UN: meat-free diets lead to malnutrition

According to the recent UN Nutrition Report, the constantly rising chorus of criticism and attacks against agriculture and livestock farming in the West threatens the health of the world’s poorest.

There is no more room for doubt or lies: a diet without meat leads to malnutrition. This is the news reported these days by The Guardian, referring to the increase in poverty in developing countries following the pandemic and the continuous attacks on livestock farming in the Western world. Although some people seem convinced of the contrary, these attacks only risk worsening the situation.

In 2020, the Guardian reports that the number of people in extreme poverty increased by 97 million and the number of malnourished people between 118 and 161 million. Recent data from the World Bank and the UN show how poverty is heavily concentrated in rural communities in Africa, Asia, and South America. The pandemic has erased years of progress.

Livestock is essential for half a billion low-income families in developing countries to prevent poverty and malnutrition. Cattle, swine, goats, sheep, chickens, and camels are considered by many families as their most important assets, source of economic livelihood, and nutrition, ensuring that their children do not grow up malnourished.

The importance of meat and animal products to prevent malnutrition is now widely demonstrated and communicated by all doctors and nutritionists. Nevertheless, Africa’s average apparent meat consumption is only around 10 kg per year, and for many, it is even lower, against the European average that consumes 69 kilograms. In 2020, 149 million children under the age of five will be affected by malnutrition. It is dramatic to know that we could avoid that simply with increased access to meat and animal source foods.

The constantly rising chorus of criticism against agriculture and livestock farming in the West is a threat to the health of the world’s poorest also emerges from the recent UN Nutrition report. This is a 2021 UN document on animal nutrition and sustainable healthy diets, which has as co-author Lora Iannotti, a specialist in infant and maternal nutrition. This report shows that for a significant portion of malnourished people, meat, milk, and eggs are a source of essential nutrients that plant foods cannot offer.

Dr. Iannotti’s research shows that modest portions of meat and nutrient-dense animal products are particularly effective among young children in preventing or addressing chronic malnutrition. The high concentration of essential nutrients in meat and animal foods is practically impossible to replicate in plant-based foods. For this reason, meat and animal source foods are necessary and very valuable during critical stages of life, such as adolescence, pregnancy, and lactation.

Some farms in Uganda are already practicing the basics of sustainable farming, using swine dung as fertilizer to feed the worms, which in turn constitute nourishment for chickens. Cattle manure is used to produce biogas, renewable fuel to cook food and provide electricity to farms – just one example of a sustainable approach to farming that is good for the population and the planet. In this regard, the creative and innovative solutions are endless. However, targeted government investments and policies are needed encouraging wider adoption of livestock farming of this type and not absurd bans or heavy anti-meat attacks that risk leaving millions of people behind.

This autumn, two key events could generate support for more sustainable food systems: the UN Food Systems Summit and the UN Climate Summit (COP26) in November. Through the latter, world leaders aim to make significant investments in helping rural farming communities to counteract the climate crisis.

We hope that this opportunity will not be wasted. We could finally understand that sustainable farming is a powerful weapon to help a significant part of the world’s most vulnerable communities improve people’s health and lives. Livestock is not the problem but part of the solution to the climate crisis, the progress, and well-being of populations that, otherwise, would become increasingly poor and hungry.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.