A look into the future of meat production

In this extended version of the article that appeared in the March 2014 issue of Pig World, Jane Jordan says the recently published Meat Atlas 2014, compiled by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe, makes interesting reading for anyone involved in meat production

Global meat demand is rising and the livestock sector has an optimistic outlook. However, beneath the umbrella of worldwide economics exists significant variability within individual markets. Although overall growth is expected – and to be welcomed – there will be repercussions for established businesses that are worth knowing about.

The recently published Meat Atlas 2014, compiled by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe, makes interesting reading. Although its authors push the ‘organic ideal’, on balance, it provides a synopsis of how the world’s meat sector might shape up during the next 20 years – a valuable perspective for the UK pig industry.

In the developed world meat eating has reached a plateau. Consumption in the US is falling, down by 9% since 2007, while in Germany – home to Europe’s principal carnivores – people are eating 2kg less meat per person a year. The Meat Atlas, factors concerns about food safety, traceability, environmental impacts and a preference for quality for the downward trend. Western consumers are trading up and buying less.

In recent years, UK pigmeat consumption has slumped, which is in line with global trends. However, if the Atlas observations are right, and consumer demand is primed for high quality and high welfare meat products, then our industry is well placed to supply them. There should be scope to grow our business and secure a greater market share both domestically and elsewhere.

Meat consumption is rising rapidly in developing nations. In Asia the meat production sector is predicted to grow by 80% by 2022 with pig and poultry production taking the lead. Expansion in these industries is following the same growth patterns as that seen in developed nations several decades ago.

It’s also worth noting that the Chinese Animal Protection Network and The Animal Welfare Board of India (and alike) are gaining prominence with middle class consumers in developing nations. Quality assurance and animal welfare are fashionable ideals and niche markets are beginning to emerge.

But there are also concerns about over supply.

Global food demand may escalate, in line with a booming population, but only a small proportion of these ‘extra people’ will actually influence meat consumption. The Meat Atlas says urban populations are eating more meat, but they only play a minor role in driving overall consumption. Being able to produce enough primary foods, such as grain and pulses, will be the greatest food challenge.

Pointed issues
Another pointed argument is that diet is no longer a private matter. Every meal impacts on the lives of people across the world and I have to agree. In the developed world the diversity of food on offer throughout the year is enormous – think Kenyan green beans available in January. This ‘choice’ is generally supplied by producers in developing nations and this trade benefits these economies and fuels development.

The Meat Atlas also offers some clarity the effects meat eating has on climate change and conservation. Sustainable production, with a lower carbon foot print is achievable – as is being demonstrated by the UK pig industry and its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions – is to be encouraged, although the authors don’t necessarily have the same perspective here!

Large-scale agribusiness is scrutinised, with details on how tight margins have encouraged large-scale production – the $7.1 billion Shuanghui International/ Smithfield Foods Inc deal is cited as example. But these ‘mega businesses’ are often vulnerable to volatile market prices and trade tensions, which in turn can create instability in global markets.

The Meat Atlas also says diversity suffers as a result of industrialised livestock production, and this could limit future opportunities to respond to future environmental challenges, market conditions or social needs. Consider poultry production, where one breeding cock can sire 28 million genetically similar offspring; and that one third of the world’s pigs originate from a small number of companies that specialise in very similar, high-performance genotypes. Does this narrow genetic diversity increase the vulnerability modern farm animals have to pests and diseases?

Freedom, domination and protection
Free trade versus safe food is debated. Lower trade barriers would benefit global trade and competition, but food safety standards differ considerably from country to country, and removing certain barriers could jeopardise hard won regulations governing animal welfare, drug use, feed additives and the use of GM crops in livestock diets. Freer trade may offer benefits and opportunities, but consumers must be protected.

Another key concern for the livestock sector is the emerging Latin American soy empire. Large-scale soyabean production is increasingly controlled by ‘sowing pools’ (some say cartels) where the crop is intensively produced, says the Meat Atlas. Between 2008 and 2012 Argentine sowing pools earned estimated profits of between 16-21% per year and although new rules governing land purchases have been enforced to restrict expansion, many growers continue to expand their interests in Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay – their control of the soyabean market is significant and getting stronger.

The socio-economics associated of meat production must also be considered as it impacts on heavily on many developing economies. Small-scale livestock farming is a vitally important as back yard farms supplement family incomes and often provide women with financial independence to fund education, medical treatment and health care. This is valuable agriculture that must not be pushed out by large-scale production.

Another key observation by the Meat Atlas is the universal acceptance that those employed in the slaughter and processing sector is unskilled and low-grade labour. This attitude certainly warrants change in western societies, given the enormous investment and value now placed in food safety and traceability and quality assurance throughout the meat chain.

You can download the Meat Atlas 2014 for free via: www.boell.de/en/2014/01/07/meat-atlas

NB: This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the March 2014 issue of Pig World

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