Meat consumption sparks heated debates. On the one hand, the meat production sector can promote sustainable development in developing countries: globally, over one billion people work in the industry.
From a nutrition perspective, meat it is an undeniable source of proteins, vitamins and minerals, and in low-income regions can help reduce nutritional deficiencies.
On the other hand, the environmental impact of meat production is frequently highlighted. In some regions, livestock production is a significant contributor to biodiversity loss, and overall the sector is responsible for a large share of agriculture’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In terms of sustainability, in all its forms, does the good outweigh the bad? It depends on both the region and practice, suggest researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany, who have investigated how meat consumption must change to achieve the climate targets.
In new research published in the Annual Review of Resource Economics, the authors conclude that meat consumption must fall by at least 75% in rich countries.
They do not, however, suggest that meat consumption should drop significantly the world over, stressing that mass vegetarianism is not the best solution.
High meat consumption is off the table
In Europe, consumers eat around 80kg of meat per year. This, according to study author Prof Dr Matin Qaim of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) and the University of Bonn, is not sustainable.
“If all humans consumed as much meat as Europeans or North Americans, we would certainly miss the international climate targets and many ecosystems would collapse.
“We therefore need to significantly reduce our meat consumption, ideally to 20 kilograms or less annually.”
The researcher is not taking this position with focus on the food industry alone. He is also conscious of the environmental and food security impacts of feed, particularly given current geopolitical events.
At present, around half of all grains produced worldwide are used as animal feed.
“The war in Ukraine and the resulting shortages in international markets for cereal grains also underline that less grain should be fed to animals in order to support food security.”
High meat consumption levels for all are not compatible with sustainable development, noted the study authors, with ‘significant’ reductions in meat consumption required in some regions.
Low to medium meat consumption can have benefits
Not in all, however. Low to moderation meat consumption levels are compatible with sustainable development, even for a world population of 10bn people.
This means that increases in meat consumption in some areas could be useful. The reason for this is at least two-fold. On the one hand, there are many regions where plant-based foods cannot be grown.
“We can’t live on grass, but ruminants can,” noted study co-author Dr Martin Parlasca from the University of Bonn. “Therefore, if grassland cannot be used in any other way, it makes perfect sense to keep livestock on it.”
The authors are also against the entire planet following a vegetarian diet from a nutritional perspective. In poorer regions, where plant-based sources of high-quality proteins and micronutrients are scarce, meat consumption can help reduce deficiencies.
“In such cases, animals are often a key element of a healthy diet,” said Parlasca. “For many people, they are also an important source of income. If the revenue from milk, eggs and meat is lost, this can threaten their livelihoods.”
In any case, it is not the poorer countries consumption high levels of meat. It is the wealthier ones, and it is those that must reduce consumption, argue the researchers.
And what about tax?
So how can reduced meat consumption be achieved? One potentially impactful tool lies in fiscal mechanisms, such as higher taxes on animal-based foods.
According to the researchers, while consumption taxes are a relatively ‘blunt’ instrument, it could be used effectively without jeopardizing the competitiveness of domestic producers – as a consumption tax would not differentiate between domestically produced and imported meat.
The concept is ‘certainly unpopular’, explained Prof Qaim, “especially since a 10% or 20% surcharge probably wouldn’t be enough if it’s supposed to have a steering effect”.
The study author continued: “Meat, however, has a high environmental cost that is not reflected in current prices. It would be entirely reasonable and fair to have consumers share more of these costs.”
Source: Annual Review of Resource Economics
‘Meat consumption and sustainability’
Review in Advance posted online 25 April 2022, publication expected October 2022
Authors: Martin C Parlasca and Matin Qaim