‘A fundamental lack of agricultural understanding’ - Feed and meat trade highly critical of Lancet report

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Petmal
© GettyImages/Petmal

Related tags emissions Red meat sustainable health Waste

The EAT-Lancet Commission report backing a cut in meat consumption is another example of well-intentioned but potentially flawed thinking on how to reduce the impact of diet on the environment, according to a raft of feed, agriculture and sustainability focused groups.

The Commission brings together 37 experts from 16 countries specializing in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, economics and politics. Their aim? To see how we can stave off environmental disaster and ensure enough food is available for a growing population by 2050.

Those experts’ report, released yesterday following two years of a research effort, suggested how people should change their diets to be healthier and lower their carbon footprint.

Policymakers globally have been weighing up the benefits of taxing meat, much in the same way as sugar, carbon emissions and tobacco. However, a Zurich based scientist and entrepreneur believes such a levy on meat would be disastrous. Watch our video interview​ with him.

Looking at food consumption and diet globally, the Lancet ​report recommends a dramatic reduction of consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat, by at least 50%, with a recommended daily combined intake of 14g, in a range that suggests total meat consumption of no more than 28 g/day, with variations in the change required according to region. The dietary shift requires double the consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Such a diet, maintain the authors, would help address the major role farming, particularly livestock production, plays in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife, and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

“Feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production, and reducing food waste. First scientific targets for a healthy diet that places healthy food consumption within the boundaries of our planet will require significant change, but are within reach.”

The report estimated that changes in food production practices could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 by about 10%, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emissions by up to 80%. A further 5% reduction could be achieved by halving food loss and waste, said the experts. 

"Agricultural production is at the highest level it has ever been, but is neither resilient nor sustainable and intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change.

"Industry too has lost its way, with commercial and political interests having far too much influence, with human health and our planet suffering the consequences," ​commented the Lancet​ report authors.

Feed industry reaction

However, feed and meat trade groups lined up to criticize the report.

The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) dismissed the recommendations within it as unsound, and based on misleading information about animal agriculture’s environmental impact.

Joel Newman, CEO of the AFIA, said the report was yet another organized attack on animal agriculture that is not reflective of the current science on the industry’s substantial sustainability advances.

“We agree with the report’s authors that there is a need to continue producing sufficient food that both feeds our growing population and protects the planet. Unfortunately, the commission made three critical and erroneous assumptions: that there is consensus on the science behind their recommendations; that the advance of new technologies will not contribute to further reducing the environmental impact of animal protein production; and that all sources of protein provide equivalent nutritional value for human diets.”

He said the feed industry has long been working with farmers, the scientific research community and other global partners on bringing new technologies and enhanced nutritional formulations to the marketplace, significantly reducing the animal agriculture industry’s environmental impact, while providing animals with optimal nutrition and health.

“The animal food industry is doing even more than ever before in benchmarking its environmental footprint and providing data to farmers and ranchers so they can make better decisions.

“Unfortunately, the report’s calls to return to primarily an ‘agrarian lifestyle’ will undo years of research and innovation, while likely keeping nutritious and high-quality protein and dairy products out of the hands of the people who need them the most.”

The recommendations generated by the EAT Lancet Commission report will need to be used wisely to help to address the twin challenges of adequate food consumption and climate change, said Robert Sheasby, CEO, Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC).

The AIC represents the UK feed manufacturing sector as well as the crop protection industry in that market.

“The global debate is an important one, but we would like it to be viewed at a national level considering the land capability, climate and the benefits offered by the UK’s food chain, its farming systems and the nation’s landscape,” ​said Sheasby.

He argued that meat and livestock products are amongst the UK’s best assets for both achieving a balanced healthy diet for domestic and overseas needs but also in creating a balanced and healthy farming landscape.

“A dramatic shift from established national guidelines for a balanced diet including high quality red meat and animal protein, as suggested by the EAT-Lancet Commission report, needs to be carefully considered, domestically, if it is to deliver the right outcomes locally and globally for food producers and consumers alike.” 

He also stressed that AIC and UK farming bodies are leading action to minimize emissions from both livestock production whilst producing high quality nutritional food to high welfare and continually improving environmental standards.  Some 5,000 professional advisers, trained in crop and livestock nutrition are on hand to help farmers make essential and innovative changes, said the CEO.

And in collaboration with the UK Former Foodstuffs Processing Association, the UK feed industry is working to retain over 650,000 tons of food products within the circular economy, rather than letting it become waste, added Sheasby.

The key messages of the EAT-Lancet ​Commission report

key messages lancet

‘A fundamental lack of agricultural understanding’

The UK’s Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) said it welcomes the analysis in the EAT-Lancet report illustrating why diets and global food systems need to change.

However, it said that, due to a fundamental lack of agricultural understanding, some of the main dietary recommendations are incompatible with the food production outcomes of truly sustainable farming systems.

“For instance, in prioritizing reductions in beef and lamb consumption over poultry consumption, the resulting environmental and health outcomes will both be negative.”

Health impacts

Jean-Luc Meriaux, secretary general of the European Livestock and Meat Trading Union (UECBV) said meat provided unrivaled nutrition and was an important part of a balanced diet.

Will Jackson, strategy director for beef and lamb, at the UK agriculture levy board, AHDB, also focused on the health benefits of meat in his reaction to the report, saying any suggestion that people should further reduce their red meat intake could have unintended detrimental consequences on health.

“Red meat contains an efficient package of essential nutrients important for the body.  For this reason, [UK] government guidelines suggest we should have 70g of red meat a day. Average population intake in the UK is currently below this figure. 

“Despite the modelling presented by the EAT Lancet Commission, no study has specifically assessed the environmental impact of diets based solely – or largely – on plant-based protein, as opposed to a mixed diet containing animal protein.”

Also responding to the Lancet​ publication, vice president of the National Farming Union (NFU) in the UK, Stuart Roberts, echoed those comments:

“Scientific communities agree that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balanced diet as a rich source of essential nutrients, minerals, amino acids and protein. It is overly simplistic to target one food group for a significant reduction in consumptionand it ignores its medically accepted role as a key part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

Global differences in farming and meat consumption

Roberts said that it is important that such a wide-ranging, global report like as this is perceived through a local lens.

There are significant differences in farming methods and consumption patterns across the globe…

“For example, 65% of UK farmland is highly suitable for grass production over other crops, so the UK is well placed to produce food from sustainable livestock grazing systems. Also, grassland is a very good store of carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

The International Meat Secretariat (IMS) said it welcomed the discussion on sustainable food systems, but said it would caution against the unintended consequences associated with dietary recommendations to consume less meat.

Livestock produce nutrient-dense food mainly from resources that are not suitable for humans or that would otherwise go to waste, claims the IMS.

In a statement, the organization made the following points:

  • Meat and other animal products such as milk and eggs provide a critical contribution and diversity to diets, are nutrient-rich and energy-dense, are excellent sources of protein, vitamins and key micronutrients, and are an important contributor to global food security.
  • Livestock mainly uses land not suited for crops and for which there is no other productive use. Livestock transform the more than 80% of all feed that is not edible, such as grass, biomass, crop residues and by-products, into high-value food.
  • Livestock produces important by-products including: power, fiber, medicines, slurry for biogas, and manure to maintain soil fertility and biodiversity, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • No other sector is more crucial to the poor than livestock with (according to the United Nations) an estimated 1 billion poor people deriving at least part of their livelihood from livestock production.

Dairy industry disagrees

The Lancet ​report also questioned the idea of dairy products as being integral for bone strength; the authors said that claim was not really demonstrated in large studies.

Alexander Anton, secretary general of the European Dairy Association, said the report "goes to the extreme to create maximum attention, but we must be more responsible when making serious dietary recommendations.

"Milk protein has been recognized scientifically, and in EU legislation, as the most valuable protein for human consumption.

A call to arms 

Professor Guy Poppy, professor of ecology at the University of Southampton, and the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), said developing the business systems to deliver the report’s recommendations and the need to ‘nudge’ human consumption behavior so dramatically would not be easy.

However, on a more positive note, he said the report was “timely, comprehensively researched and deserves immediate attention.”

The global food system is complex and is failing to be good for planetary and human health, stressed Poppy.

“Changing the food production system and human consumption behaviour is one of the biggest challenges for society, especially as it must be quick enough to have the right effect on the environment and public health.

“This Commission is an exciting development which really takes a systems approach to the intractable challenge and clearly articulates the diets which are good for the planet and your health,” ​he added.

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