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Our Simmering Beef With Meat — Rise Of The Flexitarians

It causes cancer, harms the planet and is cruel to animals, which is why meat consumption has steadily declined in the West. Some have become vegetarians or even vegans, but there is one much more modest alternative that is spreading.

 in At the Yaguane Meat Processing Plant Cooperative in Argentina.
in At the Yaguane Meat Processing Plant Cooperative in Argentina.
Frank Niedercorn

PARIS — What is the future for beef bourguignon? A month ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that eating red meat causes cancer. A few weeks earlier, a slaughterhouse in the southern French town of Alès closed down after the release of a troubling video of its operations. And last year, the whole of Europe was scandalized by revelations that certain ready-made meals contained horse meat. That's to say nothing of the mad cow disease episode in the 1990s.

After a steady increase after World War II, meat consumption in France reached a peak in 1998, when the average person ate 94 kilograms (207 lbs) of it per year. The consumption decline has been continuous since then, according to FranceAgriMer, which is affiliated with the French Ministry of Agriculture. Specifically, people are eating much less beef and pork, though consumption of poultry has doubled. Other European countries have undergone similar evolutions.

The question is whether the trend will continue, and will we all become vegetarians or "flexitarians"? U.S. food columnist Mark Bittman coined the term, which he defines are someone who deliberately reduces meat consumption.

"We sometimes call it part-time vegetarianism," notes Céline Laisney, an analyst who heads a study about the trend's growth. Vegetarians represent a small minority of the population, but 32% of European consumers say they would like to buy less meat. There are significant differences from one end of Europe to the other: the percentage reaches 50% in the Czech Republic, but it falls to 11% in Belgium.

A U.S. study shows that meat consumption increases with higher living standards, before decreasing after a certain limit — estimated at $37,000 per person per year. This disaffection isn't due to chance. Already criticized for its negative health effects, we know now too that meat production is terrible for the planet, given its water demands, greenhouse gas emissions and the heavy consumption of vegetable protein to feed animals.

Veggie burger craze

Young companies, such as Beyond Meat or Quorn, are looking to make the most of this new defiance towards meat by offering alternative products made from cereal. In France, Nutrition & Santé has just launched Grill Végétal, products made from soy or wheat but packed to look like steaks or nuggets. The supermarket chain Carrefour has launched a series of products called "Carrefour Veggie — Vegetarian cooking."

"The whole challenge is to obtain a texture that is sufficiently firm and close to meat, which is often lacking in these kinds of products," explains Anne Wagner, who runs the research and development arm of cooperative Tereos, which is investing in its Alsace factory to produce up to 10,000 meatless "sausages," "burgers" and "steaks" per year.

The notion of vegetal meat, though, has its skeptics, including Pierre Feillet, a research director at the French National Institute of Agricultural Research. "It's an error and a way to mislead the consumer, who knows anyway that he's being lied to," he says. "We need to work on new products."

Even vegetarians are on the fence, says Elodie Vieille-Blanchard, president of the French Vegetarian Association, which counts 5,000 members. "The vegetal steak may be proof that there are alternatives to meat, but this gives a very restrictive image of vegetarian cuisine."

The wine example

Whatever our eating habits may be, the consumption of animal proteins in the world will grow overall until 2050, chiefly because of population growth. Also, though meat consumption may be declining in developed countries, it will continue to grow in developing countries. "With about 9 billion people on the planet in the mid-century, the planet will have a serious problem if every country follows the development model of the OECD countries," says Marion Guillou, head of the French Agronomical, Veterinarian and Forest Institute.

So should livestock farming stay or go? Vegetarians, vegans and many environmentalists believe it's a blight not only on our health but on our planet. An absolute end to meat-eating, however, may not be the answer. "One billion farmers make a living from this in the world," saus Guillou. "Not to mention that these animals provide services, from pulling to the use of excretions, wool, leather. And what should we do with our pastures without them?"

Perhaps moderation is the solution. "I imagine quite well that there could be an evolution similar to that of wine, with a more occasional and moderate consumption of quality products," says expert Pascale Hebel. Others agree. "The global quality beef market is the logical prospect for French livestock farming," experts Eric Loiselet and Pascal Perez wrote in an August column for Les Echos. "Tomorrow, the whole world's middle classes will consume 5 kilos of quality meat per year. It is preferable for our farmers to place themselves in this niche, rather than keep on supplying 50 kilos of cull cow subsidized by the French taxpayers."

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