The Pre-Summit of the United Nations Food Systems Summit recently concluded, ahead of the main summit in September in New York. It aims to progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the overarching targets that all UN countries have signed up to, including creating a “healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system” by 2030.
These lofty aspirations are immensely challenging in reality. Juggling the twin aims of having zero food poverty, made harder by the fact that the growing human population requires food production to be doubled by 2050, while also reducing carbon emissions and reversing biodiversity loss via sustainable land and water use seem on the face of it, near impossible. To achieve this, radical change is needed. There is one solution being mooted: reducing our reliance on conventional meat consumption.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that feeds scientific input into the UN has advocated for a shift to more plant-based food consumption to combat climate change.
The raising and eating of meat are, by their nature, energy inefficient compared with a vegetarian diet because it lengthens the food chain.
According to the UK-based animal charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), cows must consume 16 pounds (7.2kg) of vegetation in order to convert it into one pound (0.45kg) of flesh. And to produce a pound of meat, 2,500 gallons (9,463 litres) of water is needed compared with only 25 gallons (95 litres) to produce a pound of wheat. Making just one hamburger uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car for 32km (20 miles).
There is also an increasing concern about the ethics of the industrial slaughtering of animals, with 70 billion animals killed for food every year.
If reducing meat consumption is so important for sustainability and food production efficiency, why is it not the headline policy for the UN Food Systems Summit?
Because changing food habits could be hugely disruptive to existing economies. It would decimate jobs through the entire food chain that relies on meat as a core part of its products and its appeal, from farmers to manufactures and retail, with the analytics company Global Data predicting the value of the meat industry at $1.3 trillion globally in 2020.
People also love eating meat – 86 percent of the population surveyed in 39 countries confirmed that meat forms part of their regular diet. Meat consumption is a key ingredient of most national dishes, from bulgogi in South Korea to machboos in Qatar. For many, meat also remains the most accessible and delicious way to consume protein.
Price, the main driver
Meat consumption has also been on the rise in some parts of the world, especially in fast-developing nations, where eating it was previously seen as a luxury. For example, China, now an economic giant and the world’s biggest importer of pork in 2019, was forecast to increase its pork imports by 76 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, China’s annual beef consumption per person continues to be six times less than that of the US so there is still plenty of room to grow their domestic meat market. Similarly, numbers show that India has the lowest rate of meat consumption globally, driven by religious and cultural factors, but as its economy continues to prosper, its annual meat consumption has also been predicted to grow by 17 percent between 2005 and 2025.
This has led some animal rights, climate advocacy groups and even mainstream politicians to advocate for a meat tax, given that price is the main driver for most consumers. In Germany, Social Democratic Party (SDP) politicians, who are part of the federal coalition government, have been pushing to raise VAT for meat from 7 percent to the standard rate of 19 percent, with the spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel describing it as a “constructive proposal”.
However, in most countries, this will be fiercely resisted. Henry Dimbleby, the founder of UK-based restaurant chain Leon, wrote an independent report for a national food strategy for the UK government but was unable to recommend a meat tax, despite his personal preference, due to heavy opposition during consultations, as well as the regressive nature of such a tax. One challenge is how to make a meat tax fair, given the most practical way to implement a tax would be to base it on the weight of the meat. This would make all types of meat, from minced meat to prime fillet steak, equally taxed, with lower-income households likely to be disproportionately affected.
But the average global meat demand is turning a corner, so perhaps a regressive tax regime is not needed. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculated that meat consumption declined for the first time in 2019, after decades of steep increases. According to the charity Vegan Society, in the UK alone, the number of people who describe themselves as vegans has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 to 600,000 people. This has partly been driven by people being increasingly conscious of the potential drawbacks of sustainability, and the health and ethics of eating industrially farmed meat.
Better alternatives are also driving the decline in meat consumption. Advances in science have allowed plant-based meat, often made of tofu, soy, wheat and pea protein, to better emulate the texture and flavour of steaks, sausages and patties and they have become real competitors to traditional meat products. As these products scale, the meat substitute industry is predicted to grow by 7 percent year on year between 2021 and 2027, according to industry watcher Allied Market Research. So these products will only become more mainstream and affordable, with their appeal growing beyond just those following strict veganism. Even China, with its increasing appetite for meat, has grown its protein alternative market by 33.5 percent since 2014.
The petri-dish route
Another alternative to factory farmed meat is meat grown in a laboratory, known as cell-cultured meat. This involves nurturing protein cells drawn from live animal samples and growing them in a growth medium, where the cultivated cells gradually form muscle tissue. Cell-cultured meat is, for now, a novelty given how expensive it is; the first patty produced in 2013 cost a whopping $280,000. New techniques and the increasing production scale are rapidly cutting down costs, however, and it could ultimately become available in supermarkets at $10 a patty. While lab-grown meat is still limited to resembling mince or burger patties, there is an aspiration that it could one day emulate the more complex flavour and texture of a steak.
Lab-grown alternatives have enjoyed some hype, with even Google founder Sergey Brin investing in cultivating meat cells. It could lead to a few powerful countries or companies dominating the intellectual property for alternative proteins and cultivated meat. Thus, even if traditional meat producers transition to bio technicians for lab-grown meat, there could be a significant power imbalance, with large corporations holding all the cards, able to dictate the price, product and approach and leading to the exploitation of workers and small businesses. This is a particular risk given the agricultural industry is heavily fragmented, comprising mainly of small companies and sole traders.
If the petri-dish route sounds a bit too out of this world, perhaps going back to basics is better. Historically, human society ate beans and pulses as their primary source of protein, and according to the UN there are two billion people in the world who eat insects as part of their normal diet.
Popularising insect protein, including for animal feed, could drastically cut carbon emissions. Thirty-six percent of the world’s crops are used for animal feed. According to the Welsh government, the mass farming of insects requires between 50 and 90 percent less land than conventional agriculture per kilogram of protein and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry by 50 percent by 2050. Maggots could also feed on agricultural waste, and insect growth could be easier to automate than farm livestock. So, insect feed could make traditional meat production more environmentally sustainable.
Is change happening?
However, this idea is not yet mainstream. The European Union (EU) restricts insects in feed due to the fear of bio-accumulation – the build-up of bio-contaminates from insects that is passed on to animals, although the evidence for it is so far inconclusive. The UN, therefore, has an important role in building consensus on this approach to make animal feed more sustainable.
Change is happening. The global consultancy firm, A T Kearney predicted that by 2040, the plant-based and lab-grown meat industry will overtake the conventional meat sector. This is encouraging if we want a sustainable food source. The challenge is managing this transition without leaving too many individuals in the food industry behind and maintaining the confidence of consumers that new products are safe. The answer must in part be about making alternative meat more appealing, ensuring existing meat production is as sustainable as possible and giving consumers an informed choice about which proteins to eat and how their decision aligns with their taste, values and wallet.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.