steaks

Meat consumption is on the rise, finds a study looking at diets around the world and where humans fall in the food chain.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first of its kind to look at humanity’s trophic levels—a metric that calculates where a species falls in the food chain, reports Nature. “The metric puts plants and algae, which make their own food, at trophic level 1. Rabbits, which eat plants, occupy level 2. Foxes, which eat herbivores, sit at trophic level 3. Cod, a fish that eats other fish, claims level 4. Polar bears and orcas, which have few or no predators and eat other mammals with gusto, hold the top positions — levels up to 5.5.”

According to the study’s lead researcher Sylvain Bonhommeau, a fisheries scientist at the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea in Sète, humanity’s global median trophic levels. “[T]he human trophic level increased by 3% from 1961 to 2009, driven largely by more meat consumption in India and China,” reports Nature.

2009′s trophic level of 2.21 “puts us on a par with other omnivores, such as pigs and anchovies, in the global food web.” While it changes the “preconception of being top predator” says Bonhommeau, that 3% shift is actually a pretty big deal. And Nature reports that even a change of 0.1 means a lot more meat is being consumed. Which is exactly the case.

India and China are both experiences booms in working and middle class—and with it a taste for American fast food, mainly meat. The livestock industry is contributing an estimated 18 percent of all greenhouse gases.  “If we all increase our trophic level, we’ll start to have a bigger impact on ecosystems,” says Bonhommeau.

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Image: Robert S. Donovan