Marc Michael, Dr. Adam Coutts, Dr. Sanjay Basu and Dr. David Stuckler
Meat consumption is increasing exponentially worldwide.
The health implications of rising meat consumption range from increased rates of obesity and diabetes to outbreaks of food-borne infections. Meat production also affects the price of grains, risking food insecurity among the poor. In this article, we summarise the impacts of rising meat consumption and production on global health and suggest policy options to mitigate negative health impacts.
Meat is not an essential component of human diets; proteins and nutrients found in meats can be substituted by other sources.
When consumed in excess levels, the risks of meat consumption often outweigh the potential benefits. Firstly, meat is a primary source of dietary saturated fat, a main risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Increased risks of colorectal cancer are also linked to higher meat consumption.
Secondly, the overall fat content of meat, comprising both saturated and unsaturated fats, is also associated with elevated risks of obesity and diabetes. There is a significant relationship between higher levels of meat consumption and the prevalence of obesity. In cross-national data of obesity rates for the year 2007, the per capita level of meat consumption was a much stronger correlate of risks of obesity than total caloric intake or other dietary components (including sugars, cereals, and fruits and vegetables).
Recent studies suggest that meat may have addictive properties. Fat consumption appears to be difficult to self-regulate once persons become exposed to its availability.
Impacts of Production
Rising production of meat to meet increasing demand creates further risks to health. Meat is inefficient to produce due to its low 'bio-efficiency', the limited capacity to convert inputs such as feed, water and electricity for farming equipment into useful output such as protein calories. Meat requires about 6 to 17 times more land than do soy plants to produce an equivalent amount of protein. Although calculations vary, it is commonly estimated that raising one kilogram of feed-lot beef necessitates an investment of about twenty tons of water and seven kilos of grain. Alternatives to beef, such as pork and chicken, are more efficient, requiring four kilos or two kilos of grain, respectively.
Increasing diversion of grains from human consumption to animal feed is contributing factor to rising prices of food commodities. Prices of two main meat-production inputs, corn and wheat, rose by 25 percent and 68 percent between 2000 and 2006. These rises were not only concentrated in developed countries. The FAO estimates that the import food cost for 'developing countries' rose by ten percent between 2005 and 2006, and by a further 25 percent in 2006-7. Those most affected by these price increases are low-income groups who depend on markets to access food; they spend up to four-fifths of their income on food, so even small increases in food prices have resulted in under-nutrition. Due to the additional price increases observed in 2008, when maize prices tripled and rice prices increased by 170 percent, the FAO estimates that an additional 75 million people were pushed into hunger.
Current meat production processes pose additional risks of food-borne infectious disease. Industrial Animal Processing and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are now mainstream farming methods; risky feeding methods, including feeding waste products to animals as well as foods containing heavy metals and antibiotics, have become standard practice. These methods tend to generate high fat concentrations in meat, as well as create production-side risks of microbial contamination and antibiotic resistance. For example, feeding ruminant material to other ruminants was ascertained as a major risk factor in the development of 'mad cow disease'. Worldwide, about half of all antibiotics are fed to livestock. In the US seventy percent of all manufactured antibiotics are fed to animals. Factory farming of chickens is also linked to the development of resistance (such as vancomycin-resistant enterococci).
As meat production involves human exposure, there is a risk of breeding and spreading new infectious diseases. The 1997 outbreak of avian influenza in
Alternative Policy Responses
Several options have been proposed to mitigate the impacts of meat consumption and production on health. One option proposed is to limit population growth. Much of the increase in worldwide consumption of meat, and resulting scarcity of supply, is argued to arise from rapid growth of populations in developed economies. However, in view of evidence that the bulk of consumption is not from high fertility, impoverished groups, but rather newly affluent and emerging middle-class consumers, a policy of reducing fertility rates is unlikely to stem rising demand for meat.
An alternative approach seeks to increase the price of consumption to account for the long-term health consequences. As McMichael concludes in a review of the literature on health costs of meat consumption, 'Raising the cost of a commercially produced supermarket steak would moderate otherwise excessive consumption. Without such a change in cost-accounting, we have little hope of achieving the dietary aspects of the
Current policies to increase supply, such as expanding industrial agricultural farming and expanding fertilizer use, may help meet rising demand, but may exacerbate health risks of meat consumption. One alternative proposal is to remove subsidies to farmers on red meats. These subsidies distort market incentives and artificially lower the price, thereby increasing consumption. The health benefits of removing subsidies can be rapid.
An alternative, more feasible option may be to incentivise the production of healthier meat products, with lower concentrations of fat, as opposed to industrially-produced ('factory-farmed') meat. Encouraging substitutes could limit fat intake, while maintaining protein levels. One approach to achieving this goal is promoting consumption of fish, which contain healthier fatty acids and less saturated fats than red meats. However, concerns about overfishing may need to be overcome for this to be a viable solution rising demand for meat.
No single intervention exists to address the health consequences of rising meat consumption. What is clear, however, is that addressing global dietary change will remain a foremost health-policy challenge of the 21st century.
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