Global Meat Production Is Growing at an Unsustainable Pace

As the world's population continues to grow, humans are eating more meat than ever before—and environmental scientists are concerned that the planet might not be able to keep up.

A new analysis suggests that the rise in meat consumption, driven by population and income growth, could play a major role in increasing carbon emissions and reducing biodiversity, according to the paper published on Friday in the journal Science.

The debate over the environmental consequences of eating meat is nothing new. It's already widely known that meat production creates far more pollution than bringing vegetables, fruits, and grains to market. This review is just the latest in an ongoing push to start a conversation about what governments can do to curb the global consumption of meat, which could accelerate global warming.

"It is difficult to envisage how the world could supply a population of 10 billion or more people with the quantity of meat currently consumed in most high-income countries without substantial negative effects on the environment," the paper said. "There are growing calls for governments to intervene with changes to economic, political, and/or legal systems that could transform the system of meat production."

Researchers found that growing global meat consumption could have devastating consequences for the future of the Earth. Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images

In 2014, a study found that giving up beef could reduce a person's carbon footprint more significantly than if they gave up their cars. The researchers found that red meat weighed the heaviest on the environment.

The new paper explains that livestock production currently accounts for 15 percent of all carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Over the last 50 years, the average amount of meat eaten per person globally has almost doubled, from around 50 pounds in 1961 to 94 pounds in 2014.

Total meat production has been accelerating at a much faster pace than population growth, at least quadrupling since the 1960s.

Heavy meat consumption could also hurt the health of humans on a global scale, by causing a steady rise in colorectal cancer as well as cardiovascular disease, the review said.

"What's happening is a big concern and if meat consumption goes up further it's going to be massively more so," Tim Key, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford and co-author of the review, told The Guardian. "On a broad level, you can say that eating substantial amounts of meat is bad for the environment."