How much more meat are we eating?

How much more meat are we eating?

I was born in 1961.

That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.

It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.

Here is one.

Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.

In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.

Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.

All good.

Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.

In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.

Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.

All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.

And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.

The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.

This is a huge change in a very short time.

In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.

Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.

What about HANPP?

Come again?

HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…

to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.

It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.

Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.

Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.

These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.



NPP Net primary production

Net primary production (NPP) is

the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.

Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.

NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]

This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.

Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.

For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).


There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases

Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing income

Zhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215

Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.

Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.

Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.

But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.

The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.

As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.

Just a reminder.

We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.

The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.

I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications

The implications of food consumption

We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.

Will we all starve? No.

Will we all become vegans? No.

Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.


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