We may have Meatless Mondays and a twice-elected presidential ticket that’s gone vegan, but while Americans have reduced their meat consumption in past years, the world is becoming an increasingly carnivorous place.
You may have read the news stories about the rising demand for meat in countries such as India and China, where growing middle classes are shifting toward far meatier diets than were common in less prosperous times. Now, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempts to locate humanity’s exact place on the trophic scale, which measures an organism’s ranking on the food chain.
“Although trophic levels are among the most basic information collected for animals in ecosystems,” the study reads, “a human trophic level (HTL) has never been defined.”
At level 1 on the scale you’ll find self-sustaining organisms like plants; at level 5.5 are true carnivores—predators like polar bears that consume lots of other, smaller mammals. Despite every steak-and-bacon-loving bro you’ve ever heard say, “I’m basically a carnivore,” humans are decidedly not; we had a median trophic level of 2.21 in 2009. That puts us “on par with other omnivores, such as pigs and anchovies, in the global food web,” Hannah Hoag writes for Nature.
That number has crept upward, however, rising by 3 percent over the past 50 years. Around the time the incremental increase in meat consumption began, China was coming off three years of famine that killed between 20 and 43 million people. In India, 40 percent of the rural population and half of Indians residing in cities were living in poverty in 1960.
More reliable food supplies, decreased poverty, and overall economic improvement in China and India are nothing to lament, but considering that meat production is responsible for more climate-change-causing emissions than the entire transportation sector, the uptick is worrisome.
Still, the study shows that some regions of the world have shifted away from meat-heavy diets. “Places such as Iceland, Mongolia and Mauritania, where traditional diets are mostly based on meat, fish or dairy, have seen their trophic levels decline as they diversified their daily fare,” Hoag writes.
So what’s the overall takeaway, on a personal diet level? At the very least, keep eating like pigs and anchovies, and not like polar bears.