Meat consumption is going up globally, and while meat is inherently greenhouse gas-intensive, an analysis found that less carbon-polluting meats aren't acting as a replacement — they're just piling on.
The analysis, published April 26 in Nature Sustainability, examined worldwide meat-consumption data from 1961 to 2013, a period that saw a quintupling of per capita chicken consumption and virtually unchanged beef stats.
In prior research, author Richard York, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, found that expanding renewable energy did not offset fossil fuels, but instead increased overall energy consumption; he wondered if the same "displacement paradox" might be at work with meats.
"I started with a simple question, following on my energy research: Does the expansion of poultry production actually suppress consumption of other meat sources?" York told The Academic Times. "It doesn't. … That, of course, has big environmental implications, because it really means the 'lower-carbon' meat sources aren't really helping with the climate because they're not suppressing the higher-carbon ones."
Chicken, fish and aquatic invertebrate foods such as mussels and scallops produce relatively less carbon and are relatively less resource-intensive in the food-production system than beef, mutton, goat, buffalo and pork. But even though the consumption of pigs, fish and aquatic invertebrates doubled over the study period, and chicken consumption increased fivefold, other meat consumption remained steady. "Consumption," notably, means foods produced and sold for human food, and thus include the 17% of food the U.N. says is wasted. Notably, food waste also drives the climate crisis.
York analyzed all nations in the world with available data. According to Our World in Data, the average person consumed about 3 kilograms of poultry per year in 1961; in 2013, consumption rose to 15 kilograms a year. Over the same period, beef and buffalo consumption did not really change, going from 9.4 kilograms per person to 9.3 kilograms.
The average American consumed about 100 kilograms of meat in 2013, or over 200 pounds, more than twice the world average of 95 pounds per year. U.S. beef habits haven't changed much since 1961 — Americans consumed, on average, 41 kilograms a year in 1961, peaked at 59 kilograms in 1976, and ate 36 kilograms in 2013.
In his statistical analysis, York said he measured consumption per capita, "so we take care of population growth, which will of course lead to more food consumption. I control for gross domestic product, affluence — you know, people get richer, they change their diet — urbanization. I control for a variety of things, and then I look at, if you have a rise in poultry consumption in nations, does that have an effect on how much consumption of other meat is happening? The finding is, it doesn't."
And as the world runs out of time to save itself from the worst effects of human-induced climate disaster, that finding could help policymakers. U.S. President Joe Biden hosted a virtual climate summit in April and promised to halve U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but he avoided setting goals for agriculture.
Indeed, suggesting that beef production should be curtailed would be controversial in the U.S.: Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, are prone to outbursts about hamburgers. But, York said, trusting the market to solve issues with new products hasn't worked for fossil fuels and cleaner energy sources; it hasn't — and won't — work with meat either.
"Overall, the trajectory is pretty bad," he said. "Meat consumption is rising, and that has huge climate implications. If we're gonna do a serious climate push, we need to look at the meat industry somewhat like we look at the fossil fuel industry."
The study, "Poultry and fish and aquatic invertebrates have not displaced other meat sources," published April 26 in Nature Sustainability, was authored by Richard York, University of Oregon.