Why meat is important in the global battle against food insecurity

Consumption of chicken has been rising in Africa. This is a short-term solution to improving food insecurity. Reuters/James Akena

The increase in the world’s population has led to challenges in maintaining a balanced diet in both the developed and the developing world. More than two billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiency.

The inadequate intake of essential micro-nutrients is detrimental to the mental and physical development of children and reduces the productivity and work capacity of adults.

Over the last two decades, there has been a significant reduction in food insecurity with the number of hungry or undernourished people decreasing from 18.7% to 11.3%. But, globally, food insecurity continues to be a daunting challenge. The prevalence and severity of food insecurity varies at regional, national and household levels. At least two-thirds of the world’s food-insecure households are found in developing countries.

The current food security threats go beyond insufficient food quality. Nutritional value, safety and the distribution of the available foods all have an impact. In addition, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and mass food contamination have been frequently reported as threats to food safety – a consequence of the rising pressure to rapidly increase food production.

Good quality meat has the potential to reduce food insecurity and poverty. It should be considered a tool to eliminate “hidden hunger”. This would require making sure it is evenly distributed across the world.

But there are several limitations that may contribute to the slow progress of using meat to conquer food insecurity worldwide.

A bad side to eating meat?

Science has shown that lean meat is good for you. This is because it contains properties that positively moderate lipid profiles in the body. This in turn has a positive impact on long-term health by producing polyunsaturated fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

Some polyunsaturated fatty acids can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in the blood and can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. Linoleic acid contains fat fighting, insulin lowering properties which suppress the development of cancer in different areas of the body. This is the case even at relatively low dietary levels.

This is true of lean, unprocessed meat. Processed meat is a different story. A recent report by the World Health Organisation classifies processed meat as a carcinogen in the same category as plutonium and alcohol. It cautions that eating 50g of processed meat a day, which is the equivalent of up to two slices of bacon, increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

The same report acknowledges that meat is a rich source of nutrients and that eating meat and meat products also has health benefits. The moderation of meat consumption rather than eliminating it from one’s diet remains the most reasonable recommendation.

The poor can’t afford meat

The biggest problems around the consumption of meat relate to, on the one hand eating too much, and on the other cost and distribution.

South Africa provides an interesting case study. As living standards have improved, people’s diets have got better. This includes more meat and fruit and vegetable consumption. The increase in the amount of meat being eaten is linked to an increase in average income over the last two decades.

The increased demand for meat has led had two consequences: an increase in meat-related health threats such as cardiovascular diseases among the wealthy; and a rise in prices, making it less affordable for the poor.

South Africa, as a nation of fervent meat eaters, ranks 11 out of 15 top meat eating countries in the world, with more than 50.7 kg of meat being consumed per capita each year.

At the same time, most South Africans are not eating the food-based dietary recommendations of 80g to 90g lean cooked meat per day. This is because just over half the South African population is categorised as food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity and cannot achieve the recommended intake.

Other factors influence meat consumption

Despite its contribution as a complete nutrient source, meat has a bad reputation. Although scientific research has shown its multiple health benefits, consumers still question its safety.

And a large proportion of the worlds’ population adheres to religions with strong traditions around food consumption, especially meat. Consumption is often limited by intrinsic factors or lack of adherence to specific production, slaughter and processing methods.

In addition, organisations have been set up to speak against meat consumption in the name of animal protection, declaring it more a luxury than a need.

It is critical to consider these perspectives in the discourse on global food security.

The consumption guide

It is important for consumers to pay attention to the quality and quantity of the meat they consume – and how they prepare it. Setting personal health goals, such as consuming just enough to meet the average nutrient requirements, is key.

Chicken as a meat source can be viewed as a short term stepping stone. Chicken consumption has increased dramatically over the years, mostly due to its health qualities and lower cost.

Misconceptions about meat and its affect on health need to be tackled head on. Human beings were born omnivores. Meat has been part of their diet through the ages. This is one of the reasons it should be considered as part of any diet, as well as part of the solution to food insecurity.