In its current form, the meat industry is unsustainable.

People are eating more meat than ever despite the many studies that point to its detrimental effects on the health and environment. Research from IDTechEx reveals that the meat industry is faced with major sustainability problems that can significantly endanger the business of meat production in the future. And, again, the industry is extremely damaging to the environment, contributing to climate change, dwindling water supply, and pollution. 

A 2018 report by Our World in Data found that global meat consumption continues to increase every year, with Asia as the world’s largest meat producer. As of 2017, poultry production is one of the fastest growing segments of the global livestock industry with an estimated annual global yield of 124 million tons. The industry standardizes the process of manufacturing packed meats—most facilities are identical and their chickens are exactly the same breed, size, and weight—to ensure cheap and rapid production. By 2050, when the world’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion, global food production requires a 70 percent increase in order to feed everyone. 

Production sustainability problems

The IDTechEx research published in March 2020 found that 77 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock but only 33 percent of global protein intake comes from meat and dairy. However, only 17 percent of actual caloric consumption comes from animals, with the remaining 83 percent being supplied by plant-based food. This level of return is far from equal to the long-term capacity of the livestock industry to provide meat. 

The IDTechEx research published in March 2020 found that 77 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock but only 33 percent of global protein intake comes from meat and dairy.

To meet the demands of the population, global food production also has to work on increasing its food production levels. However, crop yields have been declining over the last five decades. Also, a huge part of these yields are allocated to animal agriculture.

For instance, about 67 percent of the world’s soy production is made into feed for livestock and poultry. For corporations that need to save on feeding thousands of livestock, soybean meals are a cheap and fatty option. These are often produced through monocultures, which can result in chemical pesticide and fertilizer residue that harms, more than nourishes, animals. 

The Humane Society of the United States has also found that animals are at their biological limits due to selective breeding practices. Chickens—the cheapest, most popular, and most accessible poultry product—are being bred to meet market weight at a rapid rate.

Due to this, they experience bone deformities and tendon ruptures that render them crippled and immobile. In some cases, chickens die faster than they could be packaged, urging breeders to continue these practices at a larger scale. The process of selective breeding compromises livestock health for the sake of profit. 

From a nutritional standpoint, meat as a major food staple is an inefficient source of nutrients compared to plant-based options. Twenty-five calories of energy is required to create just one calorie of beef, while it takes 15 for pork. Even chicken, which is the most efficient energy source (compared to pork and beef), requires nine calories of energy for a calorie of food. Producing meat is a caloric loss that is at odds with the need to address global hunger and poverty. 

Chickens have also been impacted by the problems in meat industry and thus requires a closer look at how to sustainably operate poultry productions
Chickens moved from the brooder to their first time on pasture at Pasture Song Farm in Pottstown, Pennsylvania

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the meat industry is a major source of environmental deterioration. Meat production is “one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” 

It’s widely responsible for greenhouse emissions, with methane from livestock and carbon dioxide from soil cultivation as major contributors. It’s also a culprit in land and water pollution. Beef production is extremely land extensive—carbon dioxide emissions are associated with land clearance to make way for new pastures and expansion of any kind of livestock production is a major proponent of deforestation. Fertilizers from animal feed also trickle down to rivers and lakes, killing fish and underwater ecosystems. 

Meat alternatives

Going meat-free is nothing new. It has been one of the most consistent health and wellness trends in recent years and the rise of meat alternatives as a mainstay in fast food culture has also helped in popularizing meat-free meals.

In 2011, Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown created Impossible Foods in a bid to eliminate animal agriculture. The Impossible Burger has spawned many other fake meat products like skewers, patties, and sliders, inside and outside the company.

The popular documentary “Forks Over Knives” by Brian Wendel has also helped change the public’s perception of plant-based food. Because of the accessibility of information, especially in the social media age, people are becoming more aware of the ethical dilemma of eating animal products, with many people and even restaurants consciously trying to make an effort towards reducing meat consumption. 

Although it is highly unlikely that the whole world will give up meat consumption, there are ways that the food and beverage industry can promote meat alternatives and plant-based food among customers. 

Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute says that “ethics don’t figure in” people’s dietary choices. Meat is chosen primarily because of its price, taste, and convenience. For Friedrich, meat alternative products must be created to address these factors—sustaining price parity with real meat, opening distribution lines to make it widely accessible, and created in such a way that the taste is indistinguishable from real meat—all while keeping it ethical and sustainable at the industry level. 

Meat alternatives also have staying power in menus. Thirty percent of people who have tried to consume food that was created with meat alternatives are very likely to try them again.

Many startups are developing flavorful proteins that are either plant-based or lab-grown (similar to how breweries function). In the last two years, the innovations in meat alternatives have given rise to industries centered on plant-based and cultured meat. It’s also opening opportunities for meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh, beans, mushrooms, and jackfruit to further refine their production and distribution processes. 

For years now, taking advantage of the increasing demand in plant-based food has proven to be a smart move for food and beverage businesses. Many drink establishments now offer drinks made exclusively with plant-based milk or at least as an option. There are also restaurants that include vegetarian and vegan food and use meat alternatives for most of their menu. For bigger restaurants, offering plant-based mains can be a step towards creating a full-blown plant-based segment. 

Meat alternatives also have staying power in menus: Thirty percent of people who have tried to consume food that was created with meat alternatives are very likely to try them again. While plant-based diets are appealing to all generations, millennials and Gen-Z are more inclined to choose restaurants that offer plant-based meat. It’s also projected that once younger millennials and Gen-Z gain purchasing power, demand will rise even more for plant-based and ethically-made food. 

There are a lot of problems in the meat industry but developments in science, food tech, and agricultural research will be able to help the global industry patch up its shortcomings. Foodservice providers will also be a great help to the industry and its consumers in laying down the groundwork for normalizing plant-based meal plans.