It is projected by FAO that demand for animal products will increase by 70% by 2050, and increased demand is greater for them than for any other commodity group. Consumption of meat in China has quadrupled since 1980, and is expected to double in Africa by 2050, driven by increasing incomes and urbanization. Population growth adds further to demand. Throughout the developing world, milk consumption has doubled, meat consumption tripled and egg consumption increased by a factor of five since 1960.
It is often assumed by commentators that the rising demand for animal source foods in lower- and middle-income countries cannot be met sustainably, because it inevitably requires an increasing herd / flock, and there is no land available for these additional animals.
As it happens, the size of herds and flocks is increasing in lower- and middle-income countries to meet demand, and it is for this reason that it is portrayed as unsustainable.
As two thirds of large ruminants are found in Africa and Asia, it is worth looking at those regions to see if there are alternative futures that could feed growing populations without exceeding the resources available.
One thing to bear in mind is that not all large ruminants are primarily kept for food production – the number of oxen for animal traction in west Africa increased from 350,000 to 2 million between the 1970s and today. Livestock also play a significant role in the household economy being readily traded when necessary. They are an increasingly important part of the agricultural sector of developing countries, and social and cultural factors are generally more important for livestock than for crops.
So, while Africa and Asia have two thirds of large ruminants, they produce less than one third of global milk and meat supply. Africa is, in fact, a net importer of most livestock products. Several factors contribute, but reproductive efficiency is generally low; cows in Southern Africa produce on average one calf every four years. Lower inputs in disease prevention and treatment combined with less effective grazing management (communal grazing in many countries) also contribute to low outputs. What this boils down to is that there is a very large supporting herd generating a small offtake. Impact in terms of resources per kg product is therefore high.
We can contrast that situation with the US or Australia. Over the last 50 years, U.S. beef production volume increased by 25%, while the number of cattle for beef production decreased by 6%. The reduction in cattle numbers has been offset by a +30% increase in average cattle weights, particularly of steers and heifers, which represent 80% of cattle producing beef. Improved genetics, reproductive efficiency, health, and husbandry have produced cattle with higher growth rates and feed conversion efficiencies.
Total beef supply in the US was similar in 2020 to the record year 2002, but 5 million fewer head were slaughtered. At the same time beef cow inventory shrank from a high of 45 million in 1974, to the current ~31 million. Australia, with 3% of the global production accounts for 17% of world trade. So not only are animals producing more per head, but the supporting herd is significantly smaller and therefore less resource intensive. Using a metric such as GWP* for emissions, both intensity and total impact in these countries have declined and still have room for improvement. One could also claim they are not adding to climate change since a reduction of CH4 emissions by 0.3% per year, (10% in 30 yrs), mean that no additional warming is taking place.
Brazil represents an intermediate stage, where between 2005 and 2019, intensification meant that while the rate of deforestation (land converted to pasture in the short term) declined, beef production continued to rise. While deforestation has accelerated again in the last 3 years, it is clear that increasing beef production in Brazil is not directly reliant on deforestation, as frontiers of recent deforestation are less efficient producers.
It is unfortunate for the global beef industry that the first use of cleared forest is for grazing, because even if the Brazilian beef herd has a shrinking total footprint, as some claim it does, the impact of deforestation is reflected across the whole beef industry, and inevitably leads to calls for reduced consumption. The alternative solution, namely for the supporting herd to shrink and production per head to increase is rarely proposed but could still represent a way to meet demand while freezing the footprint of production.
If demand is increasing in lower- and middle-income countries and relatively stable in higher income countries where production is already relatively efficient in terms of resource use, it makes sense to transfer some of those experiences and lessons learned in breeding, grazing management, husbandry, and health to regions where demand is growing fastest.
What we need to avoid is a situation where domestic policies in the most efficient producer countries limit production and end up creating greater expansion in regions where that is achieved through increased numbers rather than efficiency. FAO estimate that potential mitigation in the beef industry is around 37 percent, based on the assumption that producers in a given system, region and agro-ecological zone were to apply the practices of the 10th percentile of producers with the lowest emissions intensities, while maintaining constant output. Given the large discrepancy between regions that may even increase with sufficient investment.
We're too often inclined to think only about what we can do in one place at a time. But the beef industry and many companies involved are global, we need to share and invest more across borders to create the scale of change needed.