Between 2007 and 2014, U.S. per capita consumption of meat fell by 20 pounds. The surprisingly sharp drop was caused by the combination of a deep recession that cut income and high grain prices which made meat unusually expensive. The median family income in the U.S. dropped from $55,600 in 2007 to $51,000 in 2012. During that same period, the cost of corn tripled from $2 per bushel to $6 per bushel increasing the cost and price of all meats.
Median incomes, meat consumption expected to rise
Both of those factors are now turning around. Median income is rising at the same time as grain prices are falling. Although corn will never make it back to $2 per bushel, it has already moderated considerably from 2012 levels. Median income should eventually get back to $55,600. Making the assumption that median income manages to return to the level of 2007 by 2021, it would then be logical to expect total meat consumption to also return to 2007 levels. This is shown in the graph (US per capita meat use in pounds and household median income: Likely scenario) with total meat consumption reaching bottom in 2014 and returning to 2007 levels by 2021. Although anything is possible in the future, this appears to be a likely scenario.
There are, of course, many other possible outcomes for 2021. For example, should median income fail to rise as expected, meat consumption would not rise as rapidly as expected; and if median income rose faster than expected, meat consumption might rise faster than expected.
Consumer preference for meat a downside risk
Another possible influence on meat consumption in 2021 is that of consumer preference for meat. Consumer preference could either increase or decrease, but there appears to be more of a downside risk given the relatively high level of meat consumption in the U.S. compared to other countries.
Should consumer preference for meat decrease, the lines for median income and meat consumption would part ways in the coming years. That scenario, depicted in the graph (US per capita meat use in pounds and household median income: Change in meat preference scenario), would be, in my opinion, less likely but nevertheless a possibility to be acknowledged in planning for the future. Under this scenario, the U.S. meat industry gears up for rapidly increasing meat consumption by 2017, just as in the earlier scenario but runs into an unexpected barrier of lower than expected demand due to a change in consumer preferences.