Peak Beef Is Better Climate News Than You Thought
Should we humans ever hit the peak of our meat consumption, it will set off a cascade of positive environmental and climate effects. Beyond reducing emissions from belching cows, there could be major changes in our agricultural system.
We may be approaching one such peak: The 10-year compound annual growth rate in beef production is just 0.107%, and trending down. I’ve been mulling this figure ever since Bloomberg Opinion’s David Fickling first wrote about it in November, and I’ve found some related numbers that reveal another peak we’ve already hit: peak pasture.
Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows the acreage of “permanent meadows and pastures”—otherwise known as land for grazing livestock—peaked at the start of the millennium. Since then, we’ve cut the amount of land used for grazing by 1.2% of total global land area. Cropland has continued to increase at the same time, but not enough to offset the decline.
“Peak beef,” however, does not mean “peak meat.” Poultry and pork are much more likely to be housed and industrially farmed, rather than grazed on open land. Total meat product calories have increased almost four-fold since 1961, according to UN data.
Look closely at the above chart, though, and you can see the increase in meat calories per person has been flattening. The rate of growth is slowing since the beginning of this decade. Vegetable calories per person, meanwhile, have risen less since the 1960s, about half as much as meat calories.
If we average the year-on-year trends per decade for both meat and vegetal products, we see something striking. Meat calories have increased more, on average, than veggie calories since the 1970s, with a difference of more than 0.8% per year on average in the 2000s. Since then, however, the meat rate has not only plunged, but it’s back to about the same as it was in the 1970s. From 2010 to 2017, the average annual increase in meat calories was 0.5% per year, just a bit more than the 0.3% annual increase for vegetables.
A world with a slower rate of growth in meat consumption is, of course, a long way off from a world of less meat consumption per capita. But even a slowing rate of growth in meat production could have massive implications for our climate and resources.
A significant proportion of human agriculture is devoted to producing animal feed, so a lower rate of growth in meat production could affect what’s grown on cropland. At the same time, plant-based substitutes for meat will need cropland. One example, which Bloomberg News noted last summer, was an expected 20% increase in pea plantings in the U.S. and Canada to meet demand for a key ingredient used in Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger products.
The implications for greenhouse gas emissions are equally important. If we do in fact hit “peak beef,” then we might also hit peak emissions from burping livestock—which account for more than a third of all methane emissions from human activity. A greater concentration of livestock production on less of the Earth’s surface also means a smaller area of land to monitor for emissions and other environmental impacts.
As climate conditions become more and more extreme, the continued expansion of cropland comes with a need for greater precision in agriculture. Measuring and delivering water, fertilizer and pest control, for instance, will need precise assessments of local conditions and harvest readiness.
Even cropland itself could become part of the climate solution. Soil can sequester about 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN estimates.
Nathaniel Bullard is a BloombergNEF analyst who writes the Sparklines newsletter about the global transition to renewable energy. Sign up to receive the Green Daily newsletter in your inbox every weekday.
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