Rising Meat Consumption, Climate Change And Pandemics: Untangling The Multilevel Connections – Analysis


One of the less debated causes of growing greenhouse gases is the increasing global meat consumption.

By Bhavyata Mahajan*

Two centuries of rapid global population growth coupled with changing consumption styles have spurred the demand for meat. With the introduction of industrial animal agriculture, meat production has quadrupled in the last 50 years and today the world produces more than 320 million tons of meat every year. There has been a particularly marked increase in the worldwide consumption of chicken and pork.

review report by the United Nations anticipated an increase in the worldwide meat consumption of 76 percent by mid-century, which includes increase in the consumption of poultry, increase in beef by 69 percent and a 42 percent increase in pork. Yet, what more concerning is growing meat consumption which directly puts pressure on biodiversity have created greater possibility of humans coming in contact with animal borne viruses and pathogens.

Viruses and other pathogens also move from animals to humans through markets that provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. Pandemics, which the world witnessed in the past like SARS, MERS and the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, are likely to be zoonotic in nature.

Global meat demand and pandemics

As stated earlier, a rapidly growing global population coupled with industrialisation and changing consumption habits have steadily pushing the demand for meat. The meat production has increased four times worldwide in the last five decades. The global average per capita meat consumption rose to around 20 kilograms since 1961. The per capita increment in meat demands implies that the total meat production has been increasing quicker than the rate of population growth.

The pace of change across nations differs. Increase in per capita meat consumption has been most observable in countries, which went through rapid economic transformation. For instance, since 1961, China’s meat consumption increased as much as 15 times and the rates in Brazil quadrupled during the same period. The table shows sharp increase in meat consumption from 1970 to 2016 in six countries.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

To fulfill the growing meat demand, food production has encroached on land meant for wild habitats and has open doors for pathogens to jump to domesticated animals and humans. In this regard, industrial animal agriculture further breeds its own diseases, like swine flu and avian flu.

Three out of four emerging diseases in humans has its roots emerging out of animals. Furthermore, farmed animals are injected with antibiotics to keep them alive and fasten their growth to meet the need of growing demand. Due to the rampant use of antibiotics, bacteria have become resistant leading to the emergence of ‘superbugs’ which are pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics.

According to the experts appointed by the UK government, the superbugs would be a leading cause of death globally by 2050. Similarly, as per the World Health Organisation report, in some countries an estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics produced are sold to livestock farms.

A major study concluded that the increase in the demand for animal protein resulted in tripling of the occurrence of antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria in livestock between 2000 and 2018.

Further, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation report “livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain.” More than 90 percent of meat globally comes from factory farms. The farm animal’s lives in closed spaces under harsh and unsanitary conditions and thousands of them put together, which serve as “amplifiers” for viral pandemics.

For instance, H1N1 swine flu, 2009 outbreak originated in North Carolina in a pig confinement. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 spread from civet cats and bats in China and the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 caused by the virus Sars-CoV-2 has its ecological reservoir in bat.

Other than these, bird flu (avian influenza) outbreak came from poultry, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) transmitted from camels, Ebola was transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of infected animals- chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys. Rift Valley fever transferred from livestock to humans, the Zika virus came from monkeys. HIV, a major public health issue, is thought to have originated from the consumption of bush meat.

Moreover, selection for explicit qualities in farmed animals (like large chicken breasts) has made these animals almost genetically identical which implies that an infection can undoubtedly spread from animal to animal without experiencing any hereditary variations. Experts have been for years been concerned about zoonotic diseases and have been warning about the industrial farming of animals. In 2007, the American Journal of Public Health published on the issue emphasising that mass raising and slaughtering of animals for food could be the beginning of the next big global pandemic.

Meat consumption and climate change links to pandemics

According to 2016 Global Risk Report, there is a close relationship between climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. Climate change and loss of biodiversity are resulting in development of more novel viruses like COVID-19. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that vector borne diseases is associated with climate change.

Due to global warming, the spread of vector borne diseases is increasing. For example, dengue fever and West Nile virus are emerging in areas where they were previously unknown. Further, temperature in the Arctic Circle is also rising, resulting in melting of the ice and permafrost. It is creating a lobby for infectious agents to re-emerge. According to a study, the global climate change is likely to unlock new microbes and threaten human’s ability to regulate body temperature.

The pattern of food production and consumption is one of the many factors that cause climate change. Food systems contribute to global greenhouse gases, and furthermore contribute to deforestation, biodiversity loss and declining water tables. Perhaps the biggest problem is livestock. A New Yorker article stated “4lbs of beef one consumes contributes to as much global warming as flying from New York to London — and the average American eats that much each month.”

To illustrate this further, population pressure has brought transformation in nature of agriculture in past centuries, which in many ways have played a role in climate change. As discussed earlier, the food systems are responsible for up to 30 percent of all human driven greenhouse-gas emissions. One of the less debated causes of growing greenhouse gases is the increasing global meat consumption. A well-known epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, Tim Key observed, “On a broad level, you can say that eating substantial amounts of meat is bad for the environment.”

It may be noted that emissions from livestock, largely from eructate of cows and sheep and their excrement, make up to nearly 15 percent of global emissions (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide). Beef and dairy alone make up to 65 percent of all domesticated emissions. As per an influential paper published in Nature Climate Change, without extreme cuts in the pattern, the agrarian emissions will take up the entire world’s carbon budget by 2050. The livestock will be a major contributor to the agricultural emissions alone. In short, rising meat consumption, climate change and pandemics are closely linked.

Time to rethink the choices

To conclude, the world in the last two decades has witnessed a number of pandemics emerging from animals such as SARS, MERS, Swine Flu and COVID-19. It is crucial to get to the main drivers of these pandemic and to concentrate on anticipation to stay away from another episode.

While the illegal trade of wild animal has been singled out after the outbreak of COVID-19, factory farming of animals is hardly discussed in public forums. Time is ripe to pay more attention to public health dangers emanating from factory farming and related issues. In short, factory farming conditions and anti-microbial safe pathogens emerging as a result of them (zoonotic diseases) pose an existential danger to human societies.

Furthermore, the world has to take urgent measures to arrest the increasing consumption of meat, which is unsustainable at current pace. Taking serious note of the alarming trends, various high-level reports in recent years have argued that if the world is to make an effect on climate crisis and on spread of infectious diseases, the food system needs to be fundamentally reshaped and re-examined. IPCC in recent time has been arguing for plant-based diets to adapt to climate change.

Further, sustainable practices should be encouraged to save the world from the dangers of climate change and future pandemics. Collectively, the humanity must change the global food system and work toward reducing dependency on industrial animal agriculture. This is the only way we all can collectively save the earth and also, save ourselves from witnessing another pandemic like the current one.

The author is a research intern at ORF.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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