The world is eating too much meat, and that’s bad news for the earth’s forests, arable land, and scarce water. That’s the conclusion of a report released yesterday by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.
Global production of meat hit a new high of 308.5 million tons last year, up 1.4 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the report notes. “In response to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, meat production has expanded more than fourfold over just the last five decades. Even more startlingly, meat production has grown 25-fold since 1800,” says a news release accompanying the report, entitled “Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources.”
While average consumption of meat in 2013 reached 42.9 kilograms per capita, many people still consume far less, which means production growth is unlikely to stall soon. People in developing countries are eating less than half the quantity of meat consumed by those in developed nations—33.7 kg. as compared to 75.9 kg., the report points out.
Not surprisingly, Asia, home to the fast-growing, populous countries of China and India, has already become the world’s largest meat-producing region. In 2013, it produced 131.5 million tons of meat, about 43 percent of world output. Europe, by contrast, accounted for 58.5 million tons, North America, 47.2 million, and South America, 39.9 million. “China single-handedly accounted for nearly half of global pig meat production,” the report says.
Raising all that livestock requires lots of land and water. More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is used for animal pasture, with an additional 10 percent used to grow feed grains consumed by meat- and dairy-producing animals. Agriculture overall consumes about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water; a third of it goes to grow feed grain. Particularly resource-intensive is beef production: Raising cattle requires up to five times as much land as that needing to produce pigs or chickens—for the same amount of protein.
“Industrial methods in the livestock sector cut down forests to expand grazing lands and use large quantities of water. Production uses grains (such as corn or soybeans) for animal feed and relies on heavy doses of antibiotics in animals,” writes Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner. “Limiting these environmental and health impacts requires not only a look at how much meat people eat, but also at the kind of meat that they consume worldwide.”