The provision of safe and affordable protein is critical to human nutrition.
Protein, including sources from meat, provides essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc. International nutritional guidelines suggest a goal of 80g-90g of protein per person per day, with perhaps 50g per day coming from red meat. The growth of protein and red meat in the human diet over the last generation has delivered innumerable health and life benefits.
In 1960, about 45 million tonnes of meat (beef, pork and chicken) was produced globally1 . Within a generation,
human economic activity has urbanized, the journey out of poverty has materialized for many and the middle classes
have mushroomed at an unprecedented rate. In the process, and in line with rising affluence, the demand for
meat has exploded.
Global meat production today stands at 263 million tonnes and is expected to nearly double again to 445 million tonnes by 20502 . This represents about a factor-of-ten rise from 1960 to 2050. Over the same period, the global population is expected to triple – from roughly 3 to 9 billion people.
Despite such growth, the benefits of this expansion in meat production have not been universally distributed or
realized. Today, many people still suffer from not having enough meat; at the same time, other parts of the global
population are over-consuming. This dichotomy is illustrated by a tenfold difference in meat consumption around the world between those who eat too little and those who eat too much, extremes that significantly increase the risk factorfor debilitating and economically costly non-communicable diseases among both groups.
In addition, the way we currently deliver protein – with a strong partiality towards red meat – is creating significant
unintended consequences on our wider public health, agriculture and food systems, as well as on the environment.
In the public health arena, the World Health Organization is concerned that the spread of microbial resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics is reaching “dangerously high levels … with a growing list of infections … becoming harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat as antibiotics become less effective.”3
The livestock industry is a significant contributor to this concern, as about half of all antibiotics use currently
occurs, not to tackle human or animal disease, but in the livestock industry for growth promotion and disease
prevention in healthy animals.
Turning to agriculture, in 2016, for the first time ever about a third of all the grain produced in the global food system was fed to livestock – enough grain to feed about 4 billion people for a year. While inequivalent in terms of nutrients (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, has determined that 86% of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption4), the feed-to-food conversion of grains to meat raises key questions on the efficacy of a protein delivery system geared predominantly towards meat from livestock. Additionally – with the FAO Statistical Database reporting that cereals such as maize and wheat account for about half of all feed ingredients5
– the consolidated natureof today’s feedstock practices place increased risk on the resilience of the food system, as well as greatly contributes to reduced biodiversity.
Finally, there are also significant environmental consequences from today’s global meat production, as
recent research sponsored by the Climate and Land Use Alliance shows6 . According to the FAO, livestock generates
just under 15% of the total CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions a year, with beef cattle alone contributing about
6% of the global total7 – an equivalent of about three times that of the aviation sector8. Researchers also calculate
that it can take about 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef9 – a challenge exacerbated when key livestock
production regions such as the south-west United States and south-west Brazil are facing increasing frequencies of
drought and subsequent water stress. Additionally, meat production is a major driver of deforestation, habitat and
biodiversity loss, through conversion of natural landscapes to pasture lands and to agriculture for feed production.
Beyond production issues, there is also a demand-side challenge facing the future of meat. Looking forward to
2050, projected demand for meat and protein is set to double from today’s numbers, reflecting both a growing
population and, more importantly, an increase in middle class aspiration for protein – by 2050, 66 % of the world’s
population is expected to be urban. What will the future generations demand from their meat and protein products?
These preferences are likely to be shaped in line with current millennial trends for better health and provenance
dimensions related to food.
On examining both the impact of expanding supply and the nature of changing demand in the current “future of meat” equation, therefore, is taking a business-as-usual approach for delivering tomorrow’s growing desire for protein, largely focused on producing more red meat in the manner in which we do so today, really a credible strategy? Is it even possible?