Criticism of livestock in the West endangers the health of the world’s poorest | Emma Naluyima Mugerwa and Lora Iannotti

The pandemic has pushed poverty and malnutrition to rates not seen in more than a decade, wiping out years of progress. In 2020, the number of people living in extreme poverty increased by 97 million and the number of undernourished people between 118 million and 161 million.

Recent data from the world Bank and the UN shows how poverty is highly concentrated in rural communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America where people survive on family farming. This fall, two key events could support them.

The first one is this month UN Food Systems Summit, a gathering seen as a potential turning point in generating support for more sustainable and equitable food systems. The second is the UN Climate Summit (Cop26) in November, where world leaders will be pressed to make major investments that will help rural farming communities adapt to the climate crisis.

But it’s surprising to see that in both arenas a major opportunity is wasted. Animal husbandry is essential for half a billion poor families in the developing world. Yet the growth chorus of critics directed against industrial agriculture in the West threatens to undermine support for livestock production everywhere, including the developing world.

In the poorest countries, most people do not practice factory farming. The cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens or camels that many families raise are often their most valuable economic and food assets. They serve as a hedge against the impacts of the climate crisis on their farms. They help ensure that children do not grow up undernourished.

The importance of animal products in the prevention of malnutrition shows how essential it is to assess the risks and benefits. The average European consumes 69 kg of meat each year, the African average 10kg. Many eat less – often much less – than that. In 2020, 149 million children under five are stunted through malnutrition. Many of these cases could have been prevented with better access to foods of animal origin.

Left: Emma Naluyima Mugerwa, veterinarian and farmer on a one-acre mixed-use farm in Uganda; Lora Iannotti, child and maternal nutrition specialist and lead author of the UN Nutrition Report 2021. Photograph: handout

We are an unlikely pair: an award-winning holistic farmer from Uganda and an American public health nutrition scientist. But we are united in our commitment to use our expertise to seek a more balanced and informed discussion of the very different roles of livestock in the world today.

We recognize that livestock are a major source of greenhouse gases. They have contributed to the destruction of tropical forests and other pristine natural areas. And the overconsumption of certain animal products can contribute to chronic health problems.

But a recent assessment of UN Nutrition, co-authored by Lora Iannotti, shows that for a significant portion of the world’s malnourished people, milk, meat and eggs are a source of essential nutrients not available – neither now nor in the foreseeable future – in the herbal alternatives.

Iannotti’s research shows that in young children, modest servings of nutrient-dense animal products are particularly effective in preventing or treating chronic malnutrition. The high concentration of essential nutrients in foods of animal origin – often impossible to replicate in foods of plant origin – also makes them very valuable during other stages of life, especially adolescence, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

There are also opportunities to realize these benefits through sustainable and nature-positive approaches to animal husbandry. On Emma Naluyima Mugerwa’s farm in Uganda, she raises pigs, cattle, chickens and fish. She grows vegetables, fruits and matoke, a kind of banana. Pig dung feeds the maggots that feed its chickens. Instead of cutting down trees for firewood, she uses the manure from her cows to produce biogas, a renewable fuel that cooks her food and provides electricity for the farm. She and her family eat some of the nutritious food on her farm and earn a good income by selling the rest to her community.

This is just one example of sustainable approaches to animal husbandry that are good for people and the planet. There are many other creative and innovative solutions. But what we need are investments and targeted government policies that can encourage wider adoption, not massive bans or ill-advised anti-meat “moon shots” that are leaving millions more stranded. more behind.

Sustainable and profitable livestock farming is a powerful option in helping a significant portion of the world’s most vulnerable communities find a way to be healthier and have better lives. If we continue to focus only on the risks associated with breeding, we will miss this opportunity. And the usual suspects – those who started with the least – will be the poorest and most hungry.

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