Rising demand for meat bad for environment

Friday February 07 2014

A meat vendor on Nairobi’s Outer Ring Road, prepares meat for customers. In East Africa, Kenyans are more meat consumers than their counterparts in the region. Photo/Denish Ochieng

John ole Lankas says he rarely misses his favourite meal of boiled beef and milk. The 30-year-old tour guide was brought up on meat and milk, the main staple foods in the Maasai culture.

Back in Nairobi, men and women throng the popular Kenyatta Market at lunchtime for its nyama choma (roast meat) and ugali. George Gitau, a civil servant, is one of the many customers who frequent the smoke-filled cubicles to feast on roast meat. “I like roast beef, especially with ugali and kachumbari (tomato and onion salad),” said Mr Gitau.

It is people like Mr Lankas and Mr Gitau who are raising the global demand for meat every year. The livestock industry is considered one of the major causes of greenhouse gases and its expansion will definitely slow efforts to combat climate change.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), dairy and meat prices hit a record high due to increased demand last year.

The Meat Price Index, for example, averaged 188.1 points in December, slightly above its November level. Prices for bovine and pig meat moved higher, fuelled mainly by demand from China and Japan.

The situation is the same in East Africa, and there are no signs of the demand declining any time soon, as projections show the middle-class population increasing in the region.


The latest study published in the science journal Nature shows that people are becoming more carnivorous as their diets become more animal-based.

In fact, according to the study, the demand is increasing at a faster rate in developing economies as modernisation and a sedentary lifestyle take root.

China and India currently top the list of drivers of the global demand for meat. In East Africa, Kenyans are more carnivorous than their counterparts in the region.

The scientists from Europe who conducted the study, identified the world’s top meat consumers by calculating humanity’s trophic level, a metric used in ecology to position species in the food chain — rising from primary producers — green plants —through herbivores and omnivores to primary carnivores and large carnivores. The trophic level thus reflects the proportion of flesh and vegetation in the creature’s diet. Level one is green plants, whose diet is sunlight.

They managed to come up with the human trophic level for 176 countries using consumption patterns for each year from 1961 to 2009.

The scientists used data compiled by FAO from 102 types of food — from animal fat to root tubers. Using the metric, the researchers, led by Sylvain Bonhommeau, a French scientist, estimated that humanity’s global median trophic level was 2.21 in 2009, which put human beings at par with other omnivores, such as pigs and anchovies, in the global food web.

However, the scientists found an increase in fat and meat consumption, in post 2009, pushing up the global median human trophic by three per cent or about 0.6 points.

On a global scale, the leading meat consumers, according to the study, are Mongolia and the Scandinavian quartet of Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and Germany are also leading meat consumers. United States and Brazil in the Americas and Australia are also big consumers.

In Africa, the top tier meat consumers are Sudan, South Sudan, Mauritania, Kenya and Botswana.

According to Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari) director Ephraim Mukisira, despite the increase of three per cent looking insignificant, it is massive when analysed on a global scale.

“The world’s current population has gone beyond seven billion people and is still increasing. Since they will all require to be fed it means that the demand for meat and other animal products will remain high, especially with the middle class population increasing,” said Dr Mukisira.

The increase in meat consumption is bad news for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been at the forefront of advocating a reduction in meat consumption, citing its adverse effects on the environment.

FAO projects that the demand for livestock products will grow by 70 per cent by 2050.

So why should the world be concerned about the unprecedented increase in meat consumption?

More meat isn’t just clogging our circulations, it is also heating up the earth. According to FAO, the livestock sector is estimated to emit 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum.

READ: Poor nations’ cattle biggest pollutants, study shows

“Beef and milk production account for the majority of emissions, contributing 41 per cent and 19 per cent respectively of the sector’s emissions,” said FAO.

In fact, the main source of emissions is feed production and processing, accounting for 45 per cent of total emissions, with nine per cent attributable to the expansion of pasture and feed crops into forests.

Livestock takes up a lot of space, nearly one-third of the earth’s entire land mass. The lost forest cover results in increased heating of the planet.

The second major source is enteric fermentation from ruminants, which account for 39 per cent. As cattle digest grass or grain, they produce methane gas, which they expel in large quantities every day. Studies show methane gas is 20 times more lethal in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide.

Manure decomposition contributes 10 per cent. Animal waste from livestock generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 296 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.