Meat vs plant-based: The food debate is polarized, ideologized and tribalized, say scientists
27 Apr 2023 --- Hundreds of scientists worldwide are pushing for global diets to account for the benefits that meat brings to the table, as they say that the narrative toward more green and vegan diets might have gone too far. FoodIngredientsFirst talks to some of the researchers examining the case for meat, aiming for balanced diets and balanced debates on meat.
This comes after an article published last week in Animal Frontiers stated that meat constitutes a small part of global food mass and energy at under 10% but delivers most of the worldwide vitamin B12 intake, and that removing meat and dairy from diets would harm human health.
Moreover, another article in the same publication argued that livestock farming and diets, including animals, bring scientifically proven benefits to the table for human health, food security and a balanced and sustainable environment.
Dr. Alice Stanton of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland tells us that the debate around meat has become “among the scientific literature, more balanced” over the last years, with a large number of scientists, including “over 1,000 scientists of Ph.D. or higher qualifications” signing the Dublin Declaration last week.
The Dublin Declaration aims “to give voice to the many scientists around the world who research diligently, honestly and successfully in the various disciplines in order to achieve a balanced view of the future of animal agriculture.”
“I think there’s some room to grow, but the debate is certainly more balanced than it was two to three years ago,” she says.
Mainstream sources have to catch up
Nonetheless, Stanton highlights that “mainstream media and social media” is still lagging behind the scientific community.
Peer Edeerer, founder and director of the Global Observatory of AccurateLivestock Sciences, in the same vein, says that he believes “only a small minority of scientists present vegan diets as superior.” However, they are “highly vocal and are preferably quoted by mainstream media. That gives the appearance that science has gone vegan, but that is surely not the case,”
“The public debate on food and food sources is increasingly polarized, ideologized and tribalized. Such tendencies are always to the detriment of listening to objective scientific evidence.”
“That is unfortunate,” says Edeerer. “Our modern societies thrive where scientific evidence is their basis and decline when scientific evidence is replaced with ideology. Many people will pay with deteriorating health for this.”.
Walking back studies
Stanton explains that some of the major studies used to discourage meat consumption and promote vegan diets have been misinterpreted. Additionally, some authors are changing their opinions toward balanced diets that include more meat.
According to Stanton, one of the most cited research is the 2015 IARC study that “there is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of consumption of red meat.” However, he states that the study did find “sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meats.”
“Some of the report’s authors have said that they are being misinterpreted and are much more in favor of a balanced diet [including meat],” underscores Stanton.
She also mentions the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet. A recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that vitamin and mineral shortfalls are due to the low amounts of recommended animal-based foods.
Stanton says that Dr. Jessica Fanzo is one of the scientists that “changed her mind.” She was part of the study that found micronutrient shortfalls in the EAT-Lancet. Dr. Ty Beal, research advisor at GAIN, who co-authored the study with Fanzo, previously told NutritionInsight that “animal-sourced foods can be environmentally damaging, but they are also an essential part of food security and nutritious diets, so we cannot simply write them off as unsustainable.”
“And then the movies and publication of the Global Burden of Disease attributed huge numbers of deaths from heart attacks and strokes to unprocessed red meat. Again, they have reversed their position with the Nature publication saying that there’s little or no evidence against meat eating and for human health,” Stanton explains.
The Nature study states: “We found weak evidence of harmful associations between unprocessed red meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer.” Furthermore, the study found “no evidence of publication or reporting bias in five of the six disease outcomes investigated, and mild evidence in ischemic stroke.”
Plant-based hospital and schools meals
Efforts to promote vegan diets are moving authorities to implement vegan menus, according to Edeerer and Stanton. New York City, announced in November 2022 that it was rolling out its culturally diverse plant-based meals as the primary option for patients at its 11 public hospitals.
“That hospitals are pushing vegan or vegetarian diets is a scandal. Nutritional science evidence is very clear that recovery requires an even more nutrient- and protein-rich diet, and that is nearly only possible to achieve with animal-sourced foods,” underscores Edeerer.
“I suspect that hospitals make use of the media chatter on plant-based foods as cover to reduce costs for feeding their patients. If I was a hospital resident, I would surely supplement or replace the offered food with nutrient-rich sources from animals, including eggs, dairy and meats,” he continues.
“We must look after the health of people and we cannot compromise on cost and provide a poor diet to those who most need a nutrient-rich one” adds Stanton.
Serving vegan menus by default in 11 hospitals was calculated by Sodexo – the hospital food provider – to save US$1 million per year.
Regarding schools, Stanton says that it is “somewhat easier to get your nutrients and with a mixture of plant and animal source foods.” And that are those of the “lowest income who are dependent on school meals for nutrition.”
“Those of high income, in fact, when they go home in the evening, they get a nutrient-rich dinner. It’s not as problematic. So there is an inequality,” she highlights.
Stanton explains that if you are “knowledgeable” and if you are “happy to make the effort,” you can eat a vegan diet and with some supplementation and be absolutely healthy, but it takes both knowledge, time and effort.
“Which is what many of us do not have. So a busy husband and wife with three children, both parents working, do not necessarily have the time to add to all of the cooking that’s involved in a healthy vegan diet.”
“Sustainable livestock,” past and future of humanity
Peer Ederer, one of the two main authors of the study on livestock, explains that “human civilization has been built on livestock from initiating the bronze age more than 5,000 years ago toward being the bedrock of food security for modern societies today.”
“Livestock is the millennia-long proven method to create healthy nutrition and secure livelihoods, a wisdom deeply embedded in cultural values everywhere. Sustainable livestock will also provide solutions for today’s additional challenge – to stay within the safe operating zone of planet Earth’s boundaries, the only Earth we have,” says the Animal Frontiers study.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded this week in a report – “Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health outcomes” – when consumed as part of suitable dietary patterns, meat and other food derived from animals on land can play a vital role in fulfilling the nutrition objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
This includes addressing issues such as stunting, wasting and overweight children, improving birth weight, lowering anemia rates in women of reproductive age and reducing obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among adults.
“FAO’s conclusions reaffirm that meat plays an essential role in positive health outcomes and point to the urgent need for further research on specific populations’ nutrient needs, as well as the need to accelerate adoption of climate-smart livestock products,” says Guillaume Roué, president of the International Meat Secretariat.
Meat, health and food security
Edeer says that humans evolved to be persistent and frequent meat eaters, so “it can be assumed that meat is at least compatible with human anatomy and metabolism.”
He stresses that meat, being a high-quality food for nutrient absorption with significant nutritional benefits, greatly contributes to nutrition, food security, livelihoods, soil health and biodiversity, and culture.
A spokesman for the agriculture and food development authority of Ireland Teagasc, tells FoodIngredientsFirst that the debate about the role of meat has focused “a lot” on the emissions associated with meat production and beef in particular.
“The other aspects of meat, such as its role in food security and nutrition security, particularly for some specific nutrients and at particular life stages, its contribution to livelihoods and culture, the role of livestock in recycling nutrients (animal manure) and contributing to soil health and soil biodiversity, the role in converting inedible feeds (forage and food by-products) to edible foods for human consumption.”
“Furthermore, the positive contribution to biodiversity (hedgerows, diverse pastures, maintaining hill and mountain ecosystems) also need to be factored into the discussion and have often been overlooked.”
“Food security is really important and it cannot be taken for granted and food security doesn’t just mean calories, it means nutrient-rich foods and animal source foods, meat, dairy, eggs and Fish,” adds Stanton.
Stanton predicts that it will take time for associations, scientists and political authorities to catch up with the current state of science regarding meat consumption and balanced diets.
“It will take some time for the reversal of opinions to actually be communicated to all of the help professionals.” including doctors and nutritionists, and that and to policymakers. But it’s really important that those conversations do take place,” she concludes.
By Marc Cervera
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