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close this bookNews & Views - A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment - March 1999: Are We Ready for a Meat Revolution? (IFPRI, 1999, 8 p.)
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Are We Ready for a Meat Revolution?

It happens in developing countries the world over - when poor families in Africa, Asia, and Latin America get access to a little more money, they spend a sizable share of it on meat to supplement their meager diet of staple grains. On a worldwide scale, this tendency produces dramatic results. For all developing countries combined, per capita consumption of beef, mutton, goat, pork, poultry, eggs, and milk rose by an average of about 50 percent per person between 1973 and 1996.

"As populations and urbanization increase and economic reforms lead to higher gross domestic product levels, the demand for livestock products will only grow stronger," says Simeon Ehui, coordinator of the Livestock Policy Analysis Project in the Ethiopia office of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). "We are in the midst of an animal food product revolution," says Christopher Delgado, an IFPRI research fellow and coauthor of a forthcoming 2020 Vision discussion paper on trends in livestock supply and demand.

Work conducted at IFPRI shows that in 2020, each person in the developing world is likely to demand about 29 kilograms of meat and 63 kilograms of milk a year, up from 21 kilograms and 41 kilograms, respectively, in 1993. Can the world produce the livestock necessary to meet this future demand? Even if it can, what will be the consequences for health and the environment and for small-scale farmers?

Income Is Not the Only Factor

"The poor consume cereals first to keep from going hungry, because cereals are cheap," says Howarth Bouis, an IFPRI research fellow. "The very poor don't have any money left over. But as people's income goes up, that's what they buy: meat and dairy products." In China and other countries of East Asia, which have seen large jumps in income since the early 1980s, meat consumption has grown by more than 5 percent a year.

Another important contributor to rising demand for meat products is urbanization. As people move to cities, studies show they start to eat more meat, milk, and other livestock products. "We're not sure of the cause," says Bouis. "It may be reduced activity patterns and, thus, lower cereal consumption - farming is more strenuous than most urban occupations. It may be that in cities people have more choices about what to eat and are exposed to new foods and recipes,"


This trend will probably mean large increases in meat consumption in coming decades. In the future, the rural population in developing countries is expected to remain about constant while the urban population will increase rapidly.

Urbanization is already changing diets in India, according to Vijay Vyas, professor emeritus of the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, India, but not necessarily leading to much higher consumption of meat. "The importance of cereals in the food basket is declining, even among the poorest of the poor," says Vyas. "But the increase in meat consumption is not happening at the same speed in India as in China and other Southeast Asian countries. We are seeing a large increase in consumption of milk and eggs, as well as other noncereal foods like vegetables and fruits." Vyas attributes the shift partly to urbanization and partly to increased availability of these products and the religious sanctions against eating beef. "India has surpassed the United States to become the world's largest producer of milk," says Vyas.

But Peter Hazell, an IFPRI researcher and coauthor of a study on food balances in India, believes India is poised for an explosion in demand for meat, as well as more milk and eggs. "Most people in India, including government officials, don't believe a huge increase in meat consumption will happen, but I think they're in for a big surprise. Our study showed that in the last 10 years prices for livestock products went up and income growth for rural people in India was slow. So you wouldn't think that consumption of meat products would rise much. In fact, however, consumption shot up. Imagine what will happen if real incomes do grow more rapidly as a result of India's ongoing policy reforms."

The reasons, says Hazell, are many. Television is everywhere. Restaurants and street foods are more prevalent. Transportation is better, so rural people travel to town more often. The middle class is growing larger, and others see how they live. And advertising works.

The Meat Factor

By developed-country standards, people in the developing world still eat very small amounts of meat and livestock products. In the early 1990s, on average, each person in the developed world ate nearly four times as much meat and consumed nearly five times as much milk as each person in the developing world. And many poor people in developing countries still do not get enough calories or protein.

There are sound nutritional reasons for poor and malnourished people to wish to add more meat to their diet. Food staples like rice and maize offer calories but are not dense in micronutrients or protein. Christopher Delgado says, "You can get complete protein from vegetables, but you need to eat a wide variety of them. Eating meat is an easy way to get usable protein into your diet."

Meat can also aid in the absorption of other nutrients. "Meat contains iron, but it also helps the body absorb iron from other foods. This trait is known as the meat factor," says Catherine Geissler of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at King's College London. "Only small amounts of meat are required to do this. Vegetarians can get an adequate diet, but a mixed omnivore diet is an easier way to get all your nutrients."

In Bangladesh; says Bouis, people get only about 2 to 3 percent of their calories from meat, and their diet contains insufficient amounts of bioavailable iron. "More than half of adult women and 40 to 45 percent of preschool children are anemic," Bouis explains. "This iron deficiency retards mental development, particularly for infants, and reduces work capacity for adults. More meat, fish, and dairy consumption would be the best thing for nutrition in Bangladesh."

"Our research shows that a fivefold increase in meat, fish, and dairy consumption would lower the prevalence of anemia by 50 percent," says Bouis. "But with their income level, such an increase is totally infeasible, so finding ways to reduce prices of animal products is really important."

The Nutrition Transition

While some developing countries are struggling with how to add more meat to their diets, others are already facing the problem of too much meat consumption. "A nutrition transition is occurring in some developing countries," says Geissler. "The diseases of affluence are beginning to take over from the diseases of poverty. China is seeing a shift from undernutrition to such problems as heart disease partly caused by a rich, high-fat diet."

"China is trying to increase the consumption of traditional protein-rich products like soy through education, but it's not working too well. The general demand is for meat and other animal products," says Geissler. "Now that trade in food is freer, the government has less control. Farmers are freer to produce what they want."

To complicate matters, countries like China have a mixture of poor and better-off communities, containing both undernourished and "overnourished" people. "So targeted policies are needed," says Geissler.

"Meating" Demand

Increases in demand have been met largely by substantial growth in livestock production in developing countries. Meat production grew 5.4 percent annually between the early 1980s and early 1990s, a rate almost five times the developed-country average of 1.1 percent. Although per capita meat production in developing countries is still only a little more than a fourth of the developed-country average, the developing world supplies almost half the world's meat. Asia is the fastest growing supplier, accounting for more than 80 percent of the net increase in meat output of developing countries.

"Globally, livestock will become the most important economic subsector within agriculture," predicts Henning Steinfeld, senior officer in the Animal Production and Health Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Increases in the supply of livestock products in developing countries - with pork and poultry production growing particularly fast, at 6.1 and 7.8 percent per year, respectively - are coming predominantly from industrial production. Steinfeld says there are several reasons why the traditional, small-scale producer cannot respond to the surge in demand: "Traditional livestock production uses feed resources, such as grazing, that simply cannot expand at a fast enough rate. There is also the difficulty that livestock products are easily perishable, and rural producers often don't have adequate market access. Economies of scale in production and processing favor large-scale livestock production, which is now found in the vicinity of virtually every large developing-country city. And policies do tend to favor the large producers with capital subsidies."

Nonetheless Steinfeld sees livestock offering "a great development opportunity that could be missed." He worries that donors and development agencies have turned away from livestock mainly because of environmental and social concerns. "But these problems have little to do with livestock activities themselves," says Steinfeld, "and much more to do with the broader policy framework that has not dealt effectively with health, environment, and poverty issues as they relate to livestock."

How Will the Smallholder Fare?

The rewards of a dynamic livestock sector could especially benefit the poor, many of whom derive a larger share of their income from livestock than do the well-off. About half a billion pastoralists depend on livestock for their livelihood, and at least 200 million smallholder farm families in the developing world derive most of their income from livestock. In some African countries, livestock contributes roughly 80 percent of cash income in crop-livestock farming systems. "As livestock production increases," says Ehui, "smallholders will increasingly walk away from poverty."

Joyce Turk, senior livestock adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development, enumerates the ways livestock can help the poor: "In addition to improved human nutrition, of course, livestock generates economic growth through cash stability in the form of collateral and savings that aren't easily dissolved by inflation, reduces the need to purchase inorganic soil amendments, and provides products that can be sold at market." Delgado agrees but warns, "If research and policy do not find market-oriented ways for the smallholder to compete with large-scale commercial farming, the smallholder may well be shut out from an unprecedented growth opportunity."

Some analysts fear that booming livestock production could divert cereals away from food and toward feed markets, pushing prices for staple cereals out of the reach of the poor. But such concerns are misplaced, says Delgado. "World cereal prices are experiencing a long-term trend downward, because a substantial reserve capacity for production exists. IFPRI's projections to 2020 show that increasing livestock consumption will prevent inflation-adjusted cereal prices from falling below their already low levels, or raise them marginally, but nowhere near the high levels of the 1980s."

Dairy production has been one means the poor have used to improve their lives through the livestock sector. "Women especially tend smaller livestock, and this gives them increased control over products and the income from their sale, all of which promotes gender equity," says Jim De Vries, head of international programs at Heifer Project International, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that supplies poor families with livestock to help them become self-reliant. "We have seen that one of the primary benefits of our work with goat husbandry, for example, is that the increased income particularly benefits the nutrition and education of girls," adds De Vries.

Market-oriented dairy production is also an avenue for smallholder women farmers to increase income and food security. In some cases, however, women do not gain as much as men despite providing as much or more livestock labor. "Only in areas where women traditionally dominate in agriculture do they control most of the income from dairying," explains Steve Staal, an economist at ILRI. "And even where men and women control income fairly equally, women's participation in dairying can be constrained because of lack of access to adequate investment resources," he adds.

Effects of Production on Health and the Environment

In addition to its benefits, livestock production presents enormous environmental challenges. Cees de Haan, livestock adviser at the World Bank, says, "The large increase in demand for livestock products expected in the developing world over the next decades will put tremendous pressure on natural resources. Livestock production can help the rural poor to escape the poverty trap, but policymakers and researchers will have to meet the challenge of putting in place the policies and technologies to make livestock production more sustainable."

About 37 percent of the world's meat supply comes from industrialized livestock production. In recent years, industrial production, which concentrates large numbers of animals in confinement, has grown twice as fast as production in farming systems that mix crops and livestock, and six times as fast as production in grazing systems. Increased industrial production has brought its own environmental problems as well as animal diseases. "In East Asia," says Steinfeld, "increased animal density near urban centers now results in unparalleled waste loads, with the capacity of plants to use nutrients from manure sometimes exceeded by 1,000 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, which poses risks to flora and fauna and ultimately to humans." Manure also produces greenhouse gases - 16 percent of annual methane emissions and 7 percent of the more aggressive nitrous oxide - that cause global climate change.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an NGO based in the United States, reports that "factory" farming in 29 U.S. states is poisoning drinking water supplies and contributing to hazardous air pollution. Robbin Marks, senior resource specialist at NRDC, points to the large corporate farms that dominate livestock production as "the culprits that create pollution problems when their enormous manure storage sites contaminate bodies of water and release toxic fumes into the air." Tightening regulations, involving communities in decisions about setting up factory farms, and banning manure runoff and open-air cesspools are some of the solutions Marks proposes. The US; Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are now drafting a strategy to limit these problems.

Livestock can improve environmental quality when used in traditional farming systems. De Vries says that "ownership of livestock is a great motivation for farmers to plant forage bearing trees and shrubs, grass contours, and pasture, all of which help to control erosion and conserve water."

But without proper training and incentives for smallholders, livestock can damage the environment, especially through overgrazing on open rangeland. "There are too many people raising too many animals in the low-rainfall areas in West Asia and North Africa," says Hazell. "The encroachment of cropping further erodes the soil in these lands, some of which are already drought-prone." He believes livestock production should rely less on grazing systems and more on intensive production in higher-potential areas. Hazell agrees, however, that problems arise with this method as well, including waste disposal and transfer of disease from animals to humans: "In Hong Kong the lethal flu virus that jumped from poultry to humans didn't learn to spread from human to human, otherwise we could have seen millions of people die in a worldwide epidemic. We were lucky that time."

Another problem is the conversion of forest to ranches in the Amazon, Central America, and elsewhere. "The truth is," Hazell says, "cattle are more profitable than forest." He sees deforestation and degradation increasing if the world's demand for livestock products goes up substantially and if countries fail to intensify and industrialize their production in a sustainable way.

Milking the Benefits of Livestock Production

With rising incomes and freer markets in developing countries, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for governments to control their people's demand for meat products. The key for policy, therefore, is to ensure that meat, milk, and eggs are available to the poor, who are likely to derive the greatest health benefits, and that livestock production is organized to bring the greatest benefits to the poor and to minimize damage to the environment. "The worst thing that well-motivated agencies can do is prevent investments in small-scale, sustainable, market-oriented livestock production," says Delgado. "Such investments won't stop the animal food product revolution, but they will help ensure that it contributes as much as possible to poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability."

Reported by Heidi Fritschel and Uday Mohan.

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Photo credits: Page 1, Philippe Berry, IFPRI.