Animal agriculture ‘essential to global food system’

07 March 2022 | News

Animal foods can form part of a healthy, sustainable and ethical lifestyle, despite increasing claims to the contrary, says Lincoln University Professor of Livestock Management, Pablo Gregorini.

His recent article, Animal source foods in healthy, sustainable and ethical diets – An argument against drastic limitation of livestock in the food system, is sparking discussion worldwide, including from members of the US National Academy of Sciences.

The paper argues that animal foods are evolutionarily appropriate and healthy for humans and points to evidence that livestock farming is integral to the overall agricultural system, contributing to biodiversity and improved plant food production, while creating food security and a path out of poverty for some.

However, many in the urban West deem animal foods universally unhealthy, unsustainable and unethical, which Prof Gregorini said ignores the complexity of the food system.

“Whether any food production system is harmful or benign is extremely nuanced and depends on differing geographical and cultural factors. But mainstream – and mostly Western – narratives seem to want to simplify the global reality,” he said.

According to the paper, animal foods “offer a wide spectrum of nutrients that are needed for cell tissue development, function, health and survival”.

“Various public health institutions worldwide are now advocating moderate to heavy restriction of red meat, processed meats and saturated fats, but the scientific debate is not settled,” Professor Gregorini said.

“The evidence has been challenged by various scientists, both for red meat and saturated fat, the latter of which is not exclusive to animal foods.”

High red meat consumption in the West is associated with several forms of chronic disease, but these associations remain weak in other cultures or when red meat is part of a wholesome diet, he said.

“The link between red meat and disease is especially obvious in North America and other modern Western countries, where meat is often consumed as fast food and where high-meat consumers also tend to have less healthy diets and lifestyles in general.

“In a Canadian study, eating more meat was only associated with higher cancer rates for people eating the lowest amount of fruits and vegetables.”

The paper argues that plant-based diets require careful planning and supplements or adequately fortified foods, which can be difficult to achieve for many people.

“This is particularly true in locations where such foods are inaccessible or unaffordable, or when allergies create other dietary restrictions that exclude plant staples like grains, peas, or nuts,” Prof Gregorini said.

Regarding environmental impacts, the paper points out that although some agricultural methods are detrimental – potentially leading to intensive cropping for feed, overgrazing, deforestation and water pollution – the damaging effects of food production are not only found in animal agriculture.

“Well managed livestock farming can contribute to ecosystem management and health while delivering high-quality foods by using resources that otherwise cannot be used in food production,” Prof Gregorini said.

“About a quarter of the global agricultural surface is unsuitable for cropping, so shifting away from animal agriculture could compromise the world’s nutrient supply and lead to a sharp increase in other methane-producing animals that are less efficient at converting feed.

“It’s likely that emissions would be replaced or even increased by wild animals, as methane production today may be comparable to historical levels produced by wild animals.”

High-productivity lands already under crop production also have relatively low levels of biodiversity, according to the paper.

“Properly managed livestock can help maintain greater biodiversity by grazing unploughed, less productive areas while being economically more efficient.

“Integrating livestock and crop farming where possible could also benefit plant food production through enhanced nutrient recycling, while minimising fertilisers and pesticides.”

As far as animal welfare is concerned, the paper suggests that livestock farming can be valued as a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, to the benefit of both.

“But this only works when animal welfare standards are in place and livestock receive a dignified life,” Prof Gregorini says.

“In comparison to their counterparts living a much more ferocious life in the wild, livestock animals receive shelter, are better fed during winter, receive veterinary care, are protected from predators, and do not die after a long agony.

“However, it is true that animal welfare standards can be low in some operations and this must be addressed. In some, though, they are excellent, and these practices should be encouraged and rewarded.”

Animal agriculture can also play an important role in culture, societal wellbeing, food security and the provision of livelihoods, the paper suggests.

“Arguments for the decimation or even abolishment of livestock and the large-scale rewilding of marginal lands could only find root in a post-industrial Western context,” Prof Gregorini said. “Its proponents neglect all services that livestock provide worldwide and their role in social sustainability.

“Food policy needs more community-derived insights and wisdom from people who are practically invested in health care, agriculture, landscape management, and food security.

“It would certainly be fair to address the concerning practices in animal production that give rise to concern because of a net negative impact on humans, animals, and the environment.

“However, when done well and in alignment with local ecosystems and social contexts, animal husbandry should be part of the solution to improve public health and environmental resilience.”

Professor Gregorini heads Lincoln University’s Centre of Excellence for the Design of Future Productive Landscapes. He is a board member of ALPEH, an international initiative made up of scientific experts who are active in the domains of food science and technology, food biochemistry, microbiology, nutrition, public health (cultural and biological), anthropology, food studies, health psychology, environmental sciences, animal physiology and veterinary sciences.