Meat for all?

Meat demand is rising, given a growing world population and larger middle-income subpopulations. However, meat production faces challenges such as expensive inputs and animal and human health issues.

This article discusses the importance of minimising hazards and threats, and argues for sustainable production systems based on aspects such as smarter food marketing and improved disease intelligence.

As the world population reaches the seven billion mark and subpopulations in emerging market economies start to join the ranks of middle-income households, livestock production systems will be pressed to supply the demand for meat that arises from the adoption of the diverse and rich nutritional diets enjoyed in developed countries.

The challenges of this increased demand for animal protein are increasingly felt, and the situation is likely to become more difficult given that inputs for livestock production such as energy, grains, and roughages at inexpensive prices are no longer available, and also because adjustments to meat production lie in the horizon in relation to greenhouse gases emissions and associated climatic change.

Further challenges relate to concerns with animal and human health, as the numbers and concentration of animals increase. It is often suggested that modern industrial livestock production systems that prop up in response to market incentives potentially allow for the rapid selection and amplification of pathogens, some of which have threatened global public health and proved costly to regional trade-based economic growth and livestock-dependent livelihoods (e.g. highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 and pandemic H1N1 influenza). This is followed by increasing reservations expressed by environmental and civic action groups about the decoupling of production from the natural resource base which may give rise to substantial externalities. Finally, given that most of the growth in meat demand will occur in nations experiencing a rapid transition from poverty to prosperity, and given that the supply response is expected to occur predominantly in those regions, there is likelihood of ensuing social inequities due to the marginalisation of smallholder livestock farmers by the new sophisticated urban markets.

Rethinking has started
In view of the multidimensionality of the challenges faced, the world livestock sector is adapting to changing contexts by addressing some of the core limitations that are withholding its efficacious participation in global markets. In doing so, it has started to improve its environmental performance by recognising the importance of adopting more ecologically-friendly waste management practices and dietary manipulations that reduce the amounts of nutrients needed for higher resource use efficiency. These improvements are important since the entire livestock commodity chain is said to contribute 18 percent to total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. While emission mitigation policies play a vital role in preventing climate change, the widespread economic impacts of these policies will strongly influence the viability and opportunities of the livestock sector in global food supply.

With regard to disease risk, two approaches could be followed. First, recognition that food safety ranks high in the perception of consumers and their involvement in the food chain oversight is to be sought. Recurrent cases of E. coli and salmonella reported in popular media add weight to such trends. Traceability of food items from farm to fork has advanced a feasible model to deal with food safety issues, so that failures and risks can be identified and disciplined. Second, emerging infectious pathogens that can also infect humans (in veterinary parlance, these are known as zoonotic pathogens) must be addressed reliably through effective disease surveillance and through the early identification of the drivers of disease emergence and spread. These two approaches require appropriate institutions, research and development, interventions and governance that reflect the heightened importance placed on hazard and threat minimisation.

Sceptics have expressed misgivings about wealth-fuelled meat demand; but the studies conducted so far provide little room for ambiguity. In short, there is a linear positive relationship between per capita income and meat consumption almost regardless of geographical location. There is uncertainty about the increases in demand expected, especially after the 2008–2009 financial meltdown and economic slowdown.

The world’s total meat supply was 284 million tons in 2007 and 290 million tons in 2009. The best estimates available indicate that demand for meat is expected to grow at about five million tons annually. The demands for grains to manufacture feedstuffs for animals in confinement will rise, and with it, the need for land and energy inputs (i.e. fuels, fertilisers). As a consequence of increased cropland requirements, encroachment into forests may continue eroding forestry resources, but some African countries stand to benefit from rising grain demand.

Does this mean that the world needs to change the way food is produced? It probably does, but these changes will be gradual, given that culturally-determined consumption behaviours and food handling habits are highly diverse. The rapid spread of mass communication technologies is creating informed, discerning and compunctious audiences that are shaping the ways in which local and international food corporations and their suppliers produce and handle foods: pesticide usage is declining, organic farming is rising, fair trade of sustainable commodities is expanding, animal welfare guidelines are being adopted, and food chain traceability is increasingly demanded.

Complicated contexts
The international technical agencies tasked with food safety, animal health and human health are faced with important unknowns. Higher meat intake, for instance, has been linked to an increased risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases, but no definitive conclusions can be drawn from different diet compositions or variable rates of physical activities. Also, consumption of meat from animals raised in intensive systems with growth promoters or antimicrobial drug use have been associated with increased antimicrobial resistance. Serious consequences may ensue in humans affected by drug-resistance. 

Climatic changes in the form of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are expected to have a substantial effect on the burden of diseases that are transmitted by insect vectors and contaminated waters, and through humid-environment macroparasites and other pathogens, yet the depth and breadth of these burdens will only be known after subsequent changes in agro-ecological landscapes take full force. Furthermore, the higher incidences of natural disasters associated with climate change are also expected to increase the emergence and transmission of communicable diseases (e.g. common cold, dengue, diarrhoea). 

In the end, it appears that smarter food market systems, improved disease intelligence and pathogen detection, comprehensive food policies, and creative policymaking that adapts to shifting contexts are among the options to promote sustainable animal food production systems that can provide the desired quantity and quality of livestock products for a growing world. 

Sigfrido Burgos
Animal Production and Health Division
UN Food and Agriculture 
Organization (FAO)
Rome, Italy