What is the true cost of eating meat? is an interesting briefing in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper. It raises some questions and possible solutions.
Food and farming is one of the biggest economic sectors in the world. We are no longer in the 14th century, when as much as 76% of the population worked in agriculture – but farming still employs more than 26% of all workers globally. And that does not include the people who work along the meat supply chain: the slaughterers, packagers, retailers and chefs.
In 2016, the world’s meat production was estimated at 317m metric tons, and that is expected to continue to grow. Figures for the value of the global meat industry vary wildly from $90bn to as much as $741bn.
Although the number of people directly employed by farming is currently less than 2% in the UK, the food chain now includes the agribusiness companies, the retailers, and the entertainment sector. According to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in 2014 the food and drink manufacturing sector contributed £27bn to the economy, and employed 3.8 million people.
It is not simple to separate out the contribution that meat production makes to this – particularly globally. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that livestock is about 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.
An influential study in 2010 of the water footprints for meat estimated that while vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg, and fruits drank up 962, meat was far more thirsty: chicken came in at 4,325l/kg, pork at 5,988l/kg, sheep/goat meat at 8,763l/kg, and beef at a stupendous 15,415l/kg. Some non-meat products were also pretty eye-watering: nuts came in at 9,063l/kg.
To put these figures into context: the planet faces growing water constraints as our freshwater reservoirs and aquifers dry up. On some estimates farming accounts for about 70% of water used in the world today, but a 2013 study found that it uses up to 92% of our freshwater, with nearly one-third of that related to animal products.