Humans and livestock now make up 96 percent of all mammal biomass on the planet – and we’ve completely transformed the surface of the Earth along the way.
In fact, most of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock, either in the form of pastures or to grow crops for animal feed. Livestock now contributes some 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
And yet, meat consumption is set to nearly double between 2010 and 2050, with significant implications for the planet. There’s increasing recognition not only that most of us in rich countries need to eat less meat, but also that our food systems are unsustainable and urgently need to be transformed.
The recent UN COP28 climate summit, dubbed the ‘food COP,’ was the first UN climate conference to bring the issue to the table, and 134 countries committed to integrating food production into their climate plans.
So, what’s the price tag of unsustainable meat production and wild meat harvesting? Can we feed a growing world population without making everyone go vegan? Here are seven things you need to know about the meat industry.
Intensive livestock farming and breeding can facilitate the spread of pathogens between animals and from animals to humans, leading to zoonoses.
Intensively reared animals are mainly bred to maximize meat production, meaning they often lack the genetic diversity that provides herds or flocks with disease resistance. Farms are often crowded and unsanitary, elevating the risk of outbreaks.
Another way livestock farming can drive zoonoses is by clearing forests to expand pastures and croplands for animal feed production. This brings intensive farming closer to cities, destroying the natural buffers that prevent viruses from jumping species.
According to a 2020 report by the UN Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), 75 percent of all emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic.
In 2009, the H1N1 strain of swine influenza passed from pigs to humans, with the first human cases identified in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The disease then spread worldwide, causing a pandemic that eventually infected at least 11 percent of the global human population, causing up to 203,000 deaths that year.
Likewise, Nipah virus was transmitted from bats to pigs before jumping to humans. The virus was first identified in 1998 in Malaysia, where it led to 100 human deaths and caused 1 million pigs to be culled, racking up USD 671 million in economic losses. Outbreaks continue to emerge sporadically in various countries to this day.
Other recent examples of zoonoses include COVID-19, SARS, Ebola and MERS, all of which likely originated in bats, and HIV, which jumped to humans from chimpanzees.
Scientists say we urgently need to acknowledge that human and planetary health are intimately connected. This approach, known as One Health, can help us feed the world without destroying the natural systems that sustain us – and prevent new pandemics as well.
Our overuse and misuse of antibiotics is driving antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – meaning that the medicines we rely on to kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses no longer work.
Now, drug-resistant infections are set to kill more people than cancer by 2050. The livestock industry uses antibiotics on a large scale to accelerate animal growth and prevent infections, making it a top contributor to AMR. Antibiotics are often given at low doses, targeting the strongest pathogens and paving the way for resistance.
In the U.S., around 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are sold for use in animals. Globally, we need stricter regulations and better data on antibiotic use on farms, as well as policies to ensure animals are fed, housed and raised healthily and ethically. Vaccines and probiotics may be viable alternatives to antibiotic use.
Intensive livestock production – and the crops required to feed them – can release large volumes of chemicals (especially nitrates), manure, growth hormones and antibiotics into water sources.
Livestock are also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane (‘cow burps’), and the industry often destroys natural ecosystems to make space for pastures. According to some estimates, industrial farming costs the environment around USD 3 trillion annually.
Spain, for example, is the leading producer of animal feed in the E.U. and one of the world’s largest pork producers. That business model has caused it to consistently exceed E.U. air and water pollutant thresholds over the past two decades, exacerbating the country’s record-breaking drought.
The Amazon rainforest is on the brink of a tipping point due to rampant deforestation and the climate crisis.
Cattle farming is the leading driver of this deforestation. According to a recent investigation, more than 800 million trees in the Brazilian Amazon were cut down to meet global beef demand between 2017 and 2022.
It is possible to sustainably feed around 10 billion people by 2050, according to experts like nutritionist Walter Willett. But that will take decisive action on at least three fronts.
First, we need to redistribute meat and dairy consumption around the world, with people in rich countries reducing their intake, and those in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa increasing it.
We also need more production methods that reduce pressure on land and water resources, as well as to reduce food waste.
Greenhouse gas emissions from beef production, for example, could be reduced by improving the efficiency of operations, reducing methane emissions through feed additives, and better managing manure.
Lastly, better practices and technologies will be needed to reduce methane emissions by 25 percent between 2020 and 2030, as established by the roadmap to zero hunger launched by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at COP28.
Lab-grown meats and plant-based proteins are two alternative sources of protein that could help transition to more sustainable diets and feed more people with fewer resources.
Cultivated meat uses techniques borrowed from regenerative medicine to grow animal fat and tissue from cells in controlled environments. A small, harmless biopsy is taken from the animal of choice, and the cells are placed in bioreactors – a sort of steel brewing vat with the nutrients and temperature that cells need to reproduce.
Finally, the cells, which are identical to the original ones, are harvested, and a small portion of plant material is used to shape them into familiar forms, like chicken nuggets.
When Maastricht University produced the world’s first cultured beef burger in 2013, it took two years and cost USD 325,000 to produce. But since then, companies have slashed production costs by 99 percent, and 100 cultivated meat startups attracted an estimated USD 1.4 billion in funding in 2021.
As the industry builds the capacity to produce cultivated meat at scale, we can expect these costs to decrease further.
Across the Global South, around 150 million households harvest wild meat, which serves as a crucial source of protein, minerals and fat for forest-dependent rural people.
However, wild meat consumption is skyrocketing in cities and internationally, where it’s consumed as a delicacy rather than a dietary need. This has pushed the wildlife trade beyond sustainable levels. In the Congo Basin alone, people consume more than 10 million tons of wild meat every year, and this rising demand is threatening many species with extinction.
In response, CIFOR-ICRAF projects, like FORETS in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), are working with local communities to increase their access to alternative sources of protein and income. FORETS also carries out educational activities and aims to involve local people in wildlife monitoring.
Similarly, in Guyana, the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme aims to improve the management of wild meat in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries through education and grassroots engagement.
Wild meat still has a vital role to play in global nutrition, and – if properly managed – it can continue to feed many generations to come.
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