At the heat of the horse meat crisis in Europe, UNEP published ‘Our nutrient world’, a report that looked closely at the massive impact of nutrient use by agriculture and especially meat production. The report proposed many actions to improve the management of nutrients in agriculture. But one recommendation received the most media attention: the plea for voluntary lowering of personal meat consumption for those who should avoid excesses. The enthusiastic responses that followed may suggest that the size of meat on the plate in affluent societies goes down in the coming decades. A remarkable trend, given that eating more meat is one of the first habits that people take up when they get wealthier.
Indeed, there is an almost perfect correlation between growth in GDP and growth in meat consumption. The case of China’s development shows this very clearly. In 2050 many of the nine billion people may have more income and better diets, as they are lifted out of absolute poverty. Currently undernourished people would become healthier when eating more animal proteins. However, another share of those nine billion may turn into people like us Westerners, risking over-consumption of meat products combined with loads of refined sugary foods and drinks, and embarrassing little physical exercise.
The global meat production needed to fulfil that appetite would require enormous nutrient inputs. That means potential pollution to ecosystems, risking land degradation, food insecurity and exacerbating loss of natural ecosystems. That is what UNEP warns for. Global awareness of the importance to moderate meat consumption would help a great deal. But would we humans be able to cut ourselves loose from our intrinsic desire to portion up on meat as soon as we can afford it?
Slowly but clearly, the numbers are showing that this is getting a significant trend. The rising meat prices may provide a partial explanation, as well as awareness of animal welfare issues, and meat related scandals and disease outbreaks. In addition, ever more people consider lowering their meat intake as a statement of making a sustainable lifestyle choice. Meatless monday is becoming a true global initiative, engaging consumers, restaurant holders and retailers to plate up vegetarian food. Flexitarians, demitarians, part-time meat eaters are gaining influence.
What we eat is very much a cultural expression. Despite the biological appeal of meat eating, most of our appetite and preferences are shaped by our communities. Changing our food habits through shifted cultural perceptions is not impossible and very much what we are seeing right now. It could be that over the course of this century we’ll learn to appreciate new diets that have a lower impact on ecosystems globally. We might even pick up new or unfamiliar foodstuff like test tube meat or insects. So what do you think that you will have on your plate in 2030?