“Today’s food systems face an unprecedented double challenge. There is a call to increase the availability of livestock-derived foods (meat, dairy, eggs) to help satisfy the unmet nutritional needs of an estimated three billion people, for whom nutrient deficiencies contribute to stunting, wasting, anaemia, and other forms of malnutrition. At the same time, some methods and scale of animal production systems present challenges with regards to biodiversity, climate change and nutrient flows, as well as animal health and welfare within a broad One Health approach.”Dublin Declaration
The debate about the use of animal-sourced food is not new.
Livestock and human nutrition
Humans evolved as omnivores, and meat is a high-quality food source providing protein, fats, and a variety of nutrients, including those that are limiting factors in diets worldwide (Leroy et al, 2023). It’s broadly accepted that populations with limited access to meat have greater occurrences of health problems such as stunting. On the other hand, how much meat should be included in human diets has also been the topic of much research and discussion.
Based on international standards for evidence-based health recommendations, associations between red meat consumption and non-communicable diseases (such as metabolic diseases, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases) were of low to very-low certainty (Johnston et al., 2023). These limited risks depend on variation between individuals, as well as the preparation methods and degree of processing of the meat. Regular consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs as part of a well-balanced diet is advantageous.
Given the complex nutrient composition of meat, there are very limited options for replacement, and no simple 1-for-1 replacement. Individuals with sufficient resources are able to consume a well-balanced diet while restricting meat, dairy, and other animal food sources. However, individuals with fewer resources may not have access to alternatives but can ensure a balanced diet by including animal sourced foods. Reducing meat consumption globally could result in additional malnutrition, especially in already vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women.
Livestock and the environment
Plant-based foods have been proposed as an alternative to meat. Plant-based food production generates large amounts of by-products that are inedible by humans (Thompson et al., 2023). Livestock consume by-products of human food production, simultaneously converting these back into the natural cycle and producing high-quality food products.
Well-managed livestock systems can improve environmental conditions by sequestering carbon, improving soil health, supporting biodiversity, and protecting watersheds. Simplified approaches to sustainability, such as reduction in livestock numbers globally, may actually increase environmental problems on a larger scale, especially as increases in plant-based food production require additional arable land.
Are there alternatives?
Technologies based on cultured cells that aim to create a food product similar to meat have been under development for several decades (Wood et al, 2023). Should these technologies create a product with similar nutrient profiles, at less cost, and with lower environmental impact, they could provide nutrient-dense alternatives to meat. However, the technological issues with scaling production to a level where it is viable indicate that it may take considerable additional time to meet those goals.
To meet the demand of a growing population, it is critical that we increase efficiency of meat production, while building environmentally sustainable livestock food systems. It is critical to continue research, active conversations, and allowing science to do what science does best—asking questions.
Johnston, B., De Smet, S., Leroy, F., Mente, A., & Stanton, A. (2023). Non-communicable disease risk associated with red and processed meat consumption-magnitude, certainty, and contextuality of risk? Animal Frontiers 13(2). 28-34. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfac094
Leroy, F., Smith, N., Adesogan, A. T., Beal, T., Iannotti, L., Moughan, P. J., & Mann, N. The role of meat in the human diet: Evolutionary aspects and nutritional value. Animal Frontiers 13(2) 11-18. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfac093
Thompson, L., Rowntree, J., Windisch, W., Waters, S. M., Shalloo, L., & Manzano, P. (2023). Ecosystem management using livestock: Embracing diversity and respecting ecological principles. Animal Frontiers 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfac094
Wood, P., Thorrez, L., Hocquette, J.-F., Troy, D., & Gagaoua, M. (2023). “Cellular agriculture”: Current gaps between facts and claims regarding “cell-based meat.” Animal Frontiers 13(2) 68-74. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfac092
To read the entire Dublin Declaration, or to sign, visit the website. As of the publication date, there are over 900 signatures from across the globe.
Featured image via Pixabay (public domain)