The Meat of the Issue

Large-scale meat production and consumption are harming human health and the environment in wealthy countries. But in poor countries, raising livestock boosts wealth and nutrition. How much meat is enough?

Photo of young pig.

Young pig in a pen at the Grand Canal Pig Farm in Jiaxing, China. Source: © 2011 Q. Shen/Panos

Late last April the US Department of Agriculture made a surprising prediction. India—where cows are venerated and legally protected from slaughter, and vegetarianism dates back thousands of years—was about to become the world’s leading beef exporter. (Actually, India exports water buffalo, which is leaner than conventional beef and sells at a lower price.) The USDA projected that in 2012 India would ship 1.5 million tons of water buffalo meat, prepared following halal guidelines, to price-conscious consumers in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

India’s new prominence as a beef exporter demonstrates the popularity of meat and the globalization of the meat industry. Worldwide meat production has tripled over the past 50 years. Demand is growing sharply today, driven by income growth and urbanization in developing countries. In 2010 the world supported more than 26 billion farm animals, up from 9 billion in 1970.

Circular graphic indicating increase in population in various type sof animals

Global % Increase in Animal Population 1970-2010 (click to enlarge)

Meat production and consumption raise complex questions about health, wealth, and sustainability. Moderate amounts of meat, eggs, and milk can be valuable elements of a healthy diet, but today consumers in wealthy countries are compromising their health by eating too many animal products, while many people in poor countries are undersupplied. Raising livestock is an essential income strategy in many developing regions, but small-scale livestock operations are inefficient and provide low yields for their owners. Concentrated production methods increase yields per animal but also magnify harmful impacts, including transmission of zoonotic diseases. And moving animals off pastureland to raise them on grain intensifies food–feed trade-offs.

The impacts of raising and eating meat cut across multiple fields, including nutrition, public health, agriculture, and environmental regulation, and no single strategy is universally relevant. “It’s important to differentiate between types of livestock, production methods, and people’s needs depending on their positions,” says IFPRI’s John McDermott, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

Too Much or Too Little?

“Meat is especially important for young children, who go through a critical phase of accelerated physical growth and brain development in the first two years of life.”
– Marie Ruel, IFPRI

Food choices vary from country to country, but as incomes rise, people almost invariably eat more meat, along with milk and eggs. North Americans and Europeans consume more than 83 kilograms of meat per person yearly, compared with 58 kilograms in Latin America, 28 kilograms in East Asia and the Pacific, and 11 kilograms in Africa south of the Sahara. Initially, eating more meat may improve the quality of poor people’s diets and their nutritional status. But humans don’t seem to have a good sense of how much is enough. “When people can afford more access to meat, they often start consuming amounts that exceed their needs,” says Marie Ruel, director of IFPRI’s Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division.

Demand growth for animal products is gradually flattening in wealthy countries because of factors including market saturation, slowing income growth, and health concerns. Diets heavy in meat and dairy products have been linked to excess intake of calories and saturated fats and to increased risk of a variety of cancers, heart diseases, and stroke. Organizations like the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Heart Association routinely encourage people to reduce consumption of red meat and high-fat dairy products, but change has been slow. In the United States, after several decades of health warnings, red meat still represents the largest share of meat consumed.

Photo of two boys standing in front of cattle.

Gabtoli, the biggest cattle market in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: 2010 G. M. B. Akash /Panos

Over the next several decades, virtually all growth in demand for meat will come from the developing world. According to IFPRI modeling, annual per capita meat consumption will jump to 77 kilograms in Latin America, 52 kilograms in Asia and the Pacific, and 24 kilograms in Africa south of the Sahara by 2050. That shift could improve nutrition in developing countries, where for most consumers the problem is a shortage of meat, not a surplus.

“Meat is especially important for young children, who go through a critical phase of accelerated physical growth and brain development in the first two years of life, and for women, who have high iron requirements during their reproductive years” says Ruel. “Meat and dairy products contain micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins A and B12, in forms that are readily available and taken up by the body more easily than when they are obtained from plant sources.”

Even when animal products are available, it can be difficult to get them into poor people’s diets. Milk and eggs are steady income sources for farmers, so they may sell these products instead of consuming them. For nonproducers, their high cost limits access. And cultural beliefs may intervene: in Ghana, for example, a longstanding belief holds that children who are fed eggs will become thieves.

Infrastructure can also pose challenges. Recent work by IFPRI’s Ethiopia Strategy Support Program shows that consumption of meat and dairy products is extremely low in Ethiopia, even by African standards, although the country has one of the largest livestock populations in the world. Options for boosting meat consumption in rural areas (which currently averages 4 kilograms per person annually) include creating more markets and storage systems for meat in rural areas.

Changing the Menu

“...people may not see smoking and eating meat as equivalent in terms of health risk.”

– Mark Rosegrant, IFPRI

Reallocating global meat supply and consumption on a large scale would improve nutrition in poor countries, but not as much as proponents of low meat consumption might expect, according to Mark Rosegrant, director of IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division. Using IFPRI’s IMPACT model, Rosegrant and IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Siwa Msangi have calculated that cutting per capita meat consumption in high-income countries to 50 percent below baseline levels by 2030 would reduce world meat prices by 12–22 percent and boost meat consumption in developing countries by more than 7 percent. Malnutrition among children under age five across the developing world would be reduced by about 700,000 cases.

If meat consumption were also cut in half in China and Brazil, where demand is rising sharply, the effect would more than double. Meat prices would be reduced from 33 to 59 percent, and meat consumption would increase in Africa and India by nearly 50 percent. More than 2 million cases of child malnutrition would be avoided—an encouraging number, but only a dent in the more than 130 million cases of child malnutrition that are projected. Rosegrant points out that livestock products and maize would become more affordable in the global market, but consumers in developing countries would still rely mainly on rice and wheat, whose prices would be little changed. “People sometimes assume that every grain not fed to animals goes to humans,” says Rosegrant. “It doesn’t work that way.” So the biggest beneficiaries of a cut in meat consumption in rich countries may be the people who live in those countries, who could see health and environmental benefits.

A serious decline in consumption will not happen without vigorous intervention, given the strong preference people show for eating more meat as incomes rise. “The slowdown in demand in the developed world is very gradual, and it takes a large reduction to make a real difference,” Rosegrant says. “You could start taxing meat, but that would be difficult politically. Stronger moral suasion in schools and social settings might work, as it has on tobacco use. But people may not see smoking and eating meat as equivalent in terms of health risk.”

Ruel agrees that education is the main strategy, but says governments should act sooner. “Ideally we would prevent people from falling into the trap [of overconsuming meat] in the first place, but countries have typically waited until disaster arrives,” she says. That can happen quickly. In China’s cities, meat and dairy products jumped from 11 percent of the average daily diet by weight in 1982 to 25 percent in 2002, and edible oil consumption nearly doubled. Prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke all jumped sharply in the same period.

What about Going Meat-Free?

Drawing of carrotsMany people around the world choose to eat little or no meat for ethical, religious, or other reasons. In India, for example, 31 percent of the country’s more than 1 billion people eat no meat. Will natural resource constraints force more people to go nearly or entirely meat-free? A recent analysis from the Stockholm International Water Institute projects that by 2050, reduced world water supplies will only be able to support a global diet in which just 5 percent of calories come from animal-based foods.

Limited access to animal-based food, however, is not always ideal for human health. IFPRI’s Marie Ruel points out that many vegetarians are unable to meet their nutritional needs without taking vitamin and mineral supplements or consuming fortified foods. According to Ruel, “In populations that don’t have access to specially formulated fortified foods or products, infants and young children should be consuming animal source foods daily.”

Raising Livestock Sustainably

Increasing access to meat for the world’s poor is part of a larger development challenge: making livestock production in developing countries more efficient (to increase yields per animal), while mitigating negative impacts on human health and the environment.

Hundreds of millions of farmers in low- and middle-income countries own livestock. In areas with favorable rainfall, smallholders may survive on farms as small as a few hectares, raising animals and crops together. According to the International Livestock Research Institute, most of the staple foods consumed in developing countries come from these small mixed farms. Animal manure is a significant source of nutrients for crops, and large animals such as oxen can be used for transportation and plowing.

Farmers in semi-arid zones of Africa and Asia raise animals and drought-tolerant crops on tracts of 4 to 8 hectares. As droughts become more severe in these regions, livestock will become increasingly important to farmers’ survival, since animals can eat failed crop residues and generate income in years that are too dry to raise crops. Pastoral livestock producers in the Horn of Africa earn an estimated US$1 billion yearly exporting cattle, sheep, goats, and camels to African and Gulf State markets.

Responding to rising global demand for meat, some developing countries have adopted Western-style intensive livestock production systems. This approach is epitomized by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in which hundreds or thousands of animals are reared in small spaces, fed on grain instead of being allowed to forage. Hog and poultry CAFOs are especially prevalent in China, Thailand, and Vietnam, where they have been built to meet booming Asian demand for meat, poultry, and eggs. Worldwide, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in 2006 that 80 percent of growth in the livestock industry came from industrial production systems.

CAFOs are widely recognized as air and water pollution sources because they concentrate animal waste and emissions. McDermott points out another impact: disease transmission. “As you put more animals in contact with each other, you increase the risk of transmitting infectious diseases that can move from animals to humans,” he says. Historically, influenza viruses have arisen from parts of Asia where poultry, pigs, and people live together in densely packed communities. In recent years, diseases such as Nipah virus infections in pigs and people have emerged  with livestock intensification in Southeast Asia.

“Managing the intensification of livestock farming so we don’t get outbreaks of known or emerging diseases is a big concern,” McDermott observes. In his view the greatest risk is posed by small- to medium-sized farms where workers have less experience than at large operations in isolating and quarantining sick animals.

“We need to create incentives for people to get trained and certified in procedures that address big risks,” he says. “That’s a much more positive outcome than regulating from the top down.”

Graphic indicating meat consumption per capita by region

How many kilograms per person - 2050 and 2000 (click to enlarge)

Expanding livestock production in developing countries is an important way to help poor people increase their incomes and improve their food security and nutrition. “There are a lot of things we can do that will make operations more sustainable,” says Rosegrant. Priorities include developing higher-quality and more digestible animal feeds; improving waste-management techniques; and breeding animals that can tolerate heat and drought, so they can be raised in marginal areas. Building more roads and processing systems in rural areas will connect farmers to markets. And since livestock production is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon credits or similar measures will be required at some point to give producers incentive to reduce those impacts.

“All of the demand growth for meat today is in low- and middle-income countries, so we need to keep their perspectives in mind as we work to modernize the livestock sector,” says McDermott. “Smallholder systems in Asia and Africa will be with us for at least several more generations. We can’t expect poor countries not to have livestock, so we need pro-poor solutions to these challenges.”

For more information on this topic:

IFPRI projections of future consumption of key commodities, including meat

Two FAO reports on livestock

A study of whether getting people to produce more animal products leads to better nutrition

An examination of factory farming in developed and developing countries, from the Worldwatch Institute

In This Issue

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The grain teff has been consumed as a staple in Ethiopia for centuries but is little known outside the country. Now, researchers are training their attention on this understudied crop.

Untangling the Asian Enigma

Although South Asia has the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world, in the past two decades Bangladesh and Nepal have both achieved striking improvements in the nutrition of their citizens. How did they do it?

Does Money Talk?

FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?


  1. Adam Soliman says:

    Thank you Jennifer! Excellent piece. Your article does a very good job in describing the challenges and highlights the need for change. There seems to be room for cooperation between NGOs and the private sector especially the small & medium livestock producers in developed nations (whom are themselves looking for new opportunities to overcome the challenges their businesses are now facing). Aquaculture can also have a meaningful impact in meeting some of the challenges you describe.

  2. yes its true with so far data collected here in uganda in research of smallholder pig value chain development under safe food and fair will find all families they eat pork and its asset and as well capital in livestock farming.