Economic development is key to improving nutrition. As per capita incomes rise, people can afford to eat more calories and to get to those calories from a wider range of sources. Rising meat consumption is a sign of improving well-being. Looking at historical data from a range of countries, the pattern is clear: as incomes rise, meat consumption rises too (figure 1). Consumption seems to rise the fastest in the poorest countries and more slowly in richer countries, producing what economists call a ‘Kuznets curve’. But is this always true? In this blogpost we present evidence against Kuznets’ theory regarding meat consumption.
Blogpost by Natasha Ogier-Russell & dr. Jennifer Holland.
Animal products are “the new coal”
While sufficient and diverse diets are inarguably a good thing, there are downsides to increased demand for animal products. Animal agriculture has a larger ecological footprint than plant agriculture, requiring more land, water, and energy to produce each calorie, and the industry is responsible for 37% of climate-change-causing gas emissions. This damage to the environment has caused some to label animal products as “the new coal”. Intensive animal agriculture often has very poor living-standards for livestock, raising ethical concern. And there are public health risks. Intensive meat production gives rise to more zoonotic diseases and the increased use of antimicrobials, which may be associated with a rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. Additionally, when people eat more meat, especially red processed meat, they are more likely to develop heart disease and some cancers.
Kuznets curve predicts meat consumption to quadruple
Meat consumption is highest in wealthy, industrialised countries [figure 1], but the United Nations expects that the meat consumption in the African continent will quadruple by 2050, due to population growth and economic development. If we assume that all countries will travel along this Kuznets curve, with development inevitably leading to high levels of meat consumption, our ecological, ethical and public health future looks bleak. But is this future inevitable?
Is reading history flawed?
The demographer and sociologist, Arland Thornton, studied another phenomena associated with economic development: fertility decline. He argued that, because we lack historical information and we cannot know what the future holds, we might be inclined to substitute variation across space for variation across time. He called this phenomenon “reading history sideways.” This might lead us to think that economic development is a single, uniform path that all countries will follow. According to this developmental paradigm, if birth rates in Cameroon today are the same as birth rates in the Netherlands 200 years ago (36 births per 1000 individuals), Cameroon is simply 200 years ‘behind’ the Netherlands, and once it develops, birth rates will fall. Thornton was emphatic that this thinking was flawed. Cameroon is not just the Netherlands 200 years ago, it is its own country, in 2022, thus is subject to unique influential forces both within and external to the country.
Scientific knowledge and culture influence meat consumption
The Kuznets-curve approach to understanding meat consumption is a perfect example of the flawed thinking of “reading history sideways.” Today we have a greater understanding of the impact and risks of meat consumption and production. Social scientists have a more advanced knowledge of how policy makers can shape consumption and production of animal products, through taxes, including agriculture in carbon pricing, subsidy (redirection) and regulation. And climate change is undermining our ability to rear animals for consumption. Many low-income countries are already struggling with unproductive landscapes. Rising desertification and water insecurity in many areas of Africa could lead to the loss of “247 million acres of farmland by 2050”. In the future, resource-intensive animal agriculture may simply become impossible.Cultural differences also undermine a Kuznets-curve understanding of meat consumption. For example, religious and cultural norms in India have produced a very different pattern of development: incomes have risen and poverty has declined dramatically in the past half decade, but the amount of meat consumed has risen much slower than might have been expected based on the Kuznets-curve model.
Forge new pathways with agricultural policies and consumer choices
We need not fall prey to the “reading history sideways” fallacy. Policy makers, the agricultural industry and individual consumers across the globe can make choices that will change the course of history, hastening a decline in animal-product consumption in wealthy countries and foregoing high levels of consumption as poorer countries become richer. In this way we can forge new pathways to an ecologically balanced, ethical, and healthy future, with enough food for everyone.