Random thoughts: meat consumption set to keep growing.

Have a look at the graph below, taken from www.earth-policy.org, which conveys the stylised fact that greater economic development leads populations to eat more meat. The graph shows that total meat consumption in China increased from 10 million tonnes in 1980 to around 70 now, a 7-fold increase, and making the meat economy of China twice that of the US. With a 50-fold increase in GDP in that same time, we are looking at an elasticity of around 0.15 with the size of the economy: if the economy doubles, meat consumption goes up 15%. The elasticity with economic growth is around .5 in that 10% economic growth means around 5% meat growth. In economic terms, meat is a luxury good.

Interestingly, a similar increase and elasticity also seems to have held for the US in this period, with the growth only stalling when the economy stalled. If we fast-forward China’s GDP growth for another 15 years, we should get another doubling of meat consumption.


meat in the US and China

meat in the US and China

The wider significance of this relation is that in many ways, this is bad news for the world but good news for Australia. Meat takes more inputs to produce than equivalent amounts of vegetable calories and thus basically means more of the world’s natural resources get to be converted towards human consumption, with all the issues of loss of biodiversity that come with that. It’s good new for Australia in that we probably have a comparative advantage in meat. Something to keep exports going when the price of iron and coal drop!

I also find this a sobering graph in terms of the substitution of meat with vegetable-based equivalents. They don’t seem to make any dent on trends yet.

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14 Responses to Random thoughts: meat consumption set to keep growing.

  1. desipis says:

    It might not be so good for Australia if the Chinese (or others) start growing their meat in labs.

  2. wilful says:

    Far more importantly regarding production, cows and sheep are ruminants and have a methane byproduct that the earth’s climate cannot afford. Unless there is some major innovation in changing the gut flora of cattle and sheep, red meat and dairy are going to become very restricted products within the next decade or so.

    • murph the surf. says:

      This may delight or torment you but the world’s first Carbon positive cattle farm may announce itself by 2016.They are based in Victoria and have an impressive record of environmental good works.
      The range of offsets available to a land owner is extensive so soon you can eat you quality cuts and feel good at the same time.

      • Paul Frijters says:

        I had a look at it because it sounded too good to be true. The basic point? If you graze a cow on lots of land, the soil eventually gains a higher steady-state of manure, effectively taking carbon out of the system. The Netherlands is perhaps a meter higher in places due to this phenomenon (I know, yuk).

        What is wrong with this ‘solution’? Easy: where do you think all the new farmland is going to come from in this world to feed these large beast who will be using more energy now that they roam around more? Goodbye forests….

        • murph the surf. says:

          I don’t think the Victorians have missed accounting for
          The point is not that beef will be an ever more popular meat rather it will be a sustainable product which will become fearsomely expensive.
          As you have mentioned there is plenty of land in Australia while plenty isn’t suited to grazing for weight gain , extensive grazing on grasslands often makes good breeding country.
          Beef is now and will become more so a luxury item.

    • Patrick says:

      Just what is a decade in your dictionary?

  3. aidan says:

    Shouldn’t something like meat consumption be examined on a per-capita basis?

    Not all cultures eat the same amount of meat


    There may well be a “ceiling” for meat consumption when rapid growth diminishes. What if the cost of meat increases more rapidly than other foodstuffs leads to substitution?

    With regards to Australian meat exports, how is it that my middle class family find beef a rather expensive grocery item, but the export of live cattle beasts to Indonesia is highly profitable? Indonesia is a much poorer country, with a per capita GDP 1/20th that of Australia. Surely their purchasing power must be much lower?

  4. murph the surf. says:

    The main new game looks to be aquaculture. It’s production could dwarf all other meats in a few decades.
    The drive for production increases is the emerging middle classes particularly in China.It is also useful to remember that the same nation is underpining the record soyabean prices and driving worldwide production.
    Re costs – well it all depends which cut and quality of meat you want to consume.
    Chicken is quite an affordable meat, pork still reasonable but if you want MSA graded,grass fed tenderloin beef then you should expect to pay at least $28/kg.

  5. Dave says:

    So how do we sell them our kangaroos, rabbits, camels, water buffalos and crocs? That’d be environmentally friendly and profitable.

  6. john r walker says:

    Do not know why, but marsupials do not produce methane. And they are much less damaging to the land than heavy hard hoofed cattle.
    Apart from the sentimental, ‘eating skippy’ aspect, the main problem is they are impossible to herd. Chickens are a very efficient producer of rich food (and eggs) 4-6 chooks will turn your vegie scraps and some chook food into eggs for a family of 4 for most of a year. Squid and octopus are very efficient producers of protein-most grow to reproductive age in about a year or two, breed and die.

    • yes, I also seem to recall that marsupials have a lot of worms, though I could be wrong about that. Probably makes storage and quality guarantee difficult.

      • john r walker says:

        All wild animals potentially have worm issues, should always be cooked properly. As for “storage and quality” not much different to other wild game or domesticated meets for that matter. I think most indigenous would tell you goanna is the best eating of all.

  7. conrad says:

    “I also find this a sobering graph in terms of the substitution of meat with vegetable-based equivalents.”

    I imagine some substitution could have gone on given that total energy intake would have increased a fair bit in that time, especially for the US where fructose syrup seems to be a staple part of the diet (proportion of calories from meat/other would have been a handy graph). Given the time at the start of the graph, at least for China, I’m also not sure it’s a very fair baseline either. The other unknown here is to what extent people want to start eating beef/lamb, since these take more space and energy to produce that battery chickens/pigs. If they do, I imagine the only real solution is to cut down even more forests to produce them (goodbye Amazon and presumably those forests in Russia and Canada).

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