Economic Letter

David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.

Canadians eat a great deal of meat. Just over 808 million chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese were slaughtered last year. In addition, 25,267 million cattle, pigs and sheep were slaughtered. If we add fish, (492,441 million), and shell fish (4,245, 548 billion) the total volume is truly immense. 

Per capita, we consume about 35 kilograms of beef, pork and lamb each year. (To put this amount in context, in the U.S. the figure is 2.5 times as great and it’s even higher in Australia). Meat consumption per capita, particularly of beef, has been declining in Canada from 38.5 kilos in 1980 to 26.7 kilos in 2021. 

Worldwide meat consumption, however, is rising with population growth. Indeed, it has been rising at a faster rate than population reflecting the fact that as incomes rise so does meat consumption. For example, in China, meat consumption has grown by more than 15 times since 1960 and in Brazil consumption has nearly quadrupled over the same time frame.

This large increase in demand is having a huge and measurable impact upon both land usage and on climate change. For example, conversion efficiency ratios are used to measure the ratio of feed inputs (either in the form of food crops or pasture/grazing land) to output in the form of food product. The Feed Conversion Ratio is used to measure the mass quantity of feed (25 kilos) required to produce one kilo of beef; the ratio is 0.04

Environmental footprints such as land-use requirements or greenhouse gas emissions per unit mass are calculated using a technique called life-cycle analysis. This calculation includes all food chain inputs such as fertilizer production and application, seed production, energy use on the farm, feed production, manure production and management and farm infrastructure construction.

Scientists can thereby calculate the energy efficiency of meat production; that is, the percentage of energy (caloric) inputs as feed effectively converted to animal product. For beef that is 1.9% meaning 98.1% of input energy is lost during production. 

The protein efficiency of meat production is defined as the percentage of protein inputs used as feed that are effectively converted to animal product. The most recent figures indicate that for beef this ratio is 3.8% and for pork 8.5%. These efficiency ratios indicate meat production is highly inefficient.

Were that not bad enough, cattle are major producers of methane gas which is more than 20 times more deleterious to the environment than carbon dioxide.

The herd in Canada numbers over 10.2 million and accounts for about 8% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Efforts are being made to breed cattle that will expel less methane but that is a long-term project with no certainty of success. Continued increases in global meat production will not only make the achievement of emission targets more difficult, it will also put enormous pressure on land use and feed production.

Major meat and feed producers are well aware of this and are devoting considerable resources in both personnel and funds to develop artificial substitutes. Fast food chains in North America and Europe are already selling plant-based substitutes for hamburgers and sausages and consumer acceptance is growing, albeit slowly. 

Another alternative is artificial or “no-kill” meat produced in bioreactors. The first such product, chicken, has been licensed for sale by the government of Singapore and is produced by an American company Eat Just. The advantages of this product are that it could slash the impact of livestock production on both climate change and land use as well as providing cleaner, drug free and cruelty free meat. 

While production at present is limited, Eat Just is investing in a significant increase in capacity which should significantly reduce the costs of production.

The biggest challenge will be gaining consumer acceptance and that will take time. The science is already here and the cost squeeze of traditional meat production will work in favour of no-kill meat. Something to consider as we fire up our grills for barbecue season!

David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.