Oktoberfest — the annual two-week festival in Munich, Germany, that attracts some 6 million attendees a year — originally began in 1810 as the gaudy celebration of a royal marriage. Today, it’s primarily a good reason for visitors to drink about 2 million gallons of beer while eating nearly half a million roast chickens and over 400,000 sausages.
Once Oktoberfest is done, Germans will keep drinking beer; Germany, after all, ranks sixth in the world in per capita alcohol consumption. But the decadent displays of meat at Oktoberfest aren’t necessarily indicative of Germans’ year-round eating habits. In fact, Germany is one of the few places in the world where meat consumption is decreasing — and fast.
In 2011, Germans ate 138 pounds of meat each year. Today, it’s 121 pounds — a 12.3 percent decline. And much of that decline took place in the last few years, a time period when grocery sales of plant-based food nearly doubled.
The trend runs counter to virtually everywhere else on the planet, where meat consumption is quickly rising — from citizens of low-income countries adding more meat to their diet as incomes increase, to rich countries where meat consumption has more or less plateaued at a high level or continues to slowly increase. (Sweden, like Germany, is a notable exception.)
Understanding the causes behind Germany’s newfound love for vegetarian fare could be critical in figuring out how to slow climate change and improve overall health. Meat and dairy production account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and most countries’ per capita meat consumption far exceeds the 57 pounds per year recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a panel of climate and nutrition experts.
Animal welfare and environmental activists in Germany say there’s no single explanation as to why their people are putting down (some of) their meat and opting for more plant-based food. One poll found that, from 2016 to 2020, the number of vegans in Germany doubled, hitting 2.6 million people or 3.2 percent of the population. A big jump, to be sure, but not enough to explain the sharp decline in the country’s meat consumption.
Rather, says Jens Tuider of ProVeg International, a Berlin-based organization that advocates for reducing meat consumption, “it’s the flexitarians that drive this development.”
Experts say the rise in flexitarians — those who reduce but don’t eliminate their meat consumption — could be due to a number of scandals in recent decades that have put the German meat sector under closer scrutiny. Exposés of forced labor in slaughter plants, reports of rotten meat sold across the country, bird and swine flu outbreaks, and animal cruelty investigations may have affected attitudes toward meat.
But those same problems are playing out elsewhere with far less effect on diet, including in the US, where Americans eat 225 pounds of red meat and poultry (fish excluded) per capita per year, almost twice the amount as Germans.
What seems to set Germany apart is its young people, who are deeply worried about climate change and see reforming the food system as one way to pump the brakes on their country’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Especially among the young people, you can see a cultural change, because they are much more aware of ... what they eat, how they consume,” says Inka Dewitz of Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation in Germany that is affiliated with the German Green Party.
The kids are eating their vegetables
In a 2021 survey of 15- to 29-year-olds that Heinrich Böll Stiftung conducted, 12.7 percent of respondents identified as vegetarian or vegan — about twice the rate of Germany as a whole, according to the organization. A recent survey by the German government found 14- to 29-year-olds report purchasing plant-based products at slightly higher rates than 30- to 44-year-olds and much more than those over 60.
This enthusiasm could be explained in part by the youth-led Fridays for Future movement, which was born out of teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s school strike in Sweden to demand action on climate change. The movement is popular in Germany, where over 16 percent of respondents in Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s youth poll said they take part in it to some degree.
“[The movement is] very aware about the environmental effects of meat production, and a lot of the Fridays for Future leaders are actually vegans,” says Mahi Klosterhalfen, president of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, a Berlin-based animal welfare organization. On the website of Germany’s Fridays for Future movement, the organization’s policy demands for the agriculture sector include a halving of meat consumption by 2035, a further decline of 60 pounds of meat based on 2021 rates.
By comparison, the US Fridays for Future movement website doesn’t say anything about meat. That’s in line with many US environmental organizations, most of which say we need to move away from a meat-heavy food system but mention it sparingly, given the fraught politics of meat regulation in the US, and a focus on bigger sources of emissions: transportation and energy production. However, environmental researchers have pointed out that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to meet global climate targets without cutting emissions from agriculture.
“For [young people], it’s more like a political statement to eat less meat or to eat no meat at all,” Dewitz said.
The “eat less meat” sentiment already appears to be taken seriously in some corners of Germany’s federal government. Cem Özdemir, the country’s minister of food and agriculture and a member of the Greens, recently listed shifting diets to be more plant-based as the first of four priorities in the agency’s forthcoming nutrition strategy plan. Two other German ministers have also called for a reduction in meat consumption.
That position stands in stark contrast to Tom Vilsack, who served as a lobbyist for the dairy industry after his stint as USDA secretary under President Barack Obama. President Joe Biden reappointed Vilsack to the job in 2021, and since then Vilsack has put forth some modest meat industry reforms but hasn’t signaled support for shifting diets away from meat.
German ministers, though, should have no issue finding support among the next generation of voters — a majority of them say the government should encourage people to eat a more climate-friendly diet.
Germany’s plant-based revolution
The shift isn’t just due to changing political attitudes. The quality and availability of plant-based fare have greatly improved due to innovation from restaurants, food tech startups, and big food companies.
Rügenwalder Mühle, a German meat company founded in 1834, began producing plant-based meat products at the end of 2014 and reported that, in 2021, its plant-based meat sales surpassed its animal meat sales. The former CEO, Christian Rauffus, predicted that his generation will be the last to eat meat every day because the next one doesn’t want to.
The entire sector has seen explosive growth in recent years: Grocery sales of plant-based products in Germany nearly doubled from 2018 to 2020, from $424 million to $835 million.
Hamburg resident Andreas Setzer, a consultant for animal welfare organizations, told me he was surprised to see so few vegan options while traveling around the US over the past year, having been spoiled in Germany for so many years.
“When I came to the US, I was expecting vegan options everywhere but I had to live off of [Burger King’s] Impossible Whopper,” he said about his experience trying to find meat-free food outside major US cities. He added that, in Germany, plant-based food is quite affordable and available just about everywhere.
But looking under the hood of Germany’s meat consumption patterns also illustrates a confounding reality of the country’s relationship to meat. While per capita consumption has fallen, the number of animals farmed per person has gone up. That’s because Germans are eating more chicken.
The dietary migration from red to white meat
Germans are eating about the same amount of beef as they were in 2011, but far less pork. But because pigs are large — pigs yield about 124 pounds of edible meat on average in Germany — the steep decline in pork only resulted in a reduction of about one-sixth of a pig per person. However, the 12.5 percent increase in poultry consumption, which looks modest on the chart below, has resulted in almost one extra chicken farmed for each of Germany’s 83 million residents because chickens are so small.
That trend of poultry consumption growing faster than pork and beef consumption has been playing out across the globe over the last few decades as the simplified public health message that red meat is bad and white meat is good caught on. In the 1960s, there were 2.2 chickens raised for each person on Earth. Now, it’s 9.2 — a 318 percent per capita increase. (However, people in high-income countries eat far more chicken than those in low-income countries — for example, each American eats about 23 chickens a year on average.)
In recent decades, some environmentalists have been advocating for swapping red meat with white meat, because red meat — especially beef — emits far more greenhouse gasses than white meat. (Though plant-based protein usually pollutes less than them all.)
While the dietary migration from red to white meat may have slowed climate change, it severely worsened animal suffering. Not only are we farming far more chickens than in the past — 70 billion globally each year compared to 6.5 billion in 1961 — but they’re typically treated much worse than cattle and pigs and also contribute to air and water pollution in the same way the pork and beef sectors do.
“From the animal ethics perspective it is, of course, rather disastrous,” says Tuider of ProVeg International. “So I can’t really, at this stage, completely join into the party mode. ... I’m quite sobered by the fact that we’ve seen this [decline in meat consumption] and increased the number of animals killed, actually.”
Germany’s decade-long decline in meat consumption shows that it is indeed possible to shift high-meat diets, a task that has long seemed impossible in the face of humanity’s 10,000-year love affair with domesticating animals for meat. But it also shows that the shift, when highly focused on greenhouse gas emissions, can also have the unintended consequence of increasing animal suffering.
In time, companies like Rügenwalder Mühle might figure out how to make plant-based chicken good enough to stop the dietary migration from red to white meat, and activists like Klosterhalfen might be able to persuade people to hold just as much empathy for chickens as they do for pigs and cows. In the meantime, at least Oktoberfest has several plant-based options for Germany’s vegans and flexitarians alike.