Meat contains protein, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, B and D. These are critical nutrients that cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities from vegetables alone. Increased consumption of these nutrients results in better muscle growth, better skin, and better blood circulation among other benefits.
Consumption of meat by pregnant women also leads to better development of the fetus. Iron is particularly important during pregnancy, as a pregnant woman’s blood volume increases by nearly 50 per cent. The best source of iron is still meat.
In China, between 1961 and 2013 the average Chinese person went from eating 4kg of meat a year to 62kg. It is largely through eating more pork and dairy that Chinese diets have come to resemble Western ones, rich in protein and fat. And it is mostly because their diets have altered that Chinese people have changed shape. The average 12-year-old urban boy was nine centimetres taller in 2010 than in 1985, while the average girl is seven centimetres taller.
Meat as a Necessity
But for those in low-income nations, meat is still very much a luxury. The Economist reports that while meat consumption has peaked in the West, it will not be the case in emerging economies like India and sub-Saharan Africa.
Moderate quantities of meat and dairy can improve people’s health, particularly in lower-income countries where diets may lack variety.
As demand for meat increases in emerging economies, industrial livestock farming practices are also being introduced. In Indonesia for example, broiler chickens grown in cages have replaced the variegated brown birds pecking at the ground in villages. These commercial broilers have big appetites that grow to 2kg in weight after just 35 days. They are also vaccinated against infectious chicken diseases that can kill an entire farm’s worth of stock in days.
Consequently, supermarket chickens are not only convenient, they are cheap as well. Furthermore, as economic activity increases, urbanisation means that people will eat out more. Cheap meat in restaurants provide urban workers a reliable source of protein.
Should We Eat Meat?
On the other hand, it is undeniable that livestock cultivation has an outsized environmental impact.
The pattern of meat consumption is not only geographical; tastes in meat are changing too. Though cultural factors play a huge role in this, in general people move from pork or mutton to beef as they get richer.
For example, the shift from pork to beef in China is bad news for the environment. Because pigs require no pasture, and are efficient at converting feed into flesh, pork is among the greenest of meats. And because cows are ruminants, they belch methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Furthermore, an American study found that beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water compared to pork and chicken.
In the West however, beef is giving way to chicken. This is partly due to the bad rap that red meat gets from health professionals and nutritionists. Two-thirds of those in the US say they are eating less of one meat, while a third of British people claim to have either stopped eating meat or reduced it.
As a result, meat consumption is peaking in the West, as consumers eat less meat, or give it up altogether. This trend is partly thanks to initiatives such as Meat-free Mondays and Veganuary. At the same time, a number of documentaries and high-profile advocates of veganism have highlighted the potential benefits of eating less meat.
The World Health Organization has also cautioned against consumption of processed meat and red meat, indicating that it is a carcinogenic risk alongside exposure to asbestos and tobacco. But scientists are also unsure what it is about meat that is detrimental to health. One possibility is that the iron is bad – in which case processed and red meat would both be implicated. Other potentially carcinogenic compounds include nitrates used in many processed and cured meat products.
An Omnivorous Future
Either way, barring a big leap forward in laboratory-grown meat, the trends outlined here are likely to continue. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the global number of ruminant livestock (i.e. cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats) will rise from 4.1bn to 5.8bn between 2015 and 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario.
While the trend of eating meat isn’t necessarily bad, we need to re-look at some of our carnivorous practices – especially our habit of eating meat at every meal. It is also possible that the carcinogenic link with red meat may be connected to not consuming enough vegetables. For now though, there are empty bellies around the world – and with (moderate amounts of) meat, they shall be fed.