What came first – the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to know whether increasing consumer demand for meat and poultry products has driven drastic increases in production levels, or vice versa. What we do know with certainty, though, is that demand for and production of meat and poultry products has increased dramatically in the U.S. and globally in the last 70 years.

Today, the majority of meat produced in the U.S. comes from animals raised in intensive confinement, or “animal factories,” characterized by extreme crowding, poor sanitation, and abuse. These factories, also called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), generate massive amounts of waste and pollution, taking an incredible toll on our climate, water, soils, wildlife, and health. What’s more, massive production of animals in these conditions requires intensive production of grains for feed, which contributes to high pesticide use and threatens wildlife.

Nevertheless, demand for meat and poultry continues to rise. In many countries, including the U.S., the average person already consumes too much meat according to health experts.

To address the environmental, social, human health, and economic consequences of intensive animal production, we must end the overconsumption of meat and poultry and eat more balanced proteins.

U.S. Meat and Poultry Trends

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), total meat consumption in the U.S. increased steadily after 1961. In 1961, the average person in the U.S. consumed 361 calories from meat daily, compared to 469 calories from meat daily in 2011. Today, meat comprises more than 15 percent of daily calorie intake, 40 percent of daily protein intake, and 20 percent of daily fat intake for the average person in the U.S. This increase in meat intake has coincided with a decrease in consumption of grains and other plant-based foods. That is to say, our increased meat consumption is not a result of eating more food overall, but that our meat intake is replacing plant food consumption.

In 2016, the U.S. consumed 25.7 billion pounds of beef—roughly 79.4 pounds per person. While this is a slight decrease from previous years, it coincided with significant increases pork and chicken consumption. In 2017, U.S. consumers are expected to consume 2.6 more pounds of total meat and poultry per person than they consumed in 2016. This year, projections estimate that we will produce over 26 billion pounds of beef and pork respectively, 41.5 billion pounds of chicken, and 6 billion pounds of turkey.

Demand for organic food products, including organic meat, has increased substantially over the past decade. Although organic sales account for just 4% of total U.S. food sales, the demand is growing each year and at a faster rate than the rest of the food industry. In 2012, organic sales reached $28.4 billion and by 2015, sales nearly doubled to over $43 billion. However, organic meat and poultry only accounted for 3% of all organic sales in the U.S. in 2012. Rising demand for meat in the U.S. is not coinciding with similar increases in organic meat demand despite evidence that organic meat and poultry may have health benefits that exceed industrially-raised products.

Global Meat and Poultry Trends

From 1950 to 2010, global meat production increased five-fold from less than 50 million tons to over 275 million tons, with the U.S., Spain, and Brazil producing more than 220 pounds of meat per person. As with the U.S., this increase in production is particularly prominent for pork and poultry, which increased by 20 percent and 75 percent, respectively, from 1990 to 2009.

Increasing demand is often attributed to the increasing population growth worldwide. However, from 1990 to 2009, the amount of meat consumed per person globally grew by roughly 25 percent. Not only is the number of people on the planet increasing, but the amount of meat consumed by each person on the planet is increasing as well. Global meat consumption is expected to increase by 1.7 percent each year through 2020- the second largest projected growth rate of all major agricultural commodities.

As global demand for meat increases, U.S. producers are also hoping to capture new markets, requiring further production increases. Pork exports in January 2017, for example, were 20 percent higher than in January 2016. This illustrates that reducing overconsumption and shifting the market for protein must be a global endeavor as American dietary preferences are exported across the world.

The Burden of High Demand for Meat

Rising demand for meat and poultry has led to both an overall expansion of animal farming worldwide, and a substantial increase in the intensification and scale of food animal production. In particular, it has contributed to the dominance of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) all around the world (with the exception, to date, of any country on the African continent). The expansion and intensification of animal factories has also created a mass-scale animal feed industry, based primarily on intensive, monoculture production of corn and soybeans. Moreover, animal factories have succeeded only with increasing reliance on pharmaceuticals designed to promote rapid growth and prevent disease in horrid conditions, and are characterized by egregious abuses of animal welfare.

There are five recognized, undeniable burdens created by modern mass-scale, concentrated meat production:

  1. The shifting of agricultural production away from food crops toward monocultures of animal feed crops, which are linked to increases in soil erosion and disruptions of water and nutrient cycles.
  2. Inefficient conversion of plant-based calories to animal-based calories.
  3. Generation of enormous amounts of waste that cannot be sustainably recycled back into the environment.
  4. Emission of greenhouse gases through both the cultivation of feed crops, which use large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels, and emissions from the large populations of animals themselves.
  5. Poor treatment of animals in confinement.

The food animal industry has sought many quick fixes to ease, address, or hide these burdens, banking on technological innovations to improve efficiencies, reduce waste, and stem pollution. The only way to successfully reduce the environmental, social, and health burdens of animal production is to reduce the number of animals raised for food. This will allow for safer stocking densities and more holistic management practices.

To opt out of industrial meat production, we must simultaneously reverse the trend of over-consuming animal proteins and increase our intake of plant-based foods. Without reducing overconsumption, demand for meat will continue to incentivize the consolidation and intensification of food animal production that abuses animals, inhibits public access to information, and depends on large volumes of drugs to maintain such unsustainable levels of productivity. This trio of cruelty, secrecy, and chemical dependency is propping up a system that is destroying our planet while producing meat that is less healthy and less safe.