Where's the Beef?

Increasingly, it's not on the dinner table. For the first time ever, global farmed-fish production is outpacing beef.

National Journal

Beef. While it might have been "what's for dinner" in a previous age, it is quickly losing its place as a main staple in the world's diet. Take Argentina for a good example of changing tastes and practices. A people that once prided themselves on having the highest per capita consumption of beef, Argentinians are now eating 93 fewer pounds of red meat than peak consumption in the 1950s (They still do eat a lot of meat, at 129 lbs. per person. In the U.S., that number is 57.7 lbs.) Some Argentinians say this a great national tragedy. As The New York Times reports:

"We live, at this moment, immersed in shame," the writer Diego Vecino said in a recent 4,000-plus-word magazine article that explored declining beef consumption. "In the last few years, our Argentine national identity has been roughed up as never before," he lamented, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion. "The ritual of the barbecue persists, but in many cases under the kitsch glow of a retro experience."

But the shift in Argentina is indicative of a growing trend worldwide. For the first time — possibly ever — global farmed-fish production has outpaced global beef production, as reported by the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank. While beef production has slowed, farmed fish is skyrocketing, as seen in this chart:

"More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production — a shift that, at its core, is a story of natural limits," the authors of the report write.

One of the main reasons for the shrinking stock of cow is the prolonged drought in the United States over the past few years. Feed prices have remained high, and conditions were so dire last summer that many farmers had to cull their herds. Although drought conditions have eased for much of the country this summer, The Wall Street Journal reports we will still see record-high beef prices in the coming months. The U.S. herd is now at its lowest level in six decades (even so, it is still the world's largest beef producer).

The decline in beef and the rise of fish result in a mixed bag for the economy and the environment, the Earth Policy Institute authors write.

Here's what they say:

Fish can be a more efficient and environmentally sound way of feeding the world. Cattle farts, after all, do contribute to climate change.

Cattle consume 7 pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry. Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than 2 pounds of feed to add another pound of weight.

But not all fish are so environmentally friendly. Fish that eat plankton and the like are better for the environment than carnivorous fish that need live feed (which are gaining popularity).

Some of the farmed fish that are quickly gaining popularity, like salmon and shrimp, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from forage fish from the wild. Yet most forage fish stocks (think anchovies, herrings, and sardines), which typically make up about a third of the world oceanic fish catch, are dangerously overharvested.

While farmed-fish production is rising, wild-caught fish still make up more of the yearly catch.  But the Earth Policy Institute calls these wild caught numbers "unsustainable."

And here are some other fish and beef market facts:

Don't mistake higher supply for lower fish prices. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization sees fish prices rising.

Most of the growth in the global beef trade is coming from developing countries.

Chicken is now the most popular meat in the U.S.