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, according to a comprehensive report released on June 9 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% 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 OrganiSation (WHO), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Food and Agriculture Organisation 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’: 6 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 Stineke Oenema, the Executive Secretary of UN Nutrition who coordinated 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, Ph.D., Director of the E3 Nutrition Lab at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of the report.
“That doesn’t mean you dismiss chronic disease and environmental problems linked to livestock foods, which can be significant,” she added. “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 which persist in many parts of Asia and Africa.”
Livestock consumption: Too much or too little?
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 of 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 WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank show that, in 2020, 149 million children under 5 – 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.
Livestock foods are hard to replace: Why ‘bioavailability’ matters
The report finds that, for vulnerable populations, one reason livestock foods are difficult to replace with plant-based foods is because the nutrients they provide are more efficiently absorbed by the body. This greater degree of ‘bioavailability’ means that just one egg, a cup of milk or a few ounces of meat can supply nutrients that would require consuming large portions of plant-based food—more than many young bodies can handle.
For example, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and can increase their risk of dying from diarrheal diseases and measles. But Iannotti said that a child would need to eat at least 12 times as much of a plant-based alternative like carrots to gain the amount of vitamin A available in a small serving of eggs, meat or milk. That’s because livestock foods provide vitamin A in a substance called retinol, while carrots provide it in the form of β-carotene and other carotenoids, which the body must convert to retinol.
The report also notes that nutrients like choline, zinc and iron that are easily absorbed from animal products, including fish, are vital for the developing brain. And a lack of them can impair cognitive development—with lifelong implications.
“Young children have smaller stomachs and rapidly developing brains, so they need foods that can be efficiently absorbed and metabolised. There are nutrients readily available in animal products, including fish, which are essential for cognitive development,” said Naoko Yamamoto, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of UN Nutrition. “Vegetables, fruits, legumes and cereals are essential, but nutrient-dense animal products are uniquely effective for pulling young children back from the brink of acute and chronic malnutrition.”
Meanwhile, the report finds that the high concentration of essential nutrients in animal-source foods makes them very valuable during other life stages. That includes fuelling the “hormonal and other development processes” of adolescence and meeting the “high nutrient demands” of pregnancy and lactation.
Livestock and sustainable healthy diets: Confronting risks, from cancer to climate change
In addition to exploring the nutritional benefits livestock provide, the UN Nutrition report considers their present-day risks – to people, animals and the planet. And it explores better ways to manage these risks by simultaneously focusing on the health of all three, something known as a One Health approach.
Livestock risks include the fact that consumption of processed meats can contribute to cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Animal-source foods can be tainted with Salmonella, Campylobacter and other pathogens that account for about 35% of food-borne illnesses. Livestock also can serve as a bridge for transmitting diseases, such as bird-flu, that are carried by wild animals to humans. Then there is the significant use of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in animal agriculture and aquaculture that contributes to the emergence of drug-resistant diseases.
Among the environmental risks of livestock production are the significant contributions from livestock globally to the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet. The report also points to situations in certain parts of the world where producing feed for livestock is “depleting fresh water… and diminishing biodiversity”.
Seeking a better balance for livestock in sustainable, equitable and healthy diets
But the report also reveals that there are other ways of producing livestock that can do the opposite – storing carbon in grazing lands and improving biodiversity. Overall, the report sees opportunities to manage the risks associated with livestock foods by focusing on the safety of meat, milk and eggs; reducing consumption in certain groups; modifying livestock feeding and other production practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; reducing the use of antibiotics in animal production; focusing on small ruminants, such as goats and sheep, along with poultry; and supporting livestock grazing practices that can enhance biodiversity.
The report also notes that for millions of women around the world with limited financial opportunities, livestock often offer a path to economic empowerment that provides multiple benefits – including better nutrition – for the entire household.
“Let’s continue to diversify our diets, recognising the linkages between animal, human and environmental health,” said Jimmy Smith, Director General at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). “That’s how we find our way to more sustainable, healthy diets; including for the two billion undernourished people today who could greatly benefit from regular access to modest amounts of milk, meat or eggs.”
UN Nutrition is an inter-agency coordination mechanism for nutrition at the global and country levels.