Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources

Posted: Wednesday 17th September 2014

New Worldwatch Institute analysis examines global trends in meat production, prices, and practices.

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.

Global meat production rose to a new peak of 308.5 million tons in 2013, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In response to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, meat production has expanded more than fourfold over just the last five decades. Even more startlingly, meat production has grown 25-fold since 1800.

The growth in meat consumption has not been constrained by rising prices in the last decade. Worldwide, meat consumption stood at 42.9 kilograms (kg) per capita in 2013. Even though the gap is beginning to close, people in industrial countries continue to eat much larger quantities of meat (75.9 kg) than those in developing nations (33.7 kg).

Close to 70 percent of the planet's agricultural land is used for animal pasture. Another 10 percent is used to grow grains to feed livestock (for meat and dairy). 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 percent of the world's protein.

Meat production also consumes a lot of water. Agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world's available freshwater, and one third of that is used to grow the grain fed to livestock. Beef is by far the most water-intensive of all meats. The more than 15,000 liters of water used per kilogram is far more than is required by a number of staple foods, such as rice (3,400 liters per kg), eggs (3,300 liters), milk (1,000 liters), or potatoes (255 liters).

Worldwide, more than 40 percent of wheat, rye, oats, and corn production is fed to animals, along with 250 million tons of soybeans and other oilseeds. Feeding grain to livestock improves their fertility and growth, but it sets up a de facto competition for food between cattle and people.

Heavy doses of antibiotics are used to speed animal growth and reduce the likelihood of disease outbreak in cramped conditions. In the United States, 13,600 tons of antibiotics were sold for use in livestock operations in 2011-almost four times the 3,500 tons used to treat ill people. Even this number, however, pales in comparison with the possibly more than 100,000 tons used in China's meat production.

Alternative practices could reduce these environmental and health impacts. Solutions like switching feed from grains to grass and other plants, using natural instead of synthetic fertilizers, and ending factory-style livestock operations are a start. But dietary choices also make a big difference. Until broader changes sweep through the meat-production system, eating less meat, or choosing lower-impact meats, typically means leading a less resource-intensive life.

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