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Sylvain CharleboisWorld Vegan Day falls on Nov. 1 so it seems like an appropriate time to note that Canadians are eating less meat.

Beef consumption is down by 16 percent or 94 million kilograms a year compared to 2010. And since 32.2 percent of Canadians are thinking of reducing their meat consumption within the next six months, it is unlikely the situation will change.

Consumers are giving in to the overpowering plant-based protein narrative, which is why the livestock industry is fighting the protein wars.

Certainly, many Canadians still need a regular meat fix. Many see meat consumption as one of the pleasures in life, as well as a necessary part of a balanced diet.

Some even believe meat consumption to be a fundamental right. According to a recent study by Dalhousie University, more than 82 percent of Canadians remain committed to meat consumption.

But for the meat industry, and especially beef producers, the study also gives us a troubling look at the future.

The study indicates that 6.4 million Canadians, a number equal to the population of Toronto, have either adopted a meatless diet or are limiting the meat they eat.

And reduced meat consumption spreads across generations. While 63 percent of vegans are under the age of 38, older Canadians have joined the meatless trend. More than 42 percent of flexitarians (those who are primarily vegetarians but occasionally eat fish or meat) are baby boomers.

Many boomers like meat but find that their eating habits induce guilt.

The plant-based narrative has clearly made a dent in the average consumer’s perception of a healthy diet. Different sources of proteins are getting attention.

Most Canadians have thought about reducing meat consumption, and 32.2 percent of survey respondents intend to do so within the next six months.

As the beef industry tries to find ways to demonstrate sustainability, consumers appear to have already moved on, and the concept of meat avoidance isn’t going to disappear. 

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Concern for the environment and animal welfare are some of the factors slowly pushing consumers away from meat products.

But health concerns seem to be the biggest motivator. A diet that reduces meat consumption is increasingly recognized as healthy.

However, despite negative press reports on the effects of meat on human health and a vocal minority who argue that humans evolved as vegetarians, some scientific evidence contradicts these views. History shows that humans relied heavily on meat as a source of energy and critical substrates such as protein and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Although highly criticized at the time, a report released by the World Health Organization in 2015 that condemned processed meat consumption has affected how meat in general is perceived around the world, including in Canada. The report claimed that consumers who ate the most processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon or ham, had an increased risk of cancer.

Three years later, several countries have altered their food guides to encourage consumers to look for vegetable proteins or fish. Canada will soon join this group with its new food guide.

But simply asking consumers to eat less meat may trigger resistance to change and confusion regarding amounts and sources of protein. Some consumers are resisting the notion of plant-based diets as a viable alternative or healthy lifestyle. Indeed, conversations on proteins are divisive and polarized.

The Dalhousie report suggests the roadblock is linked to masculinity, traditionalism and hierarchies. All three factors resemble and maintain the conventional structures of power in the western world. Meat is often inherently linked to manhood, as are the symbolism and social history of meat consumption.

Conversely, urbanization, the collective will to live in a more diverse society, increased access to education for all and a rising female voice – distinctive products of modern society – all represent a push for culinary changes.

Proteins are becoming more pluralist. For the beef industry, the journey hasn’t been easy. Compared to 2010, Canadians eat 16 percent less beef, which equates to 94 million kilograms a year.

Commodity groups, then, shouldn’t look at their products in isolation. Beef, for example, needs to co-exist with lentils, fish and other more affordable sources of proteins. To befriend other commodity groups would be a novel and refreshing approach.

And it would be an effective way to fight the protein wars.

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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