Are we on the verge of a worldwide spike in vegetarianism?
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) warned that consuming certain types of meats may lead to increased rates of cancers—in particular, colon cancer. After reviewing over 800 studies, the WHO determined that red meats like beef and lamb are “probably carcinogenic to humans,” while processed meats, such as bacon and sausage, have shown “strong mechanistic evidence” for causing cancers.
The language used by the organization is somewhat vague, but the moment that an esteemed health organization invokes the word “cancer” as a consequence, it is more than likely that people around the world will be put on edge.
Already, the North American Meat Institute has responded by criticizing the organization’s claims, stating, “The IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breath the air”—referring to the vast number of factors that are argued to lead to cancer. Christian Schmidt, the German Minister of Food and Agriculture, encouraged people not to “be afraid if they eat a bratwurst every now and then.” PETA has even taken the opportunity to promote vegetarianism and veganism by offering “free starter kits.”
Even if there is only shown to be a small increase in the rate of cancers, both the skepticism of dissidents and the applause of supporters bring the topic of nutrition to the forefront of international discussion. The WHO has created an opportunity—and an incentive—for individuals to reevaluate their lifestyles.
Compared with the risks associated with smoking and alcohol consumption, the “dangers” of red and processed meat are relatively low. It is difficult to isolate—in any study—one particular cause of a disease. There are an enormous number of variables that could be considered. Individuals who eat large quantities of bacon and hot dogs are also more likely to be those who live less healthy lifestyles. These may be the people who get inadequate amounts of exercise and make poor nutrition decisions in general.
But, the goal of the study is not to persuade the global public to eliminate red meat entirely or to become vegetarian. The scientists behind the work understand that red meat does contain important nutrients and proteins. The reason that the IARC report has struck a chord with so many around the world is that red meat, for many, is an important part of both diet and culture, and it is not something that everyone wants to give up. The uncertainty of how much risk exists, and the identification of the slightest correlation between processed meats and cancer, is what is causing the situation to escalate in the media.
This said, it is unlikely that we will see an increase in the number of those who remove meat from their diet. A Gallup survey of eating preferences found that five percent of Americans identify as vegetarians, compared to six percent of the American population in 1999 and 2001. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency warned of the effects of consuming tuna fish because of the presence of mercury, and, although consumption decreased, we haven’t seen tuna entirely disappear from the American diets. Both cases show that often, this sort of behavior remains relatively static over time.
Although I myself am a vegetarian, I am not advocating for the end of all red and processed meat consumption—nor do I think that this imminently in our future. The red meat-cancer correlation, however strong or weak, shouldn’t be interpreted as an opportunity to instill fear and worry in the public about the inherent doom of disease, but rather as an opportunity to encourage healthy dietary choices.
Douglas is a member of the class of 2017.