New Delhi, June 9
A more balanced, sustainable approach to consuming food from livestock -- one that meets nutrition needs and focuses on local production methods -- is essential for delivering on global commitments to combat malnutrition in all its forms, said a comprehensive report released on Wednesday from UN Nutrition.
While acknowledging key health and environmental challenges linked to overconsumption, the analysis also shows that livestock can provide nutrient-dense foods for addressing undernourishment that causes stunting in approximately 22 per cent of young children worldwide and health risks at other key stages of life, especially for pregnant and lactating women.
The report, "Livestock-Derived Foods and Sustainable Healthy Diets", includes contributions from experts at the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
It seeks a more informed conversation about the role of livestock-derived foods in the world today by exploring the scientific evidence behind their risks and benefits, including their value during "critical life stages": six months of age through early childhood; at school age and in adolescence; and during pregnancy and lactation.
"Overall, the evidence shows that context is key when we consider the role of food from livestock in our diets," said UN Nutrition Executive Secretary Stineke Oenema, who coordinated the development of the new paper.
"They have serious consequences for human health if they are absent from or deficient in the diets of certain vulnerable groups, or if consumed to excess by others." But when it comes to addressing undernutrition, the report finds that food from livestock can play a powerful role.
"If we want to provide healthy diets for vulnerable children and pregnant or lactating mothers, which is where you see the worst impacts of malnutrition, the scientific evidence is clear: Food from livestock provides benefits that are very hard and sometimes impossible to replicate solely with plant-based foods," said Lora Iannotti, Director of the E3 Nutrition Lab in Washington University in St. Louis.
"That doesn't mean you dismiss chronic disease and environmental problems linked to livestock foods, which can be significant," added the lead author of the report.
"But you also cannot neglect the fact that insufficient access to livestock or animal-source foods more broadly is a major factor behind high rates of malnutrition that persist in many parts of Asia and Africa." The report seeks to inform the discussion about livestock impacts on human health and the environment by presenting evidence of how risks and benefits vary considerably depending on consumption patterns, time of life and production practices.
The report shows that some parts of the world eat too much food from livestock and other regions, not enough.
For example, global statistics documenting a decades-long surge in consumption of livestock products fail to capture how that growth has been driven largely by middle-income countries. The report also highlights the nutritional divide between regions and populations where people eat a lot of livestock products and those where they do not.
In 2018, the average European consumed 69 kilos of meat, seven times more than the average African --though disparities exist even within high-income countries.
The evidence also indicates that there are health consequences to overconsumption of livestock products, particularly processed meat. This underscores the need for policy and other measures, such as national dietary guidelines, to reduce consumption in populations that eat too much livestock-derived foods.
However, the biggest dietary health issue for some groups today is undernutrition, which could be solved in part by greater access to livestock foods.
Recent estimates from the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank show that, in 2020, 149 million children under five -- more than the population of France and Germany combined -- were stunted due to lack of basic nutrients, compared to 39 million children who were overweight.
And the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to greatly intensify undernutrition.
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