Steaks

Last week was a busy travel week as I attended and presented at three very different conferences. First was the Global Protein Summit in Chicago, followed by the Rural Economic Outlook Conference at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and ending the week with a series of seminars at the Expo Ganadero in Chihuahua, Mexico. Though these conferences covered a wide range of topics, several themes were consistent across at least two, or sometimes all three, conferences.

All conferences included the widely discussed trend of global population growth and the challenges of feeding the world. Global population is projected to increase from the current 7.7 billion people to over 9.5 billion by 2050 and to exceed 11 billion before the end of the century. One presentation noted that while current attention is on growing Asian populations, Asia will peak in the next two decades and population growth in Africa, which is just beginning to grow rapidly, will dominate global population growth in the last half of the century.

As important as population growth, perhaps more so for meat industries, is economic growth and the growing middle class. Globally, the middle class is projected to expand from 2 billion to 4.9 billion people by 2030. China alone is projected to add 850 million new middle class consumers by 2030. It is well documented meat consumption increases as growing incomes support better quality diets and increased protein consumption.

Two different presentations by speakers from the Federal Reserve noted the U.S. is currently experiencing a very long period of relatively weak economic growth. These and other presentations noted the shrinking U.S. labor force is contributing to the slow pace of economic growth. As the U.S. population ages, fewer new labor force entrants are available to replace those leaving the work force. It was also noted productivity growth will not likely be sufficient to offset the declining labor force.

Other labor presentations noted the important role of immigrants historically in food and agricultural industries and the growing need for low to medium skilled workers to support all aspects of agricultural and food production, including vegetable and fruit harvest, dairy, ranch and feedlot workers, labor for food processing and manufacturing, and restaurant servers and chefs. Recent research conducted by Oklahoma State University confirmed the pervasive labor issues and challenges in all sectors of the beef industry from packers to further processing and food distribution to retail and food service (Lauren Elizabeth Clark’s “Disaggregating Beef Demand: Data Limitations and Industry Perspectives.”; unpublished master’s of science thesis, Oklahoma State University, May 2019).

The growing reality of the massive impact of African Swine Fever was another common topic in these conferences. The rapidly changing dynamics of this disease suggest the impacts are global in nature and not only for the coming weeks and months but likely will fundamentally impact global protein markets for years or decades. It appears at this time that swine and pork losses in China, Vietnam, North and South Korea and the Philippines along with other outbreaks of ASF in Europe and Africa is creating a protein deficit that cannot be currently filled by all proteins in the world.

Finally, the conferences included discussions about alternative proteins, particularly plant-based proteins. Various perspectives noted that some in both the meat and plant-based protein markets view each other as competitors battling to replace the other. There was also recognition that the markets may be complementary, not only for retail and food-service businesses to offer a more comprehensive set of protein product choices to consumers, but also the reality that it will likely take both meat and plant-based protein to feed the world through the remainder of the century.

(Derrell S. Peel is a livestock marketing specialist for Oklahoma State University.)

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