Meat and greet

By Saul Morris, GAIN Director, Programme Services

On the 19th of this month, two football teams from Algeria and Senegal will play against each other in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.

What makes a great footballer? Presumably, training, determination… and muscle. Building muscle requires consuming large amounts of protein and energy, and eating meat is a highly efficient way of doing this. For the rest of us who are not athletes, however, it is less challenging to consume enough protein and energy in a standard portion size of food, and hundreds of millions of adults live a happy and healthy life without consuming any meat.

The rightful place of meat in the world’s food systems has been brought into sharp focus by the recent EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, which put forward a reference diet containing just 7g of beef/lamb and 7g of pork a day. The authors argued that this level would allow humankind to live within planetary boundaries, and enjoy better health. Given that a certain well known beefburger contains 91g of beef, this implies that a reference diet would allow one beefburger a fortnight, and a similar amount of pork.  The press coverage of the EAT-Lancet report has made much of the challenge of making such a drastic change to diets in rich countries; football-crazy Algerians, for example, currently eat 90g of red meat a day.

At GAIN, we worry that all meat has suddenly been branded as undesirable. We believe that the evidence is strong that at least in pregnancy and childhood, animal-sourced foods, including meat, are beneficial for health. Lindsay Allen has authored a useful comparison of the value of different protein sources for maternal and child nutrition, and shown that meat has more vitamin B12, and much more iron and zinc, than milk and eggs. She notes that in randomised trials, meat consumption has positive effects on children’s lean body mass, cognitive performance, school test scores, and activity. At GAIN, in an extensive review of the literature, we have found that iron deficiency is the single most common dietary issue in the diets of young children in Africa. Heme iron, found in meat, is far more bioavailable than plant sources of iron.

We would like to see the debate move on from “End consumption of meat, everywhere!”. In Senegal, the poorer segment of the population spend just USD 3/month on meat and fish combined, which clearly would not buy them even the tiny quantities of meat and fish recommended in the EAT-Lancet report. We would like to see context-specific analyses which help countries articulate a constructive way forward. Continuing with the example of Senegal, such a strategy might ask questions such as:

  • What is the actual environmental footprint of the country’s 3.5m cattle, 7.7m sheep, and 5.7m goats? Are there simple changes to current production technology that might reduce this environmental footprint?
  • What other income and nutritional options are there for the nearly half a million households in Senegal which currently raise livestock? Which of these options actually offer a better environmental footprint and better nutritional prospects?
  • How could local social norms around meat consumption be changed? Can very meat-heavy meals in fast-food outlets or dibiteries be made less desirable, and can wastage of meat at religious festivals be reduced?
  • Are there supply chain interventions which could make meat more accessible to the very poor without incentivising over-consumption? One model of this might be “Chicken Choice”, a Kenyan small enterprise which sells very small cuts of chicken to poor consumers who only have a few coins to spend.

At GAIN, through our partnerships and analyses, we hope to be able to contribute to the evolution of this debate, building the case for healthier, more sustainable diets for all populations including the most vulnerable to malnutrition.

In the meantime, may the best team win the Africa Cup of Nations, and may they continue to practice the healthy eating which brought them this far!