Way of all flesh: A look at meat-eating patterns worldwide

Jan 20, 2023 05:47 PM IST

Global per capita consumption is growing. Poultry is the most popular form of meat, followed by pork, beef, fish. See which tiny countries eat surprisingly large portions, and where India stands amid it all.

Around the world, as households get richer, they tend to eat more meat. Global per capita consumption has grown from 29.5 kg in 2000 to 35 to 40 kg today. Poultry is the most popular form, followed by pork and beef, then fish, an order of preference driven largely by cost. Brazil and Taiwan are surprise runner-ups for most meat consumed per person, with the top spot retained by the US. Consumption is soaring in China, low in Italy and dropping in Switzerland. See where India fits in.

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The tiny but relatively-well-to-do island nation has among the highest levels of meat consumption per capita in Asia: about 90 kg annually. Pork is overwhelmingly preferred, but more than 12% of Taiwanese are vegetarian. A government-backed programme that urges locals to go meat-free one day of the week for health and environmental reasons has found widespread support. But the preference for meat remains high. Meat imports stood at $ 1.73 billion in 2021, up from $ 1.64 billion in 2020.


At a mere 36.8 kg per person per year, Italians eat less meat than almost anyone else in Europe. Vegetables, dairy and grain make up the majority of meals and snacks. About 10% of the population is vegetarian. Turin in northern Italy has announced plans to become the country’s first “vegetarian city”. Rather than institute a ban on meat, they’ve slowly ramped up meatless dining options, encouraged meat-free days, and drafted vegetarian-food maps for tourists and locals.


At 13%, it has the world’s largest vegetarian population share after India (where about 38% eat no meat). Vegetarian restaurants are common, and several prominent rabbis advocate going vegetarian on certain days of the week. A growing number of non-religious folks are also reducing their intake . Tel Aviv now hosts the world’s largest vegan festival, the annual Vegan Fest. But Israelis are also among the world’s top meat-eaters. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture recorded a 65% increase in meat consumption between 2016 and 2021. The average diner puts away 19.6 kg of beef annually, but also consumes 71.7 kg of chicken a year, the highest in the world for poultry.


While globally, as communities get richer, they show a growing preference for meat, in Switzerland the opposite is true, largely because of a growing awareness of meat’s environmental costs. Per capita meat consumption fell from 64.4 kg in 1980 to 47.3 kg in 2020. The nation is also home to Europe’s oldest surviving vegetarian restaurant; Hiltl in Zurich has been meat-free since 1898. October 1 is observed in the country as Swisstainable Veggie Day, with more than 1,200 restaurants offering vegetarian-only options.


Nutritionists regularly cite the veggie-heavy “Mediterranean diet” as being the most heart-healthy. The Greeks don’t seem to be fans. A 2022 survey by the Hellenic Vegetarian Union suggests that Greece consumes more meat than 11 other countries in the region. The country’s annual per capita consumption of meat has soared with the rise of the middle class since the 1970s. It stands at 28 kg.


Swift economic growth has seen demand skyrocket. Meat-eating in China, in fact, has grown 15-fold since 1961. Where ration coupons once allowed households to buy only about 50 gm a month, economic reform had pushed consumption up to 20 kg per person per year by the 1980s. Last year, that figure stood at 63 kg. Because of China’s population, this collectively accounted for 30% of the world’s overall meat consumption.


The traditional cuisine is big on vegetables: leafy varieties, plantain, okra, cassava, corn. But because every dish is flavoured with smoked fish or meat, shrimp or meat stock, almost no one identified as vegetarian. That’s changing. The Nigeria Vegetarian Society was incorporated in March 1993. The first meat-free restaurant, Veggie Victory, has been operating since 2013. Cutting back on meat is presented as a healthy alternative and some 1.4 million locals identified as vegetarian in 2016-17. Per capita consumption of meat has traditionally been low. It currently stands at 7 kg.


The meat-loving country – per capita consumption is at 77 kg – is showing a growing preference for pork in the months after the pandemic as inflation and supply-chain disruptions have made poultry meat relatively more expensive.


Meat consumption has almost doubled since 1990, overtaking many Western countries. But things are changing. On average, Brazilians ate more than 100 kg of meat per head in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Last year, that number dropped to 94.98 kg, with high prices driving the change. For the same reason, chicken is now more in demand than beef.


No one eats more meat than the average American. Per capita consumption stands at 101 kg; that’s 276 gm of meat a day. The preference for turkey has been shrinking since 2012, while demand for chicken has risen most. Forecasters predict that the rising prices of beef and pork will cause demand for these meats to dip in the coming decade. For now, only 3.2% of adult Americans follow a vegetarian-only diet.


Rising inflation has left millions more impoverished. Per capita meat consumption has dropped by 50% over the past year, to 2.9 kg. For the average family of three, a kilo of red meat now costs the average daily wage.

New Zealand

Unusually for a well-off, stable nation, New Zealand is eating less meat than before — 75.2 kg in 2019, down from 86.7 kg in 2000. Widespread environmental concerns, efforts at healthier living and easy access to fresh produce are driving the trend.


About 38% of Indians identify as vegetarian, the highest ratio in the world. Even among the rest, meat consumption is low. India consumes less than 4 kg of meat per person per year; grain and vegetables remain the primary components of an average meal. Meat production is nearly five times higher than it was in the early 1960s, though. Average incomes have tripled since 1990, but the affordable chicken remains by far the most preferred.

(Sources: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development-Food and Agricultural Organization Agricultural Outlook, Edition 2021; US Department of Agriculture; Food and Agricultural Organization; World Economic Forum, Annual Report 2021-22; Euromonitor International)

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    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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