The Future of Meat

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Photo by Getty Images/george tsartsianidis.

Humans are eating more meat. Between 2010 and 2050, global demand for meat is projected to double. This comes on top of a historic surge in demand—between 1960 and 2010, per capita meat consumption in the developing world more than doubled, while in China, total meat consumption grew ninefold. In just the five years ending in 2015, Chinese beef imports grew tenfold as upwardly mobile consumer tastes shifted away from the historically favored, less expensive pork.

Much of this imported beef has come from Australia. Australian livestock producers, it is fair to say, are salivating at the prospects for growth afforded by new access to the Chinese market. But there is more to this story. In 2012, just as Australian cattle exports to China started to surge, the Australian government declared an end to a seventeen-year drought that had decimated the arid grasslands of Queensland and the southeast. The years since the Millennium Drought ended have seen rainfall below historic averages over a wider part of Queensland than during the second half of the drought. Cattle are grazers—ground feeders—but in the absence of grass, ranchers have taken measures to force their herds to behave like browsers, pulling down live mulga trees so that the cattle can get at the leaves. In 2014, Australian cattle ranchers culled—slaughtered— more than 9 million animals for want of adequate pasturage. In this context, market expansion looks less like a strategy of long-term growth than like a one-time fix for oversupply.

In every part of the world, producing meat on the scale necessary to meet current and forecast demand requires a huge commitment of resources. Let’s start with land. Food production uses approximately 38 percent of the Earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface area. Of that, 12 percent is given over to crops, 26 to pasturage. But 35 percent of the Earth’s global crop yield goes to producing concentrated feedstocks for livestock. Upward of 75 percent of the Earth’s agricultural land is devoted to raising animals for meat along with dairy products and eggs.

This proportion will increase as confined or “landless” production using concentrated feedstocks becomes the modal form of livestock production. By 2006 estimates, pure grazing systems accounted for just 8 percent of global meat production, confined feeding systems 45 percent, with the balance involving a mix of pasturage and confinement. The vast majority of growth in livestock production over the next twenty years will be in confined systems. Currently, in Europe and North America, just 40 percent of crop output goes directly to meeting human needs; in Africa, by comparison, it is 80 percent.

So in those parts of the world with the most productive, most intensively managed agricultural surfaces, the majority of agricultural land is dedicated to livestock. No matter how carefully managed the livestock system, this represents a net loss for food production over using the same land to produce food that would go directly to meeting human needs. Taking feed, fertilizer, and fuel together, livestock production consumes 58 percent of the biomass that humans draw out of the biosphere annually.

Excerpted from The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food by Josh Berson, Copyright, The MIT Press, 2019.


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