meat. It’s added to our grocery bill and quite possibly our cholesterol, but all of our bellies are full and not hurting. I’m not breastfeeding anymore; I’m still eating meat.
I’m not alone in this change in eating patterns. While my reasons may be different and my flip-flop in dietary habits more dramatic, the rest of the US is right with me in my increased meat-buying tendencies. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that Americans — and humans globally — are eating more meat than ever. What’s even more interesting is that we as humans have actually moved up the food chain. (Did you even know they tracked that? I didn’t.) It’s technically called the “human trophic level,” and it analyzes data from 176 countries and 102 foods. The study found that the average human trophic level worldwide has jumped up 3 percent in the past 50 years. These eating patterns of increased meat and fat pushing us closer to polar bears and farther away from rabbits. For reference, polar bears tend to have no predators, meaning they can eat just about anything they want. Polar bears and orca whales rank a 5.5 on the human trophic scale. Algae is a 1. For now humans still hover closer to omnivores than carnivores at a 2.21 on the scale, but if we continue at this rate we, will be meat-eating-machines before we know it. International meat consumption is predicted to double by 2020. That’s six years away. (The Western world currently consumes 176 pounds of meat per capita.)
So what’s the point of an increased stance in the food chain? It means we’re starting to make a bigger impact on the ecosystem, as producing meat takes a bigger toll on the environment than growing vegetables. A study from the Food and Agricultural Organization stated that the meat industry was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse emissions. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than all transportation put together. Much of this increase in meat consumption is attributed to a rise in meat production in India and China. It’s linked to a decrease in poverty, which is a good thing, but the toll on the environment is huge — it could cost us a whole lot more than just the price of the meat on our plates.