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Sylvain Charlebois: The rise of the conscious (and often reluctant) carnivoreCanadians are enjoying summer picnics and barbecues, and meat often plays a central role in the menu. But eating meat is becoming increasingly controversial, as is selling it.

In foie gras-friendly France, a number of anti-meat incidents have been reported. 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 have surfaced in Canada yet but something is clearly happening here.

Voluntarily committing to a special diet has long been a tacit choice. But now a growing collective is going on the offensive.

A recent Dalhousie University study suggests that there are more than 2.3 million vegetarians in Canada and more than 850,000 vegans. The number of vegetarians is almost equivalent to the population of Montreal.

Even more worrisome for the meat industry is that 52 percent of all vegetarians and 51 percent of all vegans are under the age of 35. The younger generation can influence the food economy much more significantly than older generations. So these numbers will only go up in time.

These days, becoming a vegetarian, a vegan or choosing other special diets points to a politicized movement against the meat industry. The plant-based diet narrative is almost overpowering. So a growing number of grocers, processors and restaurants are offering plant-based options.

To make matters worse for the meat industry, Health Canada is due to publish its long-awaited new Food Guide in November. Many believe the next guide will be very different: plant-based choices will be strongly encouraged and eating more animal proteins will virtually be frowned upon.

It’s happening everywhere. Switzerland, for example, just released its new food guide in July. It encourages consumers to reduce their meat consumption by 70 percent.

It’s true that many Canadians see our guide as pointless policy, but institutional buyers look at it, as do schools. Training programs for dieticians and nutritionists will likely be modified as well. Over a generation, the new Food Guide will 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.

And few recent health-related studies encourage consumers to take in more animal proteins.

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 kilograms of meat a year. Australia, Argentina and France are the other significant meat eaters. Canada ranks ninth, with yearly meat consumption per capita at about 70 kilograms. These figures haven’t moved in a few years, but many expect consumption per capita for all these countries to decrease.

In the meantime, Canada is also the 10th largest producer of meat in the world, all commodities combined.

Many in the meat industry remain in denial. But a profound change is happening in how society embraces and relates 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.

The meat industry will need to befriend the plant-based movement in some way. It’s no longer about one choice over another, but rather selecting ingredients that can co-exist and be appreciated by the marketplace.

The refrain in many sectors of agriculture has often been to dominate the market and other commodities. But modern consumers want choice, discovery and flexibility – plus, of course, good prices and convenience.

The meat industry is certainly being challenged by more vocal groups advocating against meat consumption. Some suggest we ban meat consumption altogether.

Nevertheless, meat deserves a continued place in our diets. But the industry must also recognize that we should all aspire to dietary balance. Selling to the average meat lover is very different from courting a conscious carnivore.

An increasing number of consumers are speaking out. The meat industry should listen and try to understand where the market is going.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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