If the purpose of a headline is to summarize a story in an eye-catching way, this Washington Post headline did its job. "Meat is horrible," it blared (http://tiny.cc/…).
The lead paragraph was equally shrill: "It may be delicious, but the evidence is accumulating that meat, particularly red meat, is just a disaster for the environment -- and not so great for human beings, too." Having established her theme, the Post's blogger rattled off statistics and quotes from experts in support. As the headline hinted, hers is a sweeping, no-holds-barred attack on livestock agriculture. It nods approvingly at calls for taxing meat to discourage consumption.
A knowledgeable reader -- even one who shared the blogger's climate-change concerns -- might challenge both her evidence and her conclusions. For example, she cites studies indicating agriculture accounts for a third of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, with livestock responsible for half of that. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency says agriculture -- all of agriculture, not just meat -- accounts for only 9% of U.S. emissions (http://tiny.cc/…).
How could the estimates for the U.S. and the rest of the world differ so wildly? Maybe American farming practices are simply kinder to the environment than those in other countries. Maybe our electricity generation, transportation and manufacturing sectors are much more developed than the world average. Either possibility would reduce the percentage of agriculture's contribution to U.S. emissions, though not the absolute amount.
Neither explanation supports the meat-is-horrible contention. Both suggest that continued economic development will make the rest of the world look more like the U.S., lessening agriculture's relative contribution to emissions, increasing that of electricity generation, transportation and manufacturing and thus pushing meat lower on the list of climate-change worries.
If nothing else, the Post blogger's failure to even acknowledge the EPA data suggests she cherry-picked the evidence. Still, it's easy to imagine uninformed and unquestioning readers being swayed by this piece. People forget much of what they read, but they're less likely to forget a headline like "Meat Is Horrible." For sheer memorability in the service of an anti-meat agenda, it ranks with the comparison of a cow to a nuclear bomb blast that best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman once served up (http://tiny.cc/…).
How much do broadsides like these influence public opinion? Bittman's TED talk has been viewed 3.5 million times online, yet per capita meat consumption in the U.S. in 2015 was only 5% below its near all-time high in 2007, when Bittman gave the talk (http://tiny.cc/…). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a rich-country club, the U.S. ranks second in the world in per capita meat consumption, barely a hamburger short of Australia (http://tiny.cc/…). We eat more chicken than we used to, and less red meat, but a nation of carnivores we remain.
Is this because we naively think there are no minuses to meat? Not if you believe a New York Times report comparing the opinions of nutritionists and the public at large (http://tiny.cc/…). In reporting these surveys, the Times focused on the differences between the two groups, most notably that 70% of the general public thinks granola bars are healthy while only 30% of nutritionists do. But just as remarkably, the surveys also showed that the public and the nutritionists are very much on the same page when it comes to meat.
Are hamburgers healthy? Only 28% of nutritionists and 29% of the public think so. Chicken? In both groups, 91% say yes.
Steak? The public (63% yes) and the nutritionists (60% yes) aren't far apart. The biggest gap is for pork chops, which 59% of nutritionists but only 52% of the public deem healthy.
Bottom line: This is not a nation that would turn vegetarian if only it understood the nutritional hazards of meat eating. We may fairly assume it's even less likely to make the switch when it finally appreciates the methane-emission implications of cattle farting.
If anything is likely to unseat meat in America's esteem, it's artificial meat. Scientists keep getting closer to making laboratory meat that tastes like the real thing (http://tiny.cc/…). Entrepreneurs keep promising to make these ersatz offerings affordable. A non-meat meat that provided the same taste and texture would be huge.
It hasn't happened yet. If and when it ever does, we're likely to see some really memorable headlines.