“Disease and Drought Curb Meat Production and Consumption.”
That’s the headline on a report summarizing an analysis of the global meat industry conducted by the Worldwatch Institute.
Anti-meat activists were quickly tweeting up a storm about how the industry is in decline, how people are realizing the ecological downside of eating meat and that dietary trends around the world are evolving toward some sort of unspecified vegetarian diet that is (allegedly) superior to one based on animal foods.
Before people start wringing their hands over this “startling” development, here are the actual facts:
•In 2011, global meat production rose to 297 million tons, an increase of 0.8% over 2010
•By the end of 2012, meat production is projected to reach 302 million tons, an increase of 1.6% versus 2011
•Since 2001, global meat production has risen by 20% overall
Yes, worldwide meat consumption did decrease slightly in 2011, from 42.5 kgs. per person in 2010 to 42.3 kgs. That amounts to less than a 1% decrease.
In the last 20 years, however, per capita meat consumption has increased 15% overall; in developing countries, it increased 25% during that decade.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), several factors combined to cause that slight dent in consumption last year: Record drought in the Midwest this summer, disease outbreaks in several key producing countries and soaring feed prices all contributed to the slowing in production.
FAO also noted that natural disasters in Japan and Pakistan “also constrained output and disrupted trade.”
And by the way, average per capita consumption figures, which activists love to tout as evidence that we’re all a bunch of overstuffed meat gluttons, are virtually meaningless.
For one, averages are deceptive. In any population you have people who are eating very little meat, others who are purchasing and presumably consuming an above-average quantity of beef, pork and chicken.
More importantly, these per capita figures are based on total livestock numbers slaughtered, divided by the number of people in a country.
That doesn’t account for bones, fat and food waste, which total as much as one-third of carcass weight.
That said, the per capita averages still reveal a large disparity between the developed world and the rest of the planet. In developing countries, the average person ate 71 lbs. of meat in 2011; whereas in industrialized countries people ate an average of 173.5 pounds per capita.
Now, that amounts to about half a pound of meat every day of the year. That’s a lot.
If you skip a day in which you don’t eat any meat, the next day you’ve got to wolf down a full pound to keep up your average.
That’s why these per capita figures are less than revealing about people’s actual consumption patterns and preferences.
Missing the mark
Here’s the real news from the FAO data: North America has been displaced as the leading meat producer in the world.
That’s not an occasion for mourning or flying black flags, but it does speak to a trend that will impact U.S. produces in the years to come.
In 2000, North America led the world in beef production, at 13 million tons, while South America produced 12 million tons and Asia 10 million tons. By 2011, however, North American beef output had declined by about 200,000 tons, whereas South America and Asia increased production to 15 million and 17 million tons, respectively.
That trend will likely level off by 2040 or 2050, and it’s really no cause for concern as long as U.S. and Canadian producers can maintain their export markets.
Of course, Worldwatch can’t wrap up its report without taking a shot at factory farming, tagging concentrated production systems as the reason zoonotic diseases are as prevalent as they are. Here’s how the report concludes:
“In 2011 alone, foot-and-mouth disease was detected in Paraguay, African swine fever in Russia, classical swine fever in Mexico and avian influenza (H5N1) throughout Asia. According to a 2012 report by the International Livestock Research Institute, zoonoses cause around 2.7 million human deaths each year, and approximately 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases now originate in animals or animal products.”
Okay, tell me which of those countries has invested heavily in “factory farming” facilities? In reality, they have predominantly small-scale, non-industrialized production systems, which—as any veterinarian would be happy to confirm—is why diseases run rampant in those countries.
But Worldwatch would have its readers believe that “factory farming systems contribute to disease outbreaks [because producers] keep animals in cramped and often unsanitary quarters, providing a breeding ground for disease.
They feed animals grain-heavy diets that lack the nutrients needed to fight off disease and illness and many CAFOs feed animals antibiotics as a preventative rather than a therapeutic measure, causing the animals—and the humans—to develop resistance to antibiotics.”
So to summarize the facts: Meat production and consumption are not declining; supply-and demand factors affecting global output are temporary, not systemic; and the production systems in place in North America are protective against, not causative of, zoonotic diseases.
Other than that, the Worldwatch report hit the nail on the head.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.
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