Benefits of red meat ignored in shift towards plant-based diets

The negative effects of red meat on human health and of livestock production on the natural environment are being over-emphasised in the move towards plant-based diets, say researchers at the University of the Free State and the Agricultural Research Council.

The higher absorption and use of nutrients from livestock foods, which “stimulates mental and cognitive development” more than vegetarian or grain-based diets, is being ignored, they wrote in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science.

A “balanced message” should be conveyed to the broader scientific community and to the public on the role of livestock in meeting global nutritional needs and contributing to global warming, the authors argue. 

“The percentage quoted for developed countries indicates the greenhouse gas contribution from livestock is less than 6%, while that for developing countries is 40% to 50%. However, the reason for this relatively low contribution from developed countries is because of very high contributions from other sectors.”

The authors estimate that livestock is responsible for only 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions through methane production. 

In sub-Saharan Africa ruminants are important in human diets, with foods from animal sources essential to support early childhood and cognitive development. 

“Many rural households depend on ruminants and these animals are central to the livelihoods and well-being of these communities,” they write. “Millions of children in developed countries already suffer from impaired cognitive development from poor nutrition due to the insufficient consumption of livestock source foods.”

But a recent report by the EAT-Lancet Commission focuses on a diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grain, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils, some seafood and poultry and little to no red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which last week launched its plant-based diet, building on the work of EAT-Lancet, says plant-based diets can globally cut food-based greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, wildlife losses by up to 46%, agricultural land-use to about 40% and premature deaths by 20%.

But, says Tatjana von Bormann of WWF South Africa, the push away from a meat-based diet has potentially “under-recognised” effects, particularly on small-scale livestock producers and land use. 

Vulnerabilities to climate change impacts come in multiple forms, van Bormann explains. 

“Firstly, farming communities are vulnerable to the unpredictable changes in weather that can destroy the viability of a farming operation. Secondly, agriculture, and particularly livestock farming has also been identified as a significant contributor to GHG emissions, and therefore is a contributor to climate change. Finally, farming communities are vulnerable to the negative impacts that may result from changes called for at a global level in order to meet the Paris Agreement ambitions to cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

An  example of this triple burden is evident in the call for vegetarian or vegan diets to reduce the emissions associated with livestock production. 

“As a shift in diets can only happen if the food systems also change this means changes in production patterns, specifically away from livestock farming. In the context of WWF work – in climate change and the just transition in the food system – the push away from a meat-based diet has a number of potentially under recognised impacts, particularly on small scale livestock producers and land use.”

However, change has to happen, she says.  

“Grass-fed herbivores will not produce enough meat for current and predicted future demand, which is expected to increase by 200% in South Africa by 2050.  Current approaches to livestock production are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and threaten global biodiversity due to land-use changes and degradation. 

“Red meat production, particularly in concentrated operations requires high volumes of water. Feed production results in deforestation in many parts of the world. And the growing consumption of meat, particularly processed meat, has proven negative impacts on human health.”

Conversely, she explains, South Africa’s large temperate grasslands are well suited to raising cattle in a way that is more compatible with local biodiversity than many other land uses. 

“The livestock sector also supports a significant number of jobs. Many communities rely on meat for nutrition and livelihoods, and when farmed in the right ways and the right scale, ruminants can also be compatible with good land management.

“Given the competing challenges WWF is attempting to understand the complexity. WWF argues that reduced meat consumption in certain population groups is necessary both for health and climate and biodiversity reasons while other groups, particularly pregnant women and children, may benefit from appropriate increases where it is necessary to improve nutritional health. The ideal is that this meat is sourced from free ranging farms.”

WWF, she says, acknowledges the important income and cultural role that livestock plays in the lives of many South Africans. 

“WWF supports the necessary change in diets required to improve health and environmental sustainability but aims to be part of the call to ensure that it is not the poor and vulnerable in society who carry the burden of developed economy calls for change.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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