Emotions can run high when the topic of how much red and processed meat to eat is raised. For most of us, eating these foods is culturally important—often associated with specific foods and traditions.
That’s why this week’s important new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) is welcome. The report clearly focuses on what science says about how red and processed meat affects our health—and the health of the ecosystems on which we depend.
What does it say? Moderation is important. In high-income countries, we tend to eat too much red meat, which increases the risk of certain cancers and heart disease. We need to consider processed meat, such as salami, with greater caution, because the link to cancer risk is even clearer.
If you want a quick take home, it’s this: eat less red meat, avoid processed meat and choose meat that is farmed in better conditions. But it is not always easy or affordable for everyone. So most importantly, we need changes in the policies that affect how our food systems work so that our well-being and the health of the planet are prioritized.
What does the evidence say about red meat and our health?
Red meat is a rich source of many important nutrients, including iron, B-vitamins and all essential amino acids. These are compounds that are essential for human growth, development and good health.
Importantly, these nutrients are not only found in red meat. Seeds and legumes are also high in iron and B-vitamins, albeit in a less easily absorbed form. Many cultures have developed healthy diets without an over-reliance on red meat by including seeds and legumes.
In populations experiencing food insecurity, red meat can be an important source of nutrition. In these contexts, it makes no sense to advise people to avoid red meat.
But in other parts of the world, red meat consumption is much higher. Australians are some of the biggest eaters of red meat in the world, putting us at higher risk of chronic diseases such as bowel cancer and heart disease. These two are among the top killers in Australia.
Processed and ultra-processed meats such as ham and chicken nuggets pose greater health risks, especially if consumed in excess. The WHO considers processed meat a Group 1 carcinogen. That means there is strong evidence linking consumption to cancer risk.
The way we produce red and processed meat comes with many other health issues, such as antimicrobial resistance due to overuse of antibiotics, as well as the risk of new zoonotic diseases in animal-to-human. Intensive farming carried out on industrial scales poses particular risks.
What does the evidence tell us about red meat and the environment?
Ruminant livestock require grass, which often means that farmers cut down trees or shrubs that were once there, making the pasture inhospitable for native species. In feedlots, these animals are often fed grains or soy. Producing the amount needed—of animal and livestock feed—means cutting down large amounts of forest. So we can clearly link increased livestock farming to damaged biodiversity.
There are also issues beyond the climate. Livestock production accounts for up to 78% of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Of this, cattle farming contributes 80%.
In Australia, livestock farming is generally less intensive than in the United States. However, deforestation to make room for cattle is still a major issue in Australia. In the last five years, 13,500 hectares have been cleared for cattle operations in Queensland alone.
It doesn’t have to be so harmful. Mixed farming systems, where cattle graze on land covered with trees and native grasses, are less harmful.
So are farming practices built around agro-ecological principles where soil health and equity are prioritized.
As global warming worsens, it will pose more challenges for livestock farmers (and livestock). The development of extreme weather has major implications for animal welfare, farmers’ livelihoods and food security.
What does the evidence say about industrial farming?
Many farmers care deeply about the welfare of their animals and the environment.
But meat production in many parts of the world is now dominated by large corporations. To maximize production, these companies rely on intensive farming techniques such as feedlots and heavy use of antibiotics. These practices are spreading as low- and middle-income countries like China and Brazil gain an increased appetite for meat.
Industrial scale farming has real costs. If we can improve meat production, we will lower the risk of antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic diseases, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity, and improve the lives of workers and the animals themselves.
Knowing this, what should we do?
If we let the situation go, intensive farming and red and processed meat consumption will continue to increase.
But this is not sustainable. To improve the health of people and the planet we need to change how we produce meat. And we need to consume a wide variety of foods. These changes should be sensitive to the local context.
Changing what we eat must involve governments. Just as governments have a role in encouraging food manufacturers to avoid carcinogens or dangerous chemical additives, they have a role in promoting healthy diets from sustainable food systems with high term.
What does that look like? This could be investing in agro-ecological farming practices, tackling corporate concentration in meat production, punishing antibiotic overuse and subsidizing healthy options like beans and legumes. Taxing the most dangerous meat-based foods, such as processed meat, is another option.
Reasonable policy making can also help shift cultural norms where meat is highly valued.
Can we replace red meat with different meats? It is not simple. The majority of chickens are intensively farmed, too, meaning antibiotic resistance remains a risk. Ultra-processed plant-based meats can also cause problems for human health.
A better option is to focus on minimally processed whole foods (think brown rice, nuts and pulses) and foods that are sustainably produced from animals. But we need action from the government to make these options affordable and convenient.
Importantly, the WHO report doesn’t say to stop eating red meat—it just outlines the evidence about its effects on your health. It also points out ways to farm animals that are less harmful and outlines ways to reduce our usual consumption.
Provided by The Conversation
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Citation: What science says about the impact of red and processed meat on our health, and ecosystem health (2023, July 17) retrieved on 17 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-science -red-meat -affects-health.html
This document is subject to copyright. Except for any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Content is provided for informational purposes only.