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The Tricky Business of Tipping Cows 

Will “peak beef” happen fast enough to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century?
May 6, 2021

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A technocultural shift is clearly underway: the future of beef is up for grabs. In rich and even emerging economies, consumption of red meat is flat or falling. Meanwhile, investors have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into startups perfecting taste-alike proteins grown from plants or stem cells. And activists have started pushing to tax or label steaks and burgers for the outsize carbon emissions attributable to their production.

But forces are also pushing in the opposite direction, from growing populations in middle-income regions that eat relatively little beef now but will eat more animal protein as soon as they can afford to. Look at the giant gaps in per-capita beef consumption between income groups in this chart from the FAO. To achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century, those top two trend lines need to converge quickly. So are we on track?

Maybe.The rich world seems to be losing its appetite.


1.  Impossible Whoppers and other next-gen, plant-based meats have been eating away at beef’s market share. According to surprising data from the Good Food Institute, the U.S. market for meatless meats grew 45% in 2020. Prices are plummeting and sales are skyrocketing for plant-based alternatives, and more than one in six households bought plant-based meat last year, a 24% increase. Similar trends, along with increasing substitution of poultry for beef, seem to be sweeping through Europe, Australia, and high-income parts of Asia.



2.  Concerns about animal welfare, health, and climate are raising the costs of eating beef—psychological and otherwise. The decision of Epicurious, a popular food site run by media giant Condé Nast, to stop offering new beef recipes reflects the shifting zeitgeist. As Anthropocene has reported, simply adding carbon labels to meat nudges consumers to make more environmentally responsible choices. Carbon-labeling regulations could push carnivores to turn their backs on cattle. And carbon-pricing measures could push beef producers to become even more efficient and less carbon-intensive—following the lead of the dairy industry, which in some areas has cut emissions by almost 60% in recent decades.

3.  The net result: “Many high-income countries are reaching saturation levels in terms of per capita consumption,” the OECD and FAO report. In their latest agricultural outlook for 2020 to 2029, these international agencies project that beef, sheep, and pork production will remain essentially flat throughout developed regions, as population sizes and per-person consumption both stop growing. Among the biggest beef-eaters, such as Argentina, the U.S., and the U.K., consumption started falling decades ago.



Maybe not. The rest of the world is hungry for more.

1.  The consumption gap between the rich and the newly middle class has stopped shrinking. Look again at that first chart above: it’s clear that worldwide consumption of red meat has been flat for decades because growing demand in upper-middle-income countries—particularly China and other high-growth Asian economies—offset the declines in Europe and North America from 2000 to 2014. But notice the inflection points around 2015: both of those trends halted.

2. Population growth and the Jevons paradox could prop up beef production for a while yet. Beef is a global commodity, and falling demand among the rich, along with rising incomes and more efficient production, could make red meat more affordable in fast-growing developing nations.

It’s a classic setup for a Jevons paradox. Make something more efficiently and cheaper, and people consume more of it, not less. In its analysis, the OECD has found a distinct correlation between GDP per capita and meat consumption per capita, as seen in the chart below.


Source: “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020–2029” Figure 6.6


3. Don’t forget the other big reason to breed cattle: milk. As Anthropocene has reported, China’s thirst for milk could increase global livestock emissions by a third.

What to Keep an Eye on


1. Fast progress in “cellular agriculture.” In a New York Times op-ed, Ezra Klein argues for “A Moonshot for Meatless Meat,” echoing a thoughtful report published by The Breakthrough Institute making “The Case for Public Investment in Alternative Proteins.” Is public investment really necessary when Beyond Meat raised $760 million in its IPO and Memphis Meats recently garnered $161 million from private investors? That said, lab-grown meat has been estimated to cost around $2,400 a pound to make, and a big federal R&D program could accelerate the 1,000-fold cost reductions needed. One way to pay for a program like that would be to tax the emissions of meat production, as Anthropocene has reported.

2. Adoption by fast-food giants. Burger King had enough success with trials of the Impossible Whopper in the U.S. that it recently added it to the menu in its Canadian stores, where it will compete with Beyond Meat burgers sold in the ubiquitous A&W restaurants.

3. Falling fertility rates. As with almost every aspect of emissions, it’s a mistake to focus only on per-person figures. The number of people matters, too. And the human population curve is on the move.



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