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17 June, 2021updated 29 Oct 2021 12:32

Meat consumption is unsustainable, so why is it still increasing?

As the world's population grows, so does meat consumption and production despite the negative environmental impacts widely associated with the sector.

By Marina Leiva

brazil-meat-beef

A cattle farm in Chupinguaia, Brazil. The country is a major meat producer but faces criticism over the deforestation caused by its farming methods. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

From vegan sausage rolls to lab-grown meat, alternatives to animal protein are flourishing in all corners. However, meat consumption is still prevalent and is even set to rise as the population grows, especially in the case of developing economies.

Global food prices are increasing, and in May 2021 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Price Index witnessed its fastest monthly increase and reached its highest value since September 2011, with the FAO Meat Price Index increasing by 2.2% from April.

This is despite the well-documented negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. However, as the demand for meat rises, so does the concern over its influence on the climate crisis and its lack of sustainability.

Consumer preferences impact meat consumption

Meat’s negative environmental impact (and the increased awareness of this impact) makes forecasting meat production and consumption a complicated process, as the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020–29 points out.

Although the report projects global meat production to increase by nearly 40 megatonnes (Mt) by 2029, reaching 366Mt, it highlights the uncertainty on the demand side as consumer preferences are likely to evolve.

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As health and environmental concerns gain ground, decisions are no longer based merely on factors such as price and taste, with the report pointing at a surge of vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian lifestyles in high-income countries, particularly among younger generations.

The report also points at an increased awareness among consumers about animal treatment and meat production in general, with a growing preference for organic products, but with affordability still taking centre stage in developing nations.

A meaty divide between developed and developing economies

Of the above mentioned projected increase in meat production by 2029, about 80% of the additional meat production growth is projected to take place in developing regions, mainly attributed to high population growth rates in areas that already have large populations.

According to the OECD-FAO report, the overall growth in the volume of meat consumption will be five times greater in developing countries, especially in the African and Asian continents. Furthermore, it points at consumption levels in higher-income regions as being close to saturation.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement is expected to give a major boost to meat production in the continent, according to the report, as 90% of products traded within Africa will be duty free.

In developed countries, the report predicts a growth in per capita meat consumption of 0.24% per annum – which represents one-quarter of the annual growth rate of the previous decade – while in the case of developing countries the annual growth rate is expected to double, to 0.8%.

Where is meat produced?

According to the OECD-FAO report, about 60% of global meat output by 2029 is projected to be produced by China, the US, Brazil and the EU.

China is the world's largest provider of meat, with 77.9 million tonnes forecast to have been produced in 2020, according to the FAO’s Meat Market Review 2021. The country is expected to continue to benefit from “growing economies of scale as small production units grow into larger commercial enterprises”.

The US is second in the list, with 48.7 million tonnes of meat forecasted to have been produced in 2020, which is projected to continue to increase, according to the OECD-FAO report, due to strong domestic demand and higher slaughter weights in a low-feed cost environment.

The US is followed by the EU, at 48.6 million tonnes of meat in 2020, and the market is projected to remain stable while “reflecting a small reduction in domestic demand for both beef and pig meat”.

Next in line is Brazil, at 28.8 million tonnes of meat in 2020, while the country comes second for meat exports, which account for 27.7% of the country’s eight million tonnes of meat production.

However, Brazil’s meat sector – and beef in particular – is often criticised for being one of the least sustainable markets of its kind in the world, as well as being a major driver of deforestation.

What is ahead? Alternative proteins

The frequent reports surrounding the lack of sustainability in animal farming has prompted a rise in consumers who decide to either lower their intake of animal products or eliminate them altogether. This has brought about an increase in plant-based alternatives in shops and restaurants.

A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation on alternative proteins shows that by 2035 about 11% of all “the meat, seafood, eggs and dairy eaten around the globe is very likely to be alternative”, although this is on the assumption that these alternatives will have reached full parity in taste, texture and price when compared with conventional animal proteins.

However, it is further estimated that this share of the global market could be even greater – up to 22% – if there is a push from regulators. The report also points at 2035 as the time when Europe and North America will have reached 'peak meat' and consumption should start to decline.

 

The impact of meat consumption on people's health and the environment are now well established, as is the cruelty of some farming practices, so it may well fall to national governments to regulate the markets towards more sustainable meat consumption and – ideally – a larger share of alternative proteins, as they become widely available and their benefits are widely shown.

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