The FAO’s figures for the year 2021 indicate that animal husbandry is responsible for 50% of the world’s methane emissions, 24% of nitrous oxide emissions and 26% of carbon dioxide emissions (all three greenhouse gases). These figures raise a few questions – do we need to stop eating meat to save the planet?
These figures are clear-cut. Animal husbandry is responsible for 18% of the world’’s greenhouse gas emissions, or more than all forms of transportation combined, and for 91% of the destruction of the Amazon, notably for the production of the soy beans used to feed cattle, pigs and fowl. Methane, emitted by cows when they ruminate, is a gas that has 86 times more “global warming potential” than CO2. Furthermore, thousands of metric tons of livestock excrement, loaded with nitrates and phosphates, lastingly pollute not just the soil, but also groundwater. On average, it takes 7,900 liters of water to obtain one kilogram of meat proteins vs 4,650 liters for one kilogram of plant proteins. A devastating toll on the planet.
The fishing industry is no better. Intensive fishing practices are responsible for approximately 38.5 million metric tons of “by-catch” annually, in other words non-targeted species such as turtles, sharks or dolphins. In the oceans, 33% of marine fish stocks are exploited without enough time to regenerate, and over the last 40 years alone, populations of marine species have declined by 39%.
Supply to meet the exploding demand for meat and fish
Intensive livestock operations and overfishing are production methods that only seek to meet consumer demand – which continues to grow. It is estimated that in the world today, each person eats an average of 19.2 kg of fish a year, approximately twice as much as 50 years ago. Consumption of meat products (fresh meat, charcuterie, frozen foods and preserves) has gone in the same direction, increasing from 23.1 kilos per person per year in 1961 to 42.2 kilos in 2011. More than the average, it is the total consumer volume that has skyrocketed. Humanity accounted for a little less than 3 billion people in 1950; there are 7.7 billion today and there will be 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100, according to the latest report from the United Nations.
At the same time, there has been significant growth of the middle classes in developing countries. It is estimated that, by the year 2030, they should account for 4.9 billion people in the world, nearly three times their current numbers. With the increase in their purchasing power, these middle-class consumers can and will be able to eat meat and fish (traditionally more expensive products) as part of their daily diet. According to the UN’s figures, the trend foreseen for worldwide meat consumption will increase by 1.6% a year over the next ten years. This increase fits in with a situation that will bring a 70% total increase in demand for meat by the year 2050, according to the FAO. According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), fish consumption should increase by 32% by the year 2030.
Bucking the trend: the rise of vegetarianism in developed countries
In a reversal of this worrisome outlook for the planet’s health, the evolution of mentalities and consumer habits in most developed countries suggests a possible change of direction. Increasingly, people around the world are moving away from meat and fish for ethical and health reasons. Scientific studies on the subject are uncontestable and the general public is increasingly aware of them: red meat, when consumed in excess, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and intestinal inflammation. A meatless diet should be monitored, however, to avoid vitamin B12 deficiencies, essential for the brain and the central nervous system to function properly.
Beyond the health issue, this change in the modes of consumption in developed countries is based on an increased ethical awareness of animal suffering and the impact of animal husbandry and fishing on the environment. The number of vegetarians and vegans is consistently on the rise in most developed countries. In Italy, for example, the number of vegans tripled in one year, from 1% to 3% of the population, or nearly 2 million Italians. If we include vegetarians, 8% of the Italian population is concerned.
But people in developed countries have a long way to go, given how engrained their habits and representations are and how firmly rooted they are in centuries of meat consumption. Another major obstacle to vegetarianism lies in that it appears to infringe on one of our fundamental freedoms and one of the main components of our everyday pleasures – our food.
For consumers and producers, solutions still need to be found
Is this evolution in mentalities and consumer habits in developed countries enough to make up for the demographic growth and the explosion of demand for meat and fish in developing countries? No, and time will tell if it continues to gain more ground until it becomes the norm in developed countries and, tomorrow, in developing countries.
If the problem of demand is settled, there will still be the question of supply. Animal husbandry and fishing are essential sources of income for many people on the planet. In developing and emerging countries, livestock provides a living for some 800 million poor people.
Alternative food products that are currently being tested or being developed appear more as solutions for consumers than for producers. The use of insects as substitutes in our food supply, the solution of using vegetable proteins, increasingly popular in Asia for example, or in vitro meat production in laboratories, do not make use of the same knowledge and do not require the same level of investment. A small poultry farmer cannot start producing meat in a laboratory overnight.
Alternatives or different production methods for livestock breeders and fishermen still need to be invented or introduced. Should we simply go back to the practices used two or three generations ago, that of “true animal husbandry” aimed at creating a real relationship between humans and animals, rather than the current logic of “livestock production”, considering animals to be just another resource? In the meantime, for many people in developed countries, vegetarianism, or at least a reduction in our meat and fish consumption, appears to be one of the solutions that everyone can adopt to take effective, everyday action against global warming and the collapse of biodiversity.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.