Choice Cuts: Making room for more meat demand
October 5th, 2015
When most Americans sit down to dinner, meat is often on the table. Thatâ€™s a custom the growing global middle class is beginning to adopt. As more meat eaters come along, farmers will be challenged to feed them without eating up more land.
Americans have a big appetite for everything meat. We smoke it, grill it, slice it, and chop it.
The typical American puts awayÂ around 200 pounds of beef, pork, and poultry every yearÂ . Thatâ€™sÂ true in many of the wealthiest countries. ButÂ developing countries are showing a growing appetiteÂ for meat.
â€œGlobally there have been very strong increases in livestock product demand,â€ said Thomas Hertel, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. â€œMost of those increases have been in the poorest countries and the (most) populous countries of the world. China and India for example.â€
Satisfying that demand sets up one of the biggest challenges for agriculture over the next few decades.
By 2050, there will be 9.6 billion people in the world, making for more potential meat eaters. On top of that, Hertel said, incomes are expected to rise in places like Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
â€œAs they get more income, they spend a lot of that on livestock products,â€ Hertel said. â€œAnd thatâ€™s whatâ€™s fueled these dramatic increases in livestock product consumption in much of the world.â€
The United Nations estimates the world will need to produce an additionalÂ 220 million tons of meat per year by 2050Â (page 77). Thatâ€™s billions more chickens, pigs, and cows. Those animals are mostly fattened up on corn and soybeans.
Farmers from the American Corn Belt to Argentina to Russia are planting massive crops and plowing up land to grow those ingredients for livestock feed, and theyâ€™re making big changes to the environment in the process.
Take China, where the growing middle class is hungry for meat, and livestock are hungry for corn and soybeans.
â€œTheyâ€™re importing (soybeans) like mad,â€ Â Hertel said.. â€œTheyâ€™re importing them from the U.S.Â Theyâ€™re importing them from Brazil and Argentina. So you see the massive expansion into the Brazilian Cerrado.â€
â€œThe increased demand for livestock has been, even larger than population growth, the largest force in demand for food globally, and thus putting pressure on land resources,â€ said Ken Cassman, who studies global agriculture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
From 2002 to 2011,Â the world plowed up another 25 million acres of land each year for farmingÂ â€“ an area roughly the size of Indiana. Ken Cassman says scientists are in a race against time, to help farmers grow more grain so less land is put to the plow.
â€œIf you canâ€™t, production of meat and crops will come from converting natural habitats that store biodiversity and carbon,â€ Cassman said. â€œIt will come at the expense of clearing those lands.â€
To avoid that, Cassman said global yields per acre will need to double. No small task, but he says there areÂ parts of the world with a big production gap. The farms have good soil and good weather but arenâ€™t raising much.
Give farmers access to modern tools – better seed, bigger machinery, more pesticides, advanced fertilizer â€“ and they wonâ€™t have to take more land.
However, that kind of intensive agriculture has its own problems. In the U.S. Corn Belt, for instance,Â many rivers and streams are contaminated with high levels of fertilizer runoff. Â Science must address that, Cassman said, because itâ€™s no good to push farm productivity without regard to the environment.
But he said there is also a risk in shying away from industrial scale farming.
â€œFarming without fertilizers reduces nutrient runoff, but if everyone did that weâ€™d have to cut the Amazon rainforest down,â€ Cassman said.
Of course, the world wouldnâ€™t have to make so much meat if everyone ate less. In fact, meat-loving AmericansÂ have backed off a bit from beefÂ as prices have gone up. But meat is a luxury few will be willing to give up, Â Hertel said.
â€œYou could say the best way to manage carbon emissions is donâ€™t drive cars anymore. Everyone walk to the office,â€ Hertel said. â€œIs that going to happen? No. And people arenâ€™t going to stop eating beef.â€
That leaves the meat industry with a lot of work to do to fill global demand. And in the meantime there are a lot of other issues to chew on, like health concerns over how much meat Americans eat and Â questions about how antibiotics are used.
By the time 2050 comes around the meat on your plate may not be that different, but the story of how it got there could be.
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