Peak meat production strains land and water resources

ACCORDING TO the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), global meat production rose to a new peak of 308.5 million tons in 2013 and, due to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, meat production has expanded more than fourfold in the last five decades.

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The Worldwatch Institute of research has further analysed the current trends in meat production and found that growth in meat consumption has not been constrained by rising prices – in 2013 worldwide meat consumption stood at 42.9 kilograms per capita.


The Institute has also reported that close to 70% of the planet’s agricultural land is currently used for animal pasture with an additional 10% used to grow grains to feed livestock for meat and dairy. Additionally, producing beef is much more resource-intensive than producing pork or chicken, requiring roughly three to five times as much land to generate the same amount of protein; beef production alone uses about three fifths of global farmland but yields less than 5% of the world’s protein.


“The steady growth of global meat production comes at considerable cost. 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. Beef is particularly resource-intensive. 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” writes Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner.


The large quantities of the world’s fresh water that agriculture uses (an estimated 70%) was also highlighted by Worldwatch as one of the key strains on the environment with beef being noted as the most water-intensive of all meats. An estimated 15,000 litres of water is used per kilogram of beef which is far more than is required by a number of staple foods, such as rice (3,400 litres per kg), eggs (3,300 litres), milk (1,000 litres), or potatoes (255 litres).


Worldwatch has suggested that alternative practices, such as switching feed from grains to grass and other plants, using natural instead of synthetic fertilizers, and ending factory-style livestock operations could reduce these environmental and health impacts. However, dietary choices can make a big difference too.


Country and Regional Highlights from the Report:


  • Asia’s 131.5 million tons of meat accounted for close to 43% of world output in 2013. Europe was second (58.5 million tons), followed by North America (47.2 million tons) and South America (39.9 million tons).
  • China single-handedly accounted for nearly half of global pig meat production in 2013.
  • The two most important exporters of meat in 2013 were the United States (7.6 million tons) and Brazil (6.4 million tons), together representing 45 percent of global trade.
  • Just two countries – Australia and New Zealand – were responsible for 84% of the world’s lamb and mutton exports.
  • The 10 largest meat companies, measured by their 2011-13 sales, are headquartered in just six countries: Brazil (JBS, BRF, Marfrig), United States (Tyson Food, Cargill, Hormel Foods), Netherlands (Vion), Japan (Nippon Meat Packers), Denmark (Danish Crown AmbA), China (Smithfield Foods- acquired by Shuanghui International Holdings in 2013).