These countries have reached ‘peak meat’

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Meat consumption is increasing worldwide. But a handful of countries are bucking this trend, and their appetite for meat is declining. A group of researchers argues that these countries – New Zealand, Canada, and Switzerland – have in fact reached “peak meat,” a point beyond which income increases no longer track with increased consumption of beef, chicken, lamb and pork.

This could be an important finding, because reducing meat consumption is recognized as a critical route to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, the group of Australian researchers was curious to see how consumption trends changed between 2000 and 2019, covering a period of heightened awareness about meat’s impact on the planet, but also a time when those environmental influences intensified. They examined meat consumption levels in 35 countries during this period, and combined that with information on gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the size and health of a nation’s economy.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, their analysis revealed that meat consumption rose globally over this period, with people consuming an average of 4.5 kilograms of meat in 2019 compared to 2000. But this finding also contained some unexpected insights – specifically about the composition of meat. This diet.

Data show that in most of the 35 countries sampled, consumption of beef, pork and lamb is already declining. Meanwhile, chicken consumption increased significantly in almost all the countries studied. The appetite for chicken was particularly pronounced in Russia, Malaysia and Peru, where consumption increased by 20 kg per capita over the 19-year period.

This indicates that chickens are the main driver of increased meat consumption globally, something the researchers believe may increase the efficiency with which these birds convert grain into protein. Although this chicken mutation also comes with an increased risk of bird disease, the researchers warn.

However, not everyone eats more meat. The researchers discovered that nine countries in their sample actually eat less, including Nigeria, Ethiopia and Paraguay. In these nations, the decline appears to be driven by unpredictable weather patterns and increased disease incidence, both of which have fueled climate change, which is causing reduced livestock and reducing meat availability.

But when researchers looked at those nine countries closely through the lens of GDP, they made their most surprising finding. In three of the nine countries – Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand – an increase in GDP is offset by a decrease in meat consumption. This is not a trend you would expect since higher GDP usually reflects increased per capita income, which has historically tracked with increased consumption of meat, because it is expensive.

However, for those three very rich countries with high GDP, the opposite is now true. For example, in New Zealand, meat consumption decreased by more than 10 kilograms per capita between 2000 and 2019. Even with greater economic freedom than most other countries, these countries appear to be voluntarily moving away from beef, chicken, pork and lamb. Or, as the researchers put it, they’ve reached “peak meat.”

Moreover, there appears to be a subtle economic turning point for this shift. When researchers went back through the data, they found that in countries where there is GDP Do It positively tracks meat consumption, and appears to only do so up to US$40,000 of GDP per capita. After this figure, per capita meat consumption began to decline.

So what is behind this shifting attitude towards meat in rich countries? Researchers hypothesize that it is due to a combination of factors, such as increased health awareness, the emergence of animal rights movements, and veganism. Politics also appears to have played a strong role in places like Canada, where limiting national consumption of red meat is part of the government’s official healthy eating strategy.

The study looked only at GDP as a driver of consumption, but the authors noted that there were many other factors that were outside their scope to investigate, such as the role that culture and religion play in shaping diets. This may be an important advantage in reducing meat consumption in many less affluent countries than those with higher GDP, and its interaction with diet and environmental impact deserves attention in future research, they say.

Meanwhile, this current study offers two main takeaways. First, we must be careful about the explosive height of the chicken. Second, there is now a voluntary reduction in meat consumption in countries where it has been at a historically high level, which sets a hopeful precedent for where the world is headed. The researchers believe that changing attitudes toward meat, combined with the increasing availability of plant-based protein alternatives, means that “the coming period is likely to be very different.”

Phillips et al. Are we approaching peak meat consumption? Analysis of meat consumption from 2000 to 2019 in 35 countries and its relationship to GDP. Animals. 2021.

Photo: © The Anthropocene

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