Ailts: Our generation could lead the way in sustainable meat consumption

Millennials are spearheading the worldwide shift away from meat. Here’s why we should upkeep the trend.

by Ellen Ailts

I am a lifelong omnivore, and I have only recently considered making the switch and cutting out meat cold turkey. But I’m in the minority among my peers — turns out, millennials are ruining the meat industry. There’s been a global shift away from meat consumption in recent years, spearheaded by millennials. Seventy percent of the world population is either reducing their meat intake or going completely meat-free. The number of self-identified vegans in the U.S. has increased by 600 percent in the last three years.

Lots of people are reluctant to believe in the sins of meat consumption, and perhaps rightly so. The University of Minnesota Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute held a symposium on April 6 entitled “Meat or No Meat?” addressed this dilemma. Tamar Haspel, a food and nutrition journalist, discussed how much research is biased since confirmation bias rules the human psyche. Most published research findings are false, Haspel said, citing a paper by Stanford professor John Ioannidis. She asserted that what we know about nutrition is dwarfed by what we do not, and she distrusts anyone who approaches the issue with absolute certainty.

This is important to keep in mind in our discussions around nutrition (or anything, really); to be overly righteous about any particular diet is only disclosing your own ignorance. But the question should still be considered — what are the implications of a vegetarian versus an omnivorous diet?

You might consider going meat-free for health reasons. A few years ago, the WHO classified red meat and processed meat as carcinogens. David Klurfeld, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, addressed the claim at the symposium by discussing his experience at the conference that concluded red meat is a carcinogen. He explained that IARC ignored some complicating evidence and used research that only suggested possibility, not certainty — both contributing factors to a less-than-satisfactory examination of evidence. Essentially, the link between red meat and cancer is scientifically unproven.

But this doesn’t mean that red meat is necessarily good for you, either. Professor Karen Jaceldo-Siegl presented research that showed Seventh-Day Adventists, whose followers practice vegetarianism, have a dramatic extension of life expectancy compared to the rest of the U.S. population. She also asserted that a vegetarian diet pattern is associated with a better metabolic profile.

If you’re not swayed by the prospect of becoming healthier, the environmental impact of meat-eating is arguably more compelling. Michael Clark, a Ph.D. candidate, presented research about how our diets affect the environment. Agriculture is a main source of greenhouse gas emissions and the single largest threat to biodiversity. The meat industry uses the most energy and land, as well as produces the most greenhouse gas. If we continue consuming meat as we have been, it’s projected that by 2050 there will be a 50 percent increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with a 40 percent increase in nitrogen and 80 percent in phosphorous. The individual matters; one person’s decision to not eat meat saves land and reduces pollution. It’s up to us as consumers to reverse unsustainable trends that are harming our planet and maybe even become healthier in the meantime.