Ramp up meat production to address health challenge in poorer countries, UN says

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The world must ramp up the production of meat to address widespread hunger and nutrient deficiencies faced by people in developing countries, the UN said, even as it called on those in richer nations to eat less animal protein.

The findings are part of the UN Food and Agriculture Agency’s global food systems’ road map to 1.5C report, released on Sunday at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai. It is billed as an extensive plan to tackle hunger and bring greenhouse gas emissions from the agrifood industry within targets set by the Paris climate agreement.

Types of protein, micronutrients, fat and carbohydrates found in meat, eggs and dairy products cannot be adequately sourced from plant-based food, said the UN food agency’s chief economist Maximo Torero.

“There’s a need to produce more [meat and dairy] because there’s an enormous amount of countries that are under-consuming those micronutrients and those products,” he told the Financial Times. At the same time, “there are some parts which are over consuming and therefore having health issues,” he added.

The report said livestock production should be intensified “in relevant locations”, with Torero citing the Netherlands and New Zealand as examples.

The way to address the meat supply gap was to intensify the production of livestock and boost efficiency through scientific innovation, the FAO report concluded.  

A separate report published on Friday by the UN’s Environment Programme concluded that lab-grown meat and dairy were key to reducing the environmental footprint of the global food system.

The FAO’s stance on meat production will alarm environmental and sustainability groups, who maintain that the only way to limit global temperature rise is by curbing intensive livestock farming.

“It’s essential that we transition to producing less meat rather than more,” said Alex Wijeratna, senior director at the Mighty Earth environment NGO.

The global agrifood system accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock the biggest contributor. Yet the farming sector has faced less scrutiny than other large-emitting industries such as aviation and oil and gas.

Yet food and farming has moved up the COP agenda this year. The meat and dairy industry representatives at the summit numbered 120, including meat group JBS, while agribusiness more broadly had 340 delegates.

The FAO also published a separate report last week outlining ways to reduce greenhouse gases emitted from the livestock sector.

As part of this, the agency is considering plant-based and cultivated meat as alternatives, the report said, but the environmental impact of both is “highly debated”. It also said “cell-based meats cannot be considered identical to the animal source food they aim to eventually replace, mainly due to differences in nutritional quality.”

Torero said the way forward was for countries that are “very efficient in producing livestock”, such as the Netherlands and New Zealand, to produce more meat and dairy and then ship those products across the world. 

A dairy farm near Cambridge, New Zealand. The UN Food and Agriculture Agency said the way forward was for countries that are ‘very efficient in producing livestock’ to produce more meat and dairy and then ship those products across the world.  © William West/AFP/Getty Images

However, these countries are shrinking production to meet legally binding country targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said. Dutch farmers have been told to reduce livestock herds or leave the industry to help the country halve its nitrogen-based emissions by 2030.

This could prompt other countries with less efficient models to step up production to meet growing global demand, which would result in higher net emissions, he added.

Nusa Urbancic, chief executive of the Changing Markets Foundation, a campaign group, said this suggested the agency had “completely bought the narratives of the meat industry”.

While more than 735mn people globally do not have enough to eat, advanced nations produce massive food waste.

Separate UN research estimates about 14 per cent of the world’s food, valued at $400bn, is lost on an annual basis between harvest and the retail market, and an estimated 17 per cent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.

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