It’s rare that an international report actually advocates for animal agriculture.
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Raising animals for food is often blamed as a cause of climate change and environmental degradation, and is viewed as cruel and unnecessary by some groups. The consumption of animal products is also accused of causing various human health concerns including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Studies that “prove” the latter are fraught with assumptions and often based on anecdotal evidence. In North America, for example, studies over the past several decades vilify red meat, and relate its consumption to higher death rates from heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. But it’s very difficult to weed out other factors that might be at play in health outcomes, such as lack of exercise, familial genetics, smoking history or consumption of junk foods. Many studies rely on patients’ self-reporting of eating patterns and other habits.
Often the consumption of processed red meat in particular, which contains high levels of salt as well as curing agents such as nitrates and sulfites, is cited as the cause of health concerns. Media reports often don’t distinguish between processed and non-processed meats, leaving the public with impressions that all red meat is bad and chances of dying are higher for those who eat too much of it.
For decades eggs were seen as killers due to their cholesterol content. This was amplified by the famous 1984 Time magazine cover and article on cholesterol that painted eggs as the villain — as if other foods and biological factors couldn’t possibly contribute.
Dairy, too, has seen its share of hate due to saturated fat content. Butter has been dissed.
Poultry meat, being leaner than beef or pork, is one of few animal products seen in a positive light when nutritionally related medical studies are touted in the media.
Such reports are only possible in North America and other areas of the world where food is plentiful, and where most citizens have the luxury of choosing what they eat based on dietary preferences or ethical beliefs.
Getting adequate nutrition — what your body needs to survive and function — is rarely an issue in Western countries. Even those in lower-income groups often have access to government or community-run programs that supplement basic food needs.
That’s not true for millions of people in areas of the world that don’t have access to nutritious food or government safety nets.
A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, entitled “Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health outcomes,” encourages governments to “update national dietary guidelines to consider where appropriate how meat, eggs and milk can contribute to specific nutrient requirements during the life course of humans.”
More than 500 scientific papers and 250 policy documents were reviewed by the FAO, and it concluded that “meat, eggs and milk offer crucial sources of much-needed nutrients which cannot easily be obtained from plant-based foods.”
The report says there is evidence of risks from consuming animal-source food, but it distinguishes between processed and non-processed meat. It says consumption of even low amounts of processed red meat can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease outcomes, “however, consuming unprocessed red meat in moderate amounts (ranging from nine to 71 grams per day) may have minimal risk but is considered safe with regards to chronic disease outcomes.”
The report further states the evidence of “any links between milk, eggs and poultry consumption in healthy adults and diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes and hypertension is inconclusive (for milk) or non-significant (for eggs and poultry).”
The primary reason the FAO wants governments to reconsider the benefits of meat, milk and eggs is because they contain essential macronutrients such protein, fats, carbohydrates and micronutrients.
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“High quality protein, a number of essential fatty-acids, iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, Vitamin B12, choline and bioactive compounds like carnitine, creatine, taurine are provided by foods from terrestrial animals and have important health and developmental functions,” the report says.
The recent focus on sustainability in agriculture has centered on climate and productivity, with food security lower on the list. Even so, food security is often referred to in terms of food volume, not nutritional quality.
To fully address sustainability and food security, the nutritional value of food must be a bigger part of the discussion.