Our obsession with meat began over 2 million years ago
Early prehistoric humans foraged for plants, fruits and seeds ― sources of food that took a lot of energy to digest. With so much energy spent on digestion, the human brain remained relatively small. Then around 2 million years ago, the first Homo species began regularly scavenging meat. Gradually, the transition from foraging to eating meat made the human brain bigger, in particular in contrast with other primates, whose brains remain relatively small to this day.
“Some scientists argue that meat is what made us human,” says Marta Zaraska, author of “Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million Year Obsession with Meat.” She explains that our relatively large brains consume 20 percent of our body’s total energy, and meat played a key role in supplying the energy intake needed to feed the evolution of our brains.
UN statistics: The most eaten meat in the world
Pork is the most widely-eaten meat in the world (36%) followed by poultry (33%), beef (24%), and goats/sheep (5%). Source for or all statistics unless mentioned otherwise: United Nations Food and Agriculture
Top 10 most consumed meats in the world
Pork, the meat from hogs, or domestic swine, is the most consumed animal in the world at 36% (Source: UN-FAO). Pork is commonly thought of as white meat, but it is actually classified as red meat by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are two main reasons for this: First, pork has more myoglobin than poultry and fish, giving it a slight red or pink color. Second, pigs, like beef and lamb, are considered livestock, and all livestock are considered red meat.
Pork is generally produced from 6- to 7-month-old animals. Ham, bacon and sausage are made from cured pork. Uncured meat is called “fresh pork.” Examples include Jamón, the most famous Spanish pork dish, made with the back legs of a pig; and Feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, traditionally prepared with pork trimmings, such as ears, tail and feet.
The domestication of pigs, or immature hogs, for food dates back to 7000 BCE in the Middle East. The earliest surviving pork recipe is Chinese and is at least 2000 years old. Stone Age man ate wild boar, the ancestor of the hog.
In 2020, China was the largest producer of pork followed by the European Union and the United States. All together, these countries accounted for roughly 76% of the world’s pork production. In China, pork is so important that the country has a “strategic pork reserve.” China uses this reserve to control supply and prices, especially during events like the 2018 African swine fever which killed 40% of China’s pig herd.
Historically, chickens were raised for cockfighting or special ceremonies ―not for food, until the Hellenistic period (Fourth to second centuries BCE). Today, chickens are used primarily as a source of meat and eggs.
Globally, more than 50 billion chickens are farmed each year, and in the US, more than 8 billion are slaughtered for meat, making it the most popular meat in America. In the past 50 years, chicken consumption per capita in America has skyrocketed. In 1970, the average American ate about 50 pounds of chicken meat per year. Today, that number is double. In addition, more than 300 million chickens in America are grown for egg production.
Chickens farmed for meat are called broilers. Chickens naturally live for six or more years, but broiler breeds typically take less than six weeks to reach slaughter size. A free-range or organic broiler will usually be slaughtered at approximately 14 weeks.
Globally, 70% of poultry meat and 68% of eggs are produced in factory farms, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Proponents of factory farming highlight its high productivity and efficient use of land and water. Proponents of free-range chicken farming often site serious ethical issues surrounding factory chicken farming, such as overcrowded living conditions and other inhumane farming methods.
Beef, the third most widely consumed meat in the world, represents 25% of total meat consumption (Source: UN-FAO). As of 2018, the United States, Brazil and China were the largest producers of beef.
In prehistoric times, humans hunted aurochs, the wild ancestors of modern cattle, and later domesticated them. Since then, breeding has been done specifically to improve the quality or quantity of their meat.
Beef is prepared in a variety of ways: steak, roast beef, pot roast, brisket; and of course, ground or minced for hamburger meat or kabab. Beef is fifth on the list of highest protein meats behind emu, elk, bison, and turkey. Beef also contains iron and vitamin B12.
The downside of beef is its environmental impact. Factory farmed cattle are a primary driver of deforestation, the highest producer of greenhouse gas emissions of any agricultural product, and the heaviest user of land and water resources. Seventy percent of the Amazon, which helps stabilize our climate, has already been replaced by pastures and feed-croplands, most of which are used for cattle. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. The meat and dairy industries create 14.5% of total man-made emissions. But beef is by far the biggest offender with 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat produced—more than twice that of the next most polluting food, lamb.
4. Lamb Meat
Lamb, which is the meat from sheep aged zero to about one year, is the fourth most popular meat in the world. It is particularly common among a variety of Mediterranean cultures, including Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and countries in the Middle East. It is also found in the culinary traditions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Greece, lamb is an integral part of a variety of dishes and of religious feasts, such as Easter. Lamb also finds prominence in the Basque culture in northern Spain.
Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes between 11,000 BCE and 9,000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. They were primarily raised for meat, milk, and skins. Using sheep for wool began around 6000 BCE. Their wild ancestor was called a mouflon.
The younger the sheep, or lamb, the more tender the meat, but the older sheep meats, mutton and hogget, have a stronger flavor. The terms ‘mutton’ and ‘hogget’ are less widely used today among the general public, and therefore, in the United States, older sheep meat is generally labelled as lamb meat.
The US market for lamb has steadily decreased throughout the decades because of declining acceptance and heavy competition from pork, poultry and beef. Since the 1960s, per capita consumption of lamb meat in America has dropped from nearly five pounds to just about one pound.
5. Goat Meat
The goat is the fifth most consumed animal in the world. Historically, goat meat has been less common in American, Canadian and Northern European cuisines. But in recent years, it has become more popular in some niche markets, including those that serve immigrants from Asia and Africa who prefer goat meat to other meats, such as beef, pork and chicken. In the United States, goat meat consumption is steadily on the rise.
Goat meat is considered the healthiest of red meats as a rich source of nutrients, including protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and potassium. It is also low in total fat and saturated fat compared with other red meats. With higher levels of potassium and lower levels of sodium than lamb, beef, chicken, and pork, it is a healthier option for people with hypertension and heart and kidney disease.
Goat meat is actually lower in calories (143 per 100 grams), total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than lamb, pork and beef, and chicken. This makes goat meat not only the healthiest red meat, but it’s also healthier than chicken.
Goats were among the earliest domesticated animals, dating back around 10,000 years. According to archaeological evidence, the wild bezoar ibex of the Zagros Mountains is the likely ancestor of all domestic goats today. Neolithic farmers herded wild goats primarily for easier access to milk and meat.
More than 450 million goats globally were slaughtered for food in 2016, over a third of which were in China. In both Asia and Africa, goat slaughtering increased dramatically from 1961 to 2016, while in Europe, the numbers slightly decreased. (Source: UN).
Turkeys are the sixth most eaten meat in the world. They were first domesticated in ancient Mexico from about 800 BCE. These domesticated turkeys were then either introduced into what is now the American southwest or they were domesticated a second time around by the indigenous people of that region by 200 BCE. They were first used for their feathers for ceremonies and to make blankets and robes. Native Americans started eating turkey meat from around 1100 AD.
Today, in the United States and Canada, turkey is traditionally eaten as the main course for Thanksgiving dinner and in much of the rest of the world, for Christmas dinner. Americans eat over 40 million turkeys at Thanksgiving every year (Source: Yahoo! News) and are by far the largest consumers of turkey meat at 41%. The US is also the largest producer and exporter of turkey meat.
Throughout the year, sliced turkey meat and turkey bacon are popularly consumed as healthier options than pork. Ground turkey is marketed as a healthy alternative to ground beef.
Turkey consumption has nearly doubled since 1970 as education and awareness of the nutritional value and taste of turkey meat continue to increase. Ground turkey has significantly increased in popularity as a nutrient-rich, low-fat substitute for ground beef. From 2011 to 2021, US consumption of turkey increased by 593%, from 736 million pounds to 5.1 billion pounds (Source: USDA). This was due primarily to population increase.
7. Duck Meat
Duck, the seventh most consumed meat in the world, is most predominant in Chinese cuisine and also part of northeastern Indian cuisine. A popular Chinese dish is Peking duck which is made from the Pekin duck. The Pekin duck is the most common duck consumed in the United States. Duck meat is high in fat (particularly saturated fat), cholesterol, protein, and iron.
Almost all varieties of domestic ducks are descended from the mallard. Approximately 3 billion ducks are slaughtered each year for their meat worldwide (Source: FAO).
People have hunted ducks since prehistoric times. Excavations in California dating back 6400–7800 years have uncovered duck bones, including at least one now-extinct flightless species. Ducks were captured in large numbers by Holocene inhabitants of the lower Ohio River valley. Neolithic hunters in places as far apart as Egypt, the Caribbean, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and China relied on ducks as an abundant source of protein.
8. Buffalo Meat
Buffalo, the eighth most consumed animal in the world, is primarily found throughout parts of Asia. Globally, around 26 million water buffalo are slaughtered annually for their meat. They contribute 72 million metric tons of milk and three million metric tons of meat annually to global food consumption, much of it in regions that are susceptible to nutritional imbalances.
India has the largest number of buffalo. While it’s an important source of meat in the country, with approximately 43% of global buffalo meat production, India mainly farms buffalo for milk. India is the largest producer of buffalo milk ― nearly 57 million metric tons annually. This accounts for 67% of global buffalo milk production.
The highest quality buffalo meat in India is known as “padwa” which is taken from buffalo that are younger than 24 months.
In America, the term “buffalo” is often used interchangeably with “bison,” which refers to the American bison, and is often a source of confusion. While bison and buffalo are both part of the Bovidae family, they are physically very different.
9. Goose Meat
Goose, the ninth most consumed animal in the world, is generally considered white meat even though its meat is darker – actually closer to red meat. The largest and most popular domestic goose used for meat is the Toulouse.
Domestication of geese began during the Neolithic Period (about 11,000–4,000 years ago). The practice spread to Egypt around 3,000 years ago. Modern goose breeds are mostly descended from the greylag, a wild goose from northern Eurasia, and the swan goose, a wild goose from eastern Asia.
China and Egypt are the largest producers of goose meat in the world. Poland is Europe’s largest producer, exporting goose meat to Germany, Hong Kong, France, Denmark, and Russia (Source: FAO)
Domesticated geese are mostly free-range; not factory farmed. This gives their meat some healthier qualities, such as more omega-3 fatty acids.
The English settlers in America ate goose. But their popularity in American cuisine decreased over time. Today in the US, goose is considered a luxury meat, both commercially and as wild fowl. Huge flocks are hunted while migrating south from Canada and the arctic.
Goose meat is considered richer and more flavorful than turkey or chicken because of its densely-textured meat with high fat content. But unlike turkey or chicken, its fat is under the skin as opposed to in the meat. This keeps it juicy during cooking while the fat melts and bastes the bird.
10. Rabbit Meat
Rabbit meat is the tenth most popular meat in the world. It tastes a bit like chicken (though with a slightly stronger, meatier, earthier flavor), and it can be prepared similarly to chicken.
The global market revenue for rabbit meat was $6.4 billion in 2017, up from 12% in the previous year. (Source: IndexBox)
Also in 2017, China and North Korea contributed 73.3% to the global volume of rabbit meat. But notably, China consumed six times more than North Korea, the second largest consumer. The two main EU countries that produce rabbit meat are Spain and France.
In the United States, rabbits are raised for their meat on local, small-scale farms, which is relatively sustainable and environmentally friendly. They are far more successful on small farms. Rabbit farming is extremely labor intensive on an industrial scale, partly because rabbits die easily from diseases in such settings.
What countries today eat the most meat per capita?
Today, Argentinians eat the most beef and veal per capita (39.9 kilograms per person per year). The Europeans and Chinese eat the most pork (35.5 and 30.4 kilograms per capita, respectively). Israelis eat the most poultry, at 64.9 kilograms per capita annually. Kazakhstanis eat the most sheep (8.5 kilograms per person per year).
How will meat reach our plates in the future?
With growing populations and rising demand, is meat sustainable?
Human beings will always crave animal meat as a source of protein. By 2030, meat consumption is projected to grow by 30% in Africa, 18% in the Asia and Pacific region, 12% in Latin America, 0.4% in Europe, and 9% in North America (Source: FAO).
By 2050, it is estimated that 10 billion people will occupy the planet. Between growing global populations and rising income levels in places like China, India and Africa, this fleshy protein source, once out of reach economically for billions of people, has a strong and seemingly unwavering future.
But more meat means a lot more land and a lot more water, precious resources needed to sustain a healthy, balanced and biodiverse planet.
How much more land and water can we afford just so we can eat meat?
Twenty six percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is already used for livestock grazing. One third of farmable land is used for growing livestock feed.
To produce one pound of beef, it takes an average of 1,800 gallons of water. Ninety-eight percent goes to watering the grass, forage and feed that cattle consume over their lifetime (Source: Foodprint.org).
This is not sustainable.
Meat farming’s carbon footprint is ravaging the planet
Livestock specifically accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Source: UN-FAO). And beef is by far the biggest offender, burping out huge amounts of methane, a gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Rainforests are vital for mitigating climate change as they capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform it into biomass through photosynthesis. Yet these precious, carbon-absorbing eco-systems are disappearing in places like Brazil where cattle farming is a leading cause of deforestation. Seventy percent of the Amazon has already been cleared to accommodate grazing and feed-crop lands.
The cultured meat revolution is coming
Can we produce meat sustainably and without slaughtering animals?
Cultured meat, or cultivated meat, is meat made from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals. Cultured meat is being developed to be indistinguishable from farm-raised meat in taste, smell and mouthfeel.
When compared to conventional meat, cultured meat is projected to reduce land use by between 63% and 95%. Cultured meat is also expected to use 51% to 78% less ground and surface (blue) water than conventional beef production (about the same as chicken and pork). (Source: Good Food Institute)
Cultured meat’s low carbon footprint will help save the planet
According to an independent study, cultured meat will have a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional meat, especially when renewable energy is used. Compared to conventional meat, cultured meat will reduce global warming by 17% for chicken, 52% for pork, and up to 92% for beef (Source: CE Delft). Also, if renewable energy is used, cultured meat could be cost-competitive with farm-raised meat in under 10 years. (Source: Good Food Institute).
A healthier choice for the future of meat
MeaTech, a leading international food-tech company at the forefront of the cultured meat revolution, is developing an alternative to industrialized animal farming that dramatically reduces carbon footprint, minimizes water and land usage, and prevents the slaughtering of animals. With a variety of delicious, nutritious and safe beef, chicken and pork products, MeaTech is cultivating a healthier, more sustainable choice for our planet, ourselves and our animal friends.