Developing countries increased their meat imports by 342.5% from 2 metric tons to 9 metric tons from 1993 to 2018. Developed countries doubled theirs from 8 to 16 metric tons.
Global red and processed meat trade increased by more than 148%, from 10 metric tons in 1995 to about 25 metric tons in 2018. Net importing countries rose from 121 to 128%.
Tons of meat-related problems
The researchers featured in the BMJ analysis used the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meat production and trade data for 154 countries from 1993 to 2018. The study focused on 14 red meat items derived from beef, pork, lamb, goat and six processed beef and pork items, preserved by smoking, salting, curing or chemical treatment.
The increase in meat consumption was found to account for 10,898 deaths in 2016, up 75% from 1993.
The global meat trade contributed to increases of 55% and 71%, respectively, in attributable deaths and DALYs in developed countries.
The same figures were significantly higher in developing countries – 137% and 140%, respectively.
The Caribbean and Oceania proved the most vulnerable as they have limited land for meat production and depend heavily on meat imports.
European countries such as Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia also experienced significant impacts from processed meat consumption as they benefited from regional trade agreements and tariff exemptions after joining the European Union in 2003. The move accelerated meat imports, explain the researchers.
Similar claims have been made in several studies in recent months, including a US study that linked eating two servings of red meat and processed meat per week to a 7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Reversing the growth curve
Urbanization and income growth have driven the exponential global growth of the red meat and processed meat trade. High consumption of processed meat is linked to the heightened contraction of non-communicable diseases such as bowel cancer, diabetes and coronary artery heart disease.
The processed meat trend also has a substantial impact on land use and biodiversity. A time-series study showed that processed foods contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation and an unsustainable ecological footprint.
According to an independent UK study that challenges the definition of ultra-processed foods, Meatless Farm’s pea, rice and soy-based plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) have been linked to promoting positive changes in the gut microbiome.
However, while plant-based meat alternatives accelerate to the mainstream, their nutritional value is also under scrutiny as industry players launch NPD with less fat, less salt, fewer calories and added fiber.