There is hardly any other food that pollutes our environment and the climate as badly as meat. However, no government in the world currently has a concept of how meat consumption and production can be significantly reduced. But if the sector continues to grow as it has up to now, almost 360 million tons of meat will be produced and consumed worldwide in 2030. With ecological effects that are hard to imagine.
Table of contents
- TWELVE BRIEF LESSONS ABOUT MEAT AND THE WORLD
- CONSUMPTION: EVERYDAY FOOD AND LUXURY GOOD
The global demand for meat continues to rise due to economic and population growth, but at a slower pace than 10 years ago. Poultry accounts for an increasingly large share of consumption. Large differences remain in consumption per capita between countries and among population groups.
- WORLD TRADE: IN LORRIES AND SHIPS
Trade in meat and live animals is relatively new and growing fast. Disease outbreaks, sanitary restrictions and trade policies can lead to big swings in trade flow. The big four players are China – which dominates import markets – as well as the USA, Brazil and the EU, which provide most exports.
- MERCOSUR: TRADING AWAY THE ENVIRONMENT
The Association Agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur countries raises concerns with regards to meat and feed, as well as the rainforest and the climate. Meanwhile, the EU is worried about cheap imports, and resistance is growing. Whether the deal will actually come into force is questionable.
- PRODUCTION: PROBLEM FOODS AND THEIR PRODUCERS
The world’s meat production has grown rapidly, fed by rising demand and made possible by technological advances in livestock farming. But this has had serious consequences for animal welfare and small-scale producers.
- ABATTOIRS: CHOPPING BUT NOT CHANGING
Covid-19 outbreaks in abattoirs and processing plants are just the latest in a long list of problems in the meat industry. Low wages, hard work, and precarious employment are the price that workers pay to supply us with cheap meat. The industry is attempting to dodge its responsibility to provide decent conditions for its staff.
- MEAT WASTE: A LOT LESS THAN THE WHOLE HOG
The meat industry used to be famous for using “everything about the hog except the squeal”. But a large proportion of the livestock raised for food do not end up as food. Many die, or are killed, before they reach the slaughterhouse, and even more meat is wasted between the factory and the plate.
- LAND CONFLICTS: CUTTING DOWN FORESTS, CARVING UP PASTURES
In South America, natural vegetation is being turned into pastureland and monocultures to support an unsustainable form of livestock production. In Africa and Asia, a sustainable form of livestock raising is losing ground to industrialized agriculture. Traditional local communities are on the losing end.
- COMPANIES: DOMINATING THE MARKET FROM FARM TO DISPLAY CASE
Global meat companies play a major role in determining how meat and feed are produced, transported and traded. Food is big business: the 100 largest food and beverage firms around the world include 10 main meat producers and processors.
- FINANCE: BIG BUCKS FOR BIG FIRMS
Big Meat attracts big money. Both private and public investors pour money into meat and dairy corporations, further boosting their market power and fuelling yet more consolidation in an already concentrated industry. The environmental and social damage caused by the industry is largely overlooked.
- GENDER AND POVERTY: YET MORE UNPAID WORK
In many countries, women do most of the farm work, but they are not allowed to make most of the decisions. They have to balance caring for their children and elderly parents with looking after the chickens and goats. Livestock can be a welcome source of extra money, but may also mean more work. And if selling eggs and milk becomes more profitable, men very often take charge.
- FEED: SOY, FOREST, AND SAVANNA
More than one-third of all crops worldwide end up in the stomachs of livestock. That includes one billion tonnes a year of soybeans and maize alone. The feed and livestock industries want to increase that even further.
- CLIMATE: A LIGHTER HOOFPRINT
Livestock’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is understated. The climate footprint of the animals and the feed they need is significant. There are ways to change that.
- PESTICIDES: BANNED BY BRUSSELS, ALLOWED IN THE AMAZON
Pesticide applications are on the rise across the globe. Some of the most dangerous substances have been banned in the European Union, but are still being used on a large scale in other parts of the world. Many are intended for the cultivation of soybean and maize, which are destined mainly for use as livestock feed.
- WATER: THIRSTY ANIMALS, THIRSTY CROPS
All animal products have a water footprint: the amount of water needed to produce them. It is not just the total amount that is important, but the types of water that are needed. There is enough “green” water. But the volumes of “blue” and “grey” water should be kept low.
- FERTILIZERS: TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
Nitrogen pollution from livestock manure is an increasing problem in many parts of the world. Countries in the European Union have lots of ideas on how to reduce such contamination of their environments. One approach is through closer monitoring of industrial livestock producers and restricting the amount of manure slurry that crop farmers are allowed to apply.
- REWETTING: GIVE PEAT A CHANCE
Across the globe, peatlands are being drained for farming and raising livestock. But ried-out peat emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Agricultural policy should initiate the transition to the climate-friendly use of these areas.
- ANTIBIOTICS: USELESS MEDICINES
Antibiotics help to treat many diseases. The big problem: in both humans and animals, pathogens can develop antibiotic resistance – a fatal danger. And in industrial livestock production, these drugs are still not being used carefully enough.
- PANDEMICS: DANGEROUS CONTACTS
Livestock production and meat consumption stimulate outbreaks of diseases that can be transmitted from wild animals to humans. Such zoonoses can have catastrophic consequences – as Covid-19 has shown.
- PASTORALISM: BOUNTY FROM A BARREN LAND
Mobile herders move with their herds or flocks in the remotest of pastures. This form of animal production, known as pastoralism, is economically important and climatefriendly, but it is under severe threat.
- PASTORALISM IN INDIA: RANGELAND, NOT WASTELAND
India is the world’s largest exporter of buffalo, sheep and goat meat. Remarkably, the majority of this output is produced in traditional agropastoral systems.
- ACTIVE STATE: THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF TRANSFORMING THE MEAT SYSTEM
Representative surveys in various countries have found a surprising amount of public support for reduced consumption of meat. Policymakers must find the right package and sequence of measures to stimulate the transition to a more sustainable future.
- THE EUROPEAN UNION: COMMON LIVESTOCK POLICY
Intensive livestock production creates environmental and animal welfare problems. Reforms currently being considered to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy do not go nearly far enough to resolve these. But improvements can be made even within the current system.
- LABEL: THREE STARS FOR A BETTER LIFE
Buy meat from a supermarket, and you can probably choose between organic and non-organic. But with the non-organic products, you have no way of telling whether the animal was treated well, or was stuck in a pen with little room to move. Calls are growing for meat labels that show the conditions under which the animals are raised.
- EU STRATEGIES: A GOOD START, BUT COULD TRY HARDER
As part of its Green Deal, the European Commission has proposed a “Farm to Fork Strategy”. This is the EU’s most coherent attempt yet to respond to the fundamental challenges plaguing the food system. But much will depend on converting grand-sounding words into actual policies.
- LAB MEAT: CELLSTOCK VS LIVESTOCK
Lab-grown meat is a disruptive innovation that could help resolve sustainability and health issues related to livestock, as well as reduce the numbers of animals farmed. But the sustainability gains do not yet match expectations.
- INSECTS AS FOOD: SNACKING ON SILKWORMS, LUNCHING ON LOCUSTS
Adding insects to our menus could help overcome the world’s food supply problems. But the industrial production of insects is controversial: would it be useful or dangerous?
- MEAT SUBSTITUTES: A NEW SECTOR EMERGES
Vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat are gaining popularity fast – making them tastier for big firms, too. Competition is likely to flare up around in-vitro meat: start-ups developing lab-grown products are sprouting everywhere.
- ACTIVISM: PRESSURE FROM BELOW
Civil society is a sometimes underestimated stakeholder in the food system. Supporting sustainable production and criticizing industrialized agriculture, it influences public opinion and habits and demands better policies and international solidarity. And it can hold governments and companies accountable for their actions, while offering solutions.
- SURVEY ON YOUTH: CHANGING HABITS
Young people in Germany – the “Fridays for Future generation” – eat less meat than their elders. Their attitudes and habits are likely to steer food consumption and policy in the coming decades. Results of a representative survey.
AUTHORS AND SOURCES FOR DATA AND GRAPHICS