Vegetarian wave may be opportunity for meat sector

More and more young people are banishing meat from their diets.

One-third of Canadians are thinking about cutting back on their meat consumption in the next six months.

And lots of baby boomers are becoming “flexitarians,” who don’t eat meat on weekdays but fire up the grill on the weekends.

It looks like a dire meat-reduction trend and it is, if it goes on forever.

But before all the hog barn operators, cattle producers and chicken farmers give up hope and switch to veggie burger ranching, allow me to make a modest counterargument:

This is a golden opportunity to build, boost and expand the meat markets. These findings reveal large and growing parts of our society that have ooky feelings about meat for a variety of reasons. Well, that’s exactly where the opportunity lies.

Like they say about rundown houses in real estate ads, there’s “lots of potential” here with meat.

Instead of fearing the vegan wave, the environmentalist onslaught, the animal rights hordes and the healthfulness finger-pointers, livestock industries need to see these challenges as areas of under-consumption that could be flipped. Like a rundown house with “good bones,” this fixer-upper could be flipped for a bunch by a handy guy or gal willing to put in the sweat equity.

Lots of work is already being done on this by industry organizations. Healthier meat composition and added attributes such as omega-3 content are being incorporated into the bulk meat market, helping to assuage the health concerns of boomers living in fear of death-by-meat. New animal codes and labelling are giving good reason for reasonable consumers to believe that their meat comes from humanely raised animals.

Improvements in feeding efficiency, land management and manure handling are allowing farmers to plausibly argue that their meat is produced with much less carbon emissions and environmental impacts than ever before.

But I think much more can be done, and not just in a defensive way. So often livestock industries are caught responding to accusations that they seldom get to pro-actively try to win over new eaters.

That’s where the potential lies. Convince the flexitarian that he or she might actually be healthier with a couple more meat meals mixed into their weekdays. Persuade the anxious ethical consumer that eating meat actually encourages the creation and life of happy animals.

Best of all: target the considerable number of millennial and Generation Z vegans and vegetarians who are aging toward more practical and less self-righteous stages of life, when an extreme rejection of meat is harder to justify and maintain.

That sort of focus seems to me a lot more positive than simply trying to persuade male meatheads to move up from double cheeseburgers to triple bacon cheeseburgers, which is how some food providers have responded.

A lot of the coverage of the Dalhousie/Guelph meat consumption study followed the bad-for-meat angle, so I felt a bit odd when I read the study and spoke with one of the authors and found myself feeling optimistic about the future for meat.

When I heard many people discussing the bad trend for meat, what popped into my mind was the old trader’s line: “The trend is your friend … till the end, when it bends.”

Meat consumption has suffered a terrible trend, but maybe it’s time for the end, and you can help it bend.

So get out there and convert a vegan. It’s time for a new trend.

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