Reducing meat consumption to mitigate biodiversity loss: opportunities and obstacles


Livestock production for meat consumption has considerable negative impacts on biodiversity. Though the state of meat consumption in the world shows mixed trends, it is overall expected to increase. Tackling this problem on the production side by increasing resource efficiency does not seem to create sufficient results. It therefore suggests that consumers’ choice to reduce or suppress meat intake as part of their diets could be a more impactful lever to mitigate biodiversity loss. However, obstacles remain numerous. The environmental impacts of dietary changes could be significant but are reduced by some factors and are almost only considered in Europe. Consumers reluctance to change their behaviours is also a major obstacle and diminishes even more the potential power of consumption. Finally, the global nature of the problem suggests that global policies are needed, but food consumption does not appear in the global agenda for biodiversity and questions about the distribution of responsibility add to the complexity of the issue.

1. Impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity

1.1. Biodiversity loss and the livestock sector

Biodiversity loss can be defined by the decline in the number of species and ecosystems on Earth. As an example, the decline of vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2010 has been estimated to be of 58%, with an annual decline of abundance of 2% (Living Planet Report 2016). Biodiversity being the core of a complex system composed of interrelated living and non-living organisms, biodiversity loss is a major threat to the future of populations on Earth, including humans.

Today, the first cause of biodiversity loss is the loss and degradation of natural habitats, to which food production for human consumption is a major driver. The focus is put here on meat as it constitutes the highest burden on the environment among all food products consumed. Meat and dairy consumption accounts for more than half of the environmental impacts of all food products consumed in Europe (Tukker et al., 2011). Overall, it is considered that 30% of biodiversity loss today is due to the livestock sector, which makes it the first cause of species extinctions (FAO 2006).

1.2. Drivers of biodiversity loss

Livestock production requires important areas of land, either for grazing or for animal feed growing. Grazing occupies 26% of ice-free surfaces on Earth and bad grazing practices such as the use of fire for pasture management and overgrazing are often practiced (Tukker et al., 2011). They induce land degradation and habitat modification which can be detrimental to biodiversity. In Europe, most of the historical habitat fragmentation is due to extensive grazing. As for feed production, it is estimated that one third of the world’s arable land and 40% of total agricultural outputs are used to feed animals for human consumption (Machovina, Feeley, & Ripple, 2015; FAO 2006; Stoll-Kleemann & Schmidt, 2017). Overall, livestock production is estimated to account for three quarters of all agricultural lands (Machovina et al., 2015).

Moreover, land-use changes often take place in species-rich areas, such as tropical forests. Over three quarters of deforested lands in the Amazon region and nearly half of Costa Rica’s tropical forests are now dedicated to the production of livestock and of feedstock for animals (Machovina et al., 2015). The livestock sector is also probably the first cause of water pollution, which has an important negative effect on aquatic ecosystems through the integration of phosphates, nitrates and animal waste in freshwater (FAO 2006). Finally, climate change, which is not directly tackled here, is also a consequence of livestock production, a cause of biodiversity loss and a multiplication factor of the other drivers. Livestock farming is indeed estimated to be responsible for about 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases emissions.

1.3. The role of production

The environmental impacts of meat production vary widely with agricultural practices. The global livestock production system is further intensified through the development of both confined livestock production and industrial scale feed crop production. In Asia, the historical small-scale mixed farming system where livestock is integrated with many different crops is shifting to intensive production next to urban markets. 75% of total production growth in Asia by 2030 is expected to take place in confined systems (Machovina et al., 2015). Today, intensive livestock production, which requires great quantities of harvested feed and involves detrimental processes, have the worst impact on biodiversity among all methods. Nevertheless, and though the trend is likely to be reversed, cumulative loss from extensive systems which have characterised agricultural practices for 11 thousand years are still much higher than loss due to intensive systems, which appeared only few decades ago (FAO, 2006).

As a result, the modification of production patterns toward agroecological systems, which are less harmful to biodiversity, can be considered as a solution. Facing increasing consumers and investors pressures, some big companies of the livestock sector are already involved in improving the sustainability of their supply chain. Cargill, one the five major animal agribusiness companies has committed to a “deforestation-free supply chain” (Henders, Ostwald, Verendel, & Ibisch, 2018). Certification mechanisms such as labels are also tools to improve production practices. However, both corporate social responsibility policies and certification schemes have limitations in their actual impact, because of the weakness of the definitions and the criteria used.

1.4. The role of consumption

Moreover, these mitigation strategies on the supply side, based on technology and increased efficiency, are proven to be insufficient at least to meet greenhouse gases emission reduction targets (Macdiarmid, Douglas, & Campbell, 2016) and most probably to mitigate biodiversity loss. In a context of high pressure on lands, food security issues and environmental degradation, the idea that competition for land would be significantly reduced if crops were produced directly for human consumption rather than for feedstock production is gaining momentum. It is estimated that 70% more calories would be available globally if crops currently grown for livestock feed were dedicated to direct human consumption (Machovina et al., 2015; Stoll-Kleemann & Schmidt, 2017).

Though both the production and consumption sides of the livestock supply chain should be tackled to mitigate the impacts of meat on biodiversity, the most impactful solution might be to reduce, if not stop, meat consumption.

2. Past, current and future trends of meat consumption

2.1. Meat consumption and vegetarianism

At the global scale, the median human consumption of animal products is 21% of the weight of all food consumed and the annual per capita meat consumption is 44.3kg, which is 10kg more than in 1998 (Machovina et al., 2015; Shimokawa, 2015). However, meat consumption has remained equal in most high-income countries in the past decade, while it has substantially increased in many emerging economies, such as in China, where today more than one quarter of the global meat production is eaten. Despite this trend, the China’s per capita consumption is still half the US per capita consumption (Machovina et al., 2015). This data reflects very different consumption patterns among countries and people which makes it a difficult issue to deal with, as addressed in part 5.3.

On the other hand, 1 billion people do not eat meat, partly for cultural and religious reasons. In Europe, this is barely the case as in Germany, the country with the highest number of vegetarians, where 11% of the population do not eat meat (vegetarianism) and 1% do not eat animal-derived food products (veganism) (Stoll-Kleemann & Schmidt, 2017). More and more people also consider themselves as flexitarian, meaning that they reduce their meat consumption. The beliefs behind vegetarianism, veganism and flexitarianism which are not part of traditional cultures or religious practices, are increasingly spread in Europe. They include the refusal to take part in animal suffering because of ethical considerations. Health arguments are also widespread and seem to be the first motivating factor, as meat consumption, and especially processed meat and red meat consumption, increases the risks of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancers (Mathijs, 2015).

2.2. Nutrition transitions and the future of meat consumption

The future of global meat consumption is difficult to assess as two nutrition transitions – changes in diets because of “a wide range of factors including income, technical change, urbanisation and culture” (Mathijs, 2015) – are at stake. The first trend took place in high-income societies and now takes place among the middle classes of emerging countries. There, people eat more meat consequently to an increase in their income because meat is expensive and is a social marker of wealth. However, this does not seem to lead to a global convergence of diets because of another nutritional transition toward higher-quality food, more vegetables, legumes and whole grains, and less meat. This second transition is due to behavioral changes and more value given to health, environmental concerns and the beliefs cited above. Future meat consumption patterns are therefore hard to predict as the second transition does not correlate with easily measurable factors such as income.

As a result, the growth in global annual meat demand was the highest in the period 1961 – 2001 (3%), while it should be of 1.7% in the period 2001 – 2030 and 1% in the period 2030 – 2050 (FAO, 2006). Overall, global meat consumption is still likely to increase due to the weight of developing countries such as China where population growth, wealth increase and urbanisation should overcome the second nutritional transition. Though income elasticity for meat in China is expected to decrease, it will most probably not decrease enough to compensate population and wealth growth (Shimokawa, 2015).

The increase in meat consumption in developing countries is expected to have important environmental impacts. As an example, by 2050, Ecuador, Brazil and China will require a 30% expansion in their current agricultural areas to meet the demand for meat, accounting for respectively 10%, 10% and 18% of the total country area (Machovina et al., 2015). In Africa, land acquisitions by large agricultural companies to produce feedstock are expected as a response to the rise in demand.

3. How powerful are consumers choices?

3.1. Environmental impacts of diet changes in Europe

The environmental impact of diets and diet changes have been mainly studied in Europe – it is the case of 13 out of 14 studies made in the 2005-2015 period and found by Hallström and her collaborators – using dietary scenario analysis based on life cycle assessments methods. With equivalent energy and protein intakes as today, a reduction in red meat intake and the suppression of all processed meat in European diets would induce an 8% decrease in the environmental impacts related to food consumption compared to today diets. The same figure is found in the case of a shift toward the Mediterranean diet, which is characterised by a low consumption of dairy and meat products in favour of whole grains, vegetables, fish and olive oil. In both scenarios, the share of food in the impacts of consumption would lose 2 points, from around 27% to 25%, reducing the total environmental impacts from consumption by 2% (Tukker et al., 2011).

Under the assumption that the energy intake would remain equal, meat consumption would be replaced by other products which would also require land use and have negative effects on biodiversity. However, the overall feed demand would decrease more than the demand for direct food cereals would increase. Replacing 50% of animal-derived food (meat, eggs and dairy) with plant-based foods on European diets would permit a 23% reduction in per capita use of cropland for food production, from 0.23 to 0.17 hectares per citizen. 9.2 million hectares of grassland currently intensively managed and 14.5 million hectares of arable land would no longer be required. Fertiliser inputs would decrease by 37%, from 11.3 to 8.0 million tons of nitrogen per year (Westhoek et al., 2014).

The question of how the land would be used afterward surely remains. It is also important to note that the equal energy intake assumption is rather conservative, as western diets are also characterised by too high energy intake compared to health recommendations (Cafaro, Primack, & Zimdahl, 2006). Finally, some rebound effects have been explored, such as the increase in other products consumption as a result of an increased purchasing power from not buying any more meat, but no negative environmental effects have been found.

3.2. Limitations through the production’s response

If meat consumption decreases as in the scenarios described above, the meat production sector in Europe would compensate the decrease in domestic demand for meat by increasing exports to foreign markets. This is even more likely to happen in the global context of increasing demand for meat in developing countries. According to a partial equilibrium model integrating agricultural productions and prices, the decrease in European meat consumption would induce more exports, less imports and overall, almost no change in European meat production. The production and imports of other products, such as fish would also increase. Ultimately, the reduction of all environmental impacts due to consumption would only be of 0.6% instead of the 2% stated in the previous part (Tukker et al., 2011).

This questions the soundness of tackling meat consumption in western diets, as the impacts of meat on biodiversity are higher and likely to increase in other parts of the world. However, changes in diets in Europe still carry weight in global meat consumption, and therefore on global impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity. The chances than the second nutritional transition described in 2.2 spreads also increases with the spreading of underlying beliefs, accelerating a virtuous circle.

4. Are consumers willing to change?

4.1. Reluctance to change

The consumers’ power in mitigating biodiversity loss through their food choices is significantly undermined by people’s reluctance to reduce their meat consumption. According to a survey made by Eating Better, a UK initiative advocating for sustainable and healthy food, only a third of respondents “would be willing to consider reducing their meat consumption” (Macdiarmid et al., 2016).

It is important to note that this discussion is very centred on western societies, mainly because few references were found in the literature about social and cultural drivers to dietary choices in developing countries. However, it would be relevant to study this issue from the perspective of other countries, especially those which carry or will carry a great weight in the debate.

At the individual scale, four drivers explain people’s reluctance to change their diets toward a reduced meat consumption. First, knowledge of the environmental impacts of consuming meat is not so widespread. The information still comes from committed organisations and media and therefore does not reach all fringes of the population. The second major brake is the access to alternative options. Diet changes require alternative shopping, catering opportunities and knowledge about how to access them. People also need specific capacities, such as cooking skills and health awareness, in order to adopt alternative diets. Third, the perception that personal change and food only play minor roles in the context of global environmental issues is widespread. Pollutions from industrial sectors are considered as major source of environmental damages that changes in food consumption could not counteract. The increasing consumption of meat in developing countries is also perceived by European citizens as a major counterforce to their own action (Macdiarmid et al., 2016). Finally, food consumption behaviours are based on automatisms which are very difficult to change. The opportunity cost of changing daily dietary habits is very high and people require strong interests or incentives to invest time in changing their diets (Mathijs, 2015).

Behind dietary choices and meat consumption stand cultural and social values which are anchored and make individual changes even less likely to happen. Meat has a strong presence in western societies’ traditional meals. Values and emotions such as pleasure, sociability, strength or wealth are associated with eating meat. On the other hand, representations and social identities are associated with vegetarianism. On both sides, eating meat or not is greatly influenced by the social group individuals are part of.

4.2. Policies implications

Following previous observations, the role of public policies should be to spread information and promote good representations of vegetarianism. Public policies targeting prices to reduce meat consumption could also be used but are less likely to work without a radical change in the values and beliefs associated with meat consumption. Skepticism has also been expressed about such economic measures following the observation that the consumption of pork in China has increased despite the sharp rise in pork prices since 2006 – the average price of the period 2007-2010 was twice the average price of the period 1996-2006 – though consumption would have probably increased less otherwise (Shimokawa, 2015).

In Europe, the health argument is a useful though limited policy tool. Today, western diets are not in accordance with nutrition guidelines and are characterised by higher meat intakes than what is recommended (Cafaro et al., 2006; Westhoek et al., 2014). However, if European diets would change in order to meet the nutrition recommendations, there would be no improvements in the environmental impact of diets because the impacts of meat would be compensated with the ones of fish, cereals and vegetables (Tukker et al., 2011). Additional meat intake reduction is needed to permit such improvements. This is of high importance in a social context where health arguments are better heard by citizens than environmental arguments toward reducing meat consumption. It was considered unrealistic by the “Improvement of Products” (IMPRO) program’s study launched by the European Commission to promote a policy which would consist of intervening on consumer choices using environmental reasons only (Tukker et al., 2011). The only European policy to tackle meat consumption considered as realistic is therefore based on health but should have very weak impacts on biodiversity.

Either way, policies needed in countries such as China where the per capita meat consumption is still low while the overall consumption is great are very different from the ones needed in countries such as the US where the per capita meat consumption is twice the Chinese one. But as already stated, this issue has only been studied in European and North American contexts. The way to promote sustainable consumption needs to be adapted to countries where the socio-economic context is different.

5. The global policy perspective

5.1. Consumption in the global agenda for biodiversity

Among the 20 Aichi Targets adopted in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), the fourth target calls for plans by “governments, business and stakeholders at all levels (…) for sustainable production and consumption” as part of the strategic goal A which aims at “addressing underlying causes of biodiversity loss” (UNCBD, 2010). Similarly, the European Union Biodiversity Strategy for 2020 aims at reducing “the impacts of EU consumption patterns on biodiversity” (European Commission, 2011). The twelfth Sustainable Development Goal also aims at ensuring “sustainable consumption and production patterns” and should be implemented through the 10-year framework of programs in sustainable consumption and production patterns (10YFP), an initiative adopted in 2012 to enhance international cooperation on sustainable production and consumption. Among the 10YFP’s work areas appears the promotion of sustainable diets through awareness raising.

However, these strategies deal with consumption issues on the production side, aiming at resource efficiency and sustainable trade to achieve the objectives. They are considered as “weak” consumption interventions (Hobson, 2013). Consumption is seen as an outcome, rather than a driver, of production and therefore is not directly tackled. As part of the revision of the UN targets for 2030, ambition may increase and process targets could be transformed into outcome targets (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2017) but no reference were found about changing the viewpoint on consumption, which would constitute a major shift in line with the degrowth movement and is not likely to happen in the coming years.

As for the impacts of food consumption specifically, the UNCBD does not refer to agricultural commodities as drivers of biodiversity loss or deforestation. Only 6 out of the 8 countries affected by commodity-driven deforestation mention the link in their REDD+ strategies and Malaysia in particular emphasise “the need for lifestyle changes to reduce resource degradation” (Henders et al., 2018). However, such considerations are not found in these countries’ strategies for biodiversity.

5.2. Tackling the distance between production and consumption

Food consumption does not appear much in global policies partly because of the spatial separation between demand and supply which makes it a difficult topic to manage. The impact consumption in industrialised countries has on biodiversity in tropical forests has been postulated since the early 1980s but it has only attracted attention recently, in part because globalisation has increased such impacts since the 1990s (Henders et al., 2018). As an example, imports of soy from Brazil to China have grown from 0 in 1996 to 7 million tons in 2006, which represents approximately 4 million hectares of cropland in Brazil exported to China for livestock feeding (Machovina et al., 2015).

As a result, measures for land-use regulations and conservations policies at the local and national levels do not have enough power compared to the weight of global markets, consumption and demand. National conservation policies in countries where biodiversity loss occur should be strong enough to undermine such macroeconomic factors, which seems highly unrealistic. Such issue therefore needs to be addressed at the global level, though it does not seem to be the case for now.

5.3. The distribution of responsibility puzzle

The uneven distribution of meat consumption among countries and people adds to the complexity of the issue. Some authors suggest that a global maximum average meat consumption of 90g per day would be sufficient to combat climate change. Though this data only encompasses climate change and does not say much about other consumption habits, it suggests that a better distribution of meat consumption would already have a great, if not sufficient, environmental impact. For European countries, it would imply a reduction in meat consumption by a factor of 1.5 to 2, while in other country, 90g is already below or equal to the average consumption (Tukker et al., 2011). However, the figure completely changes when taking into considerations countries’ consumption rather than per capita consumption.

The example of wildlife hunting is another illustration of this puzzle. Hunting of wildlife causes serious threats to biodiversity in tropical forests through the direct persecution of predators and feral livestock. However, 39% of rural households in the Global South countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa, consume wild meat and mostly for subsistence, as a gap-filler when other incomes decrease (Nielsen, Meilby, Smith-Hall, Pouliot, & Treue, 2018). Moreover, in aggregate terms, wildlife hunting does not weigh much among the drivers of biodiversity loss by meat consumption. It is therefore very different to deal with the impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity when meat is consumed by poor households, by recent meat consumers in growing economies or by long-time meat consumers in high-income countries. However, this question of whether efforts should be differentiated among countries and people only seems to curb impactful action; at the global level because it is complex and at the local level because it seems unfair to those who could take action.


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