But back to why the increase in non-meat-eaters is good news.
The study suggested that more people are eating meatless foods because there is a better range of vegetarian and vegan products in supermarkets and restaurants. That’s true, and it’s a positive trend. By definition, vegetarian meals include more fruits and vegetables, and every dietary authority in the Western world emphasizes that people should be eating more produce.
A lot more.
Truth is, adding vegetables and fruit tends to displace processed foods, high-calorie snack foods and “junk” (candy, cookies, chips), not center-of-the-plate entrees based on meat and poultry. So that’s a good thing, nutrition- and health-wise, and a trend that doesn’t significantly impact animal agriculture’s share of stomach.
(And keep in mind that many “vegetarians” only give up fresh red meat, the packages of steaks, roasts and hamburger lined up in the supermarket case. They still eat pepperoni pizza, jerky and even lunchmeat — because those foods aren’t “meat.”)
But speaking of agriculture, the trend toward a wider variety of food choices — many of them marketed as vegetarian, to be sure — is a critical factor in sustaining diversity in food production. Given the barriers to entry (land, capital, access to processing plants), it isn’t likely that thousands of new producers are going to enter the profession — not without massive government subsidies that don’t appear to be forthcoming.
Yet we know that the average age of American farmers is 55+, and that without keeping farmland — and farmers — in business, development will eventually remove some of the country’s most productive acreage from production. That’s not a positive scenario not matter how it’s analyzed.
We need more new farmers, and they need to be able to succeed on smaller farms that require less capital and less complex infrastructure. Until someone invents the livestock equivalent of the fits-into-your-garage microbrewery system, that need won’t be met by a stampeded of new ranchers, feeders and meatpackers. The only development on the horizon for animal agriculture and all related activities downstream is further consolidation.
Yet for agriculture to remain viable politically and economically, numbers are important, not to mention that the viability of many rural communities could be in jeopardy with another generation of farm-country exodus to urban areas and high-tech job opportunities.
That’s why I say if more people want to claim they’re veggies, and they back that up by buying more produce and more specialty foods that command a premium at point of sale, God bless ’em.
In the long run, that’s good for our collective well-being and essential to the health of American farming.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.