While meat eating has stalled and greener eating taken off in the UK, in other parts of the world the appetite for meat is growing in tandem with populations – and with it the risks to biodiversity and the environment.
That’s the stark warning set out in a major new scientific study that underlines the importance of cutting down on the amount of animal products we eat, and of encouraging others to do the same, both on an individual and international level.
Published in the Science journal, the report says there is expected to be a sharp rise in meat eating as middle-income countries such as China become more prosperous and more people adopt meat-heavy western diets: the UN says global meat consumption will rise by 76 per cent by 2050. The consequences for the environment will be devastating, however, with increased carbon emissions, more wild land and natural habitats given over to livestock and feed-crop farming, and overuse and pollution of water resources.
Study co-author Professor Tim Key, an epidemiologist at Oxford University, did not mince his words: “What’s happening is a big concern, and if meat consumption goes up further it’s going to be massively more so. On a broad level you can say that eating substantial amounts of meat is bad for the environment.”
Some good news is that the UK seems to have hit “peak meat”, with sales falling across the board over the past five years, according to a National Food Survey published last year. Yet the good work being done in the kitchens and restaurants of Britain is being offset by what’s being piled onto plates in east Asia, particularly China, where a burgeoning middle class has acquired a taste and funds for a protein-rich western diet.
If current trends continue – and with the world’s population expected to hit 9 billion by mid-century and 10 billion by 2100 – radical and unsustainable changes will need to be made to farming systems to cater to this growing demand. As the report says: “It is difficult to envisage how the world could supply a population of 10 billion or more people with the quantity of meat currently consumed in most high-income countries without substantial negative effects on the environment.”