*Meat, Peaked ? : Here is a Global meat production statement/report*
Global consumption of animal proteins has been rising, apparently inexorably, for the past six decades. The coronavirus pandemic has finally changed that trajectory.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that meat production—a decent proxy for consumption—dropped in 2019, and it forecasts a decline again this year. Last year was only the second since 1961 in which production fell; two consecutive years of decline is unprecedented and could be the start of something durable. We’re already at peak pasture as far as demand is concerned, and it looks like we’re also approaching peak beef, even in places like steak-crazed
3% drop in per-capita meat consumption expected for this year will be the biggest decline since at least 2000. But there’s more to it even than that, especially considering what that could mean for the environment and climate change.
Meat consumption changes in tandem with two factors: population and overall wealth. Growth in the former is slowing; the coronavirus pandemic certainly impacts the latter, although meat production didn’t fall even during the global financial crisis.
Here’s the absolute. The FAO tracks production of 18 meats including camel, guinea fowl, and wild game, but only three are significant in global volume: beef, pork, and chicken. Global meat production in 2018 totaled 340 million tons; 302 million of that came from these three.The second is that beef is clearly declining as a percentage of total meat production, from 39% in 1961 to only 20% in 2018. Pork is exactly the same percentage of total meat production now as it was in 1961: 35%. All of the growth has come from chicken, which has more than tripled from 11% to 34% of total meat production.
If we look at meat production on a per capita basis, we see another sort of peak—the behavioral peak, so to speak. Per person beef consumption peaked as long ago as the late 1970s. Pork consumption peaked in 2015. Chicken is on its way up, and at current per capita consumption rates will soon pass pork.
Per capita meat production
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N. Population Division
Here’s why these trends matter for the climate. Beef production is an extremely high-emitting sector of global food production. Emissions from beef production are about 10 times higher than from either pork or chicken. Beef emissions also aren’t just from the farm itself; they’re also from land use change, such as deforestation to make space for grazing. Ways of reducing farm emissions are under development. Burger King expects its lemongrass-infused bovine diet to cut emissions by a third during the last three to four months of a cow’s life (a contention still awaiting academic peer review).
*Beef by a Mile*
Greenhouse gas emissions from meat production (kilograms CO2 equivalent per kilogram of of product)
–see attached graph–
Sources: Poore and Nemecek (2018), Our World In Data
Reducing emissions from land use will also be critical in the future, as agriculture plus forestry and land use account for 18.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There may be technological solutions to reduce agriculture emissions, and certainly the market has confidence in the companies promising them. Digital crop-trading company Indigo Ag is now the world’s most highly-valued agriculture tech startup.
Beef uses lots of land and emits a lot from the land it uses. But by any number of measures, beef consumption looks very near its peak, and the investors betting more than $1 billion on alternative proteins this year are hoping that their portfolio companies can drive meat demand down further. For now though, the easiest and the nearest-term solution for reducing land use emissions is simply to use less land. Substituting chicken for beef does this already on the margin; a measurable shift away from beef consumption could take that trend much further.
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