With per capita meat consumption soaring, the meat industry has become one of the main factors in climate change.
Rising grain prices that have triggered riots and protests around the world this year have been blamed on a host of evils: the demand for corn as a source for biofuels, the hike in the cost of oil used to grow and process food, drought in Australia, trade policies. But there is another major cause less spoken of but just as important: our growing appetite for meat.
The link between grain and meat boils down to the following equation: it takes up to 8kg of animal feed to produce 1kg of beef. It takes less for pork, chicken, milk or eggs - between 2kg and 6kg - but that is still not a lot of bang for your bushel. The concern is that while demand for meat has remained steady in the UK and the US for several decades - though it is still around 40 per cent above the global average in the UK and twice the global average in the US - in other parts of the world it is increasing rapidly, in particular in developing countries.
The reason for this is that countries tend to consume more meat and dairy products as their average incomes rise: animal products are among the first things people spend money on once their basic needs are met. The knock-on effect of this 'nutrition transition' on global grain supplies in developing countries is becoming highly significant.
As Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC, puts it: "Enlarging their meat supply is the first step for all developing countries. They start with chicken and egg production and, as their economies grow, climb the protein ladder to pork, milk, and dairy products, then to grass-fed beef and finally to grain-fed beef."
The rise of the global meat culture has been dramatic, with per capita consumption more than doubling since the early 1960s. It is expected to double again by 2050, by which time the world's population will have increased from 6.8 billion to around nine billion, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In 1980, the world ate 133 million tonnes of meat and drank 342 million tonnes of milk; in 2002, that had increased to 239 million tonnes of meat and 487 million tonnes of milk. The FAO estimates that by 2030, global annual consumption of meat will stand at 373 million tonnes, and of milk at 736 million tonnes. The vast majority of this growth will be in developing countries, where annual consumption has doubled in the past 20 years alone.
Not a luxury
The FAO's substantial 2006 report on the global livestock sector, 'Livestock's Long Shadow', notes that before the early 1980s meat, milk and eggs were an unaffordable luxury for most people in Africa and Asia consumed only on rare occasions. "A high proportion of the larger livestock in developing countries was not primarily kept for food, but for other important functions, such as providing draught power and manure and serving as an insurance policy and a capital asset, usually disposed of only in times of communal feasting or emergency. This is changing rapidly. The livestock sector is currently growing faster than the rest of agriculture in almost all countries."
Nowhere is this more relevant than in China. In 1995, the Chinese ate an average of 25kg of meat per person, which required it to grow 150.4 million tonnes of grain for animal feed. By last year, the Chinese were consuming 53kg of meat per person, requiring 350.1 million tonnes of animal feed, an increase of 133 per cent. To get an idea of the effect of this shift on food stocks, consider the following illustration from Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest and author of a report on grain use in the US and China published in April. "If the Chinese people had consumed the same amount of meat, per person, in 2007 as in 1995, there would have been enough grain left over to support 927 million hungry people for an entire year."
Lane says China has recently cancelled all its corn-fed ethanol production projects, is likely to have exhausted its reserves of corn and must now import to meet its future needs for animal feed. This could have a major impact on global grain supplies. He estimates that the Chinese demand for grain could deplete US reserves by as early as September next year. "Even if the entire US corn ethanol industry were eliminated overnight and all corn was made available for export to China to meet rising demand for livestock feed," US reserves would last only until 2013, he says. Furthermore, the average Chinese person still eats 45 per cent less meat than the average American. If Chinese meat consumption rose to American levels, China would have to find an additional 277 million tonnes of grain to feed the extra animals - and 68 million acres of farmland on which to grow it. Arable land on that scale is not available anywhere in the world.
How, then, can the world hope to meet the burgeoning demand for livestock products and prevent food prices inflating in the way they have over the past year - a crisis which World Bank president Robert Zoellick warns could push at least 100 million more people into poverty and wipe out all the economic gains made by the poorest billion over the past decade?
One way is to increase crop yields. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a network of international agricultural research institutes, warns that productivity is increasing at just 1-2 per cent per year, well short of the 3-5 per cent required to keep up with demand. It recommends that developing countries greatly increase their investment in agricultural research to improve crop yields.
This worked once before, when the so-called 'Green Revolution', spearheaded by CGIAR, ended the threat of famine in Asia and Latin America over the 1960s and 1970s through the use of pesticides and fertilisers and the introduction of high-yielding varieties of maize, wheat and rice. Could it work again?
Scientists are already attempting to genetically engineer crops that tolerate drought or salt, or that take up nitrogen from the soil more efficiently. Improved agro-chemicals, better irrigation and novel farming techniques, such as using minimum ploughing to maintain soil quality or combining several crops on the same patch of ground, could also help. There is scope too for increasing the area of land under crops. "I expect to see China attempting to plant more acres for livestock feed, both soybean and corn, but weather and agricultural practices will determine whether it can meet its needs," says Lane. Substantial efforts to increase productivity in its southwestern provinces are already underway. China is also seeking to acquire arable land abroad to help meet its need for grain.
Unquestionably, the world faces a huge challenge in meeting the shortfall in grain supply that is inevitable if the consumption of meat increases at the current rate. Many experts doubt that new technologies will get us anywhere close to satisfying demand.
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, believes farmers will find it increasingly difficult to meet the demand for grain. "During seven of the last eight years, grain consumption exceeded production," he says. "World grain carryover stocks have fallen to 55 days of world consumption, the lowest on record. The result is a new era of tightening food supplies, rising food prices, and political instability. The world is only one poor harvest away from total chaos in world grain markets."
Meat and heat
Meat-eating has consequences besides its impact on food reserves. Last year, a team at the National Instistute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan calculated that producing a kilogram of beef is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those emitted by an average European car driving for 250km, and uses energy equivalent to lighting a 100W bulb for 20 days. The greenhouse gas emissions mostly take the form of methane produced by the cows' digestive systems, and the energy largely goes into growing and transporting the grain used to feed them. Put another way, if all Americans reduced their intake of meat by 20 per cent, it would have an equivalent impact on levels of atmospheric pollution as all of them trading in a standard sedan car for a super-efficient Prius, according to a study from the University of Chicago.
Recent studies show that when you take into account deforestation caused by growing feed and pasture degradation from overgrazing, livestock farming is responsible for a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases, more than transportation. Intensive husbandry methods, which involve carrying concentrated feedstuffs over long distances, are the major culprit. Some 65 per cent of human-made global emissions of nitrous oxide, a more potent greenhouse gas than both carbon dioxide and methane, come from livestock farming, and a similar proportion of global ammonia emissions.
It also has a serious impact on water supplies, in both consumption - it accounts for more than 8 per cent of human water use worldwide - and pollution. In the US, the livestock industry causes approximately 55 per cent of the country's erosion and is responsible for 32 per cent of the nitrogen run-off that pollutes the country's freshwater and 33 per cent of the phosphorus.
Biodiversity is also suffering, through the millions of acres of rainforest being cut down to make way for soybean plantations, the conversion of natural lands to pasture, overgrazing and other pressures.
Ten per cent of the world's threatened species are suffering habitat loss because of livestock production, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The widespread use of antiobiotics to treat illnesses in intensively farmed animals is contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are rendering many human medicines ineffective.
A major stressor
In short, livestock farming is one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally costly activities on the planet, a situation which is bound to get worse as demand for meat increases in the coming decades. As the FAO says: "The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution." But it goes on to point out that it is also "a primary player in the agricultural economy, a major provider of livelihoods for the poor and a major determinant of human diet and health". How can farmers and producers balance those benefits - and the fact that people clearly like eating meat - against the costs, namely pollution and pressure on grain reserves?
One obvious need is tighter regulation of the industrial-scale production facilities that often hold several hundred thousand animals and are responsible for most of the environmental damage. Another approach is to feed cattle more efficiently, by paying more attention to the nutritional value of animal feed and emphasising quality and timing of feeding over quantity. Some experts claim this could significantly reduce grain consumption. Others recommend breeding or genetically engineering animals that convert grain to meat more efficiently.
A more radical solution is to introduce strong incentives to make farmers graze their livestock rather than intensively feed them grain, even banning industrial feedlots. This could make ecological and agricultural sense, as animals can make use of land unsuitable for growing crops, and can also graze arable land in between crop plantings. This would inevitably mean people eating less meat, but many experts think this could happen anyway if the high environmental, animal welfare and human health costs of meat consumption become more widely known. Then consumers themselves could trigger a change in eating habits.
Or consider the most radical proposal of all: move on from livestock farming and grow all our meat in a laboratory. Scientists have already gone some way towards making this possible, with one assessment claiming it could be cost-effective within ten years.
In-vitro muscle and chips, anyone?