How Much Meat Will The World Eat In The Future?
Over the past few decades, the world has been eating more meat, milk, and eggs than ever before. Our habits impact our health, animal welfare, and the environment. What explains the increase? And how will trends evolve over the next few decades?
Any number of factors could affect demand. Of these, human population, income, and income elasticity are especially easy to model. Economists run simulations to understand their impact. By changing income growth while keeping other factors constant, for example, they can predict how our earnings move our diets.
This study does just that, and the researchers’ simulations paint a rough picture of animal product consumption in 2050:
- The average person will eat 14% more than they do today
- The world will eat 38% more than it does today
- South Asian and Sub-saharan African consumption will increase the most
- If income elasticities plummet across the world, people in rich countries might finally eat less than they do now
- Slower global income growth than expected would suppress consumption in poor countries but boost it in rich countries compared to a normal growth scenario
Central to their study is the concept of income elasticity of demand. It captures how much demand responds to changes in income. It is the question: “If you get richer, how much will you change the amount of animal products you buy?”
For most people, getting richer means buying more. This is positive income elasticity. But for those of us sympathetic to animals’ suffering, the relationship between having money and eating meat, milk, or eggs is weaker. Getting richer might not change how much we eat. It might even reduce our consumption. This would be zero or negative income elasticity.
Komarek narrows his focus to red meat consumption. Then he simulates the most likely picture of the world in 30 years – a nice point of comparison against more nuanced scenarios.
In this version of 2050, income elasticity falls globally but stays positive in most countries. That is, as people get richer, they still buy more meat – just not as much as they would if income elasticities hadn’t fallen. A pay rise, for example, might mean one extra cutlet each week rather than two. Should income elasticities evolve this way, the average person may eat about 10% more red meat than they do today.
But what if income elasticities fall more dramatically? In a future where it drops twice as much as expected, the average person may eat 2% less red meat than they do today. Compared to 10% more, that’s a big drop. And it’s encouraging for animal advocates, whose mission, in part, decouples how much we earn from how much we eat.
But income elasticities falling globally doesn’t mean every single person will eat less meat. We might expect someone in China to eat less and someone in the U.S. to eat more. It turns out that a country’s response to falling income elasticities depends on its initial income level.
How does this work? We know that when income elasticities fall, demand falls. When demand falls, prices fall. For people in rich countries, a pay rise might not make them want to eat more meat. But cheaper meat at the supermarket makes them want to buy more. The price effect outweighs the income effect. People in richer countries end up eating more than if income elasticities hadn’t changed.
The opposite is true for people in poorer countries. A poor person with a pay rise tends to change their meat-eating habits much more than a rich person with a pay rise. Take away that responsiveness, and they’ll eat much less. Falling prices don’t make up for that drop. People in poorer countries end up eating less than if income elasticities hadn’t changed.
A similar pattern emerges for income growth. Slower global income growth means the world eats less meat. But once again, the burden splits. Compared to a world where income grows as expected, people in poor countries would eat less while those in rich countries would eat more.
How fair is that? What if stunting global income elasticity or income growth were the only ways to reduce world meat consumption? People in poor countries are already much more likely to be malnourished. People in rich countries are responsible for immense historical animal suffering and environmental degradation. Animals and the environment deserve a break, but at what cost, and who pays? These can be difficult questions to answer.
Thankfully, falling global income elasticity is not the only way to reduce world consumption. Income elasticity might fall only in rich countries. In this case, the trend reverses. Because world prices don’t fall so far, people in rich countries end up eating about 3% less instead of 4.3% more than today. And people in poor countries end up eating 15.3% more instead of 14.5% more than today. The relative equity comes at the price of animal lives. Though people would still eat less meat than if income elasticities hadn’t changed, the drop is less pronounced.
From this analysis, we see that high-level global trends can omit details about how the rich and poor are affected differently. A reduction in total meat consumption can come with equity concerns. A change in eating habits in one part of the world can be partially canceled out by a responding change in another. These details could help inform effective veg*n advocacy over the next 30 years.