Much More Needs to be Done About Unhealthy Impact of Meat
To address the climate impacts of livestock production, people need to halve their meat-eating, says the Meat Atlas 2021.

Twenty multinational meat and dairy conglomerates emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Britain, or France, according to the Meat Atlas which was launched recently by Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung

A range of health issues associated with meat-heavy diets also require attention in the push toward more sustainable practices, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ahead of next week’s UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for 23 September and the Glasgow Climate Summit, COP 26, which opens 31 October. 

Around 840,000 deaths annually are attributable to diets high in processed meats, and some 40,000 deaths are linked to diets high in red meats, according to the WHO’s Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, in an interview with Health Policy Watch

Millions more premature deaths have been associated with people eating diets high in  saturated fats from meat, and not eating enough fruits, vegetables, fibre, legumes, and other plant-based foods. The consequences of this are malnutrition, hypertension, heart disease and other chronic disease ailments. 

“[We need to focus on] reducing the consumption of meat and increasing the consumption of plant-based foods, and at the same time [developing] more sustainable food systems, a better recovery from COVID-19, a strategy to tackle climate change, and promoting health,” Neira told Health Policy Watch.

For decades, the WHO has recommended replacing high saturated-fat, high-calorie meats and processed foods with unprocessed foods, fibre-rich foods, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Health and climate synergies

The health and climate synergies are elaborated on in WHO’s recent Compendium of guidance on health and the environment, which covers issues from air pollution to biodiversity, clean water and sanitation. 

“Current patterns of food production and consumption use much of the world’s resources on land and water and contribute significantly to climate and ecosystem change through for example deforestation, loss of biodiversity and GHG emissions,” according to the compendium. 

“This is aggravated by the fact that about one third of food produced for human consumption is wasted,” it adds.

“The expansion of industrial agriculture at the expense of nature puts our global health at risk,” according to the Meat Atlas. 

It calls on countries to “develop an action plan to promote less and better consumption and production of meat, dairy and eggs, to shift away from industrial farming, and to support better animal farming and healthy, plant-rich diets.”

Meanwhile, the WHO’s compendium provides over 400 interventions and recommendations for action to address the overconsumption of red and processed meat.

Neira argues that the world has to move to decarbonisation ”with a high level of ambition and speed”. This can be done through more regulation of meat producers, raising awareness about the health implications of high meat consumption, and shifting consumption decisions in favor of sustainability and health.

Impact on water and land

Livestock production produces 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also uses vast amounts of water. 

Agriculture uses some 92% of the global water footprint and 29% of this is used in animal production. Agriculture uses three times as much available fresh water than 50 years ago. 

Three-quarters of all agricultural land is used to raise livestock and to grow the crops to feed them – but livestock corporations also drive water pollution, deforestation, pesticide use, and biodiversity loss.

While climate campaigners push for reducing meat consumption, the demand for meat is forecasted to continue to grow over the next decade, warns the Meat Atlas.

To meet this demand, meat production is becoming more industrialised, marginalising smaller meat and milk producers that represent more sustainable food production models.  

Antimicrobial resistance 

Industrial livestock production also increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), through inappropriate and largely unregulated agricultural practices.

Some 73% of the antibiotics sold worldwide are used on animals and the proportion of industrial animal agriculture that routinely uses antibiotics is rising. 

Antibiotics are used as growth stimulants in animals and can compensate for shortcomings in hygiene, management, and the care of animals in livestock production.

But the overuse or misuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals can lead to AMR in humans that cause longer illnesses, more frequent hospitalizations, and treatment failures. 

According to the ‘Meat Atlas’, half the chicken samples from major poultry producers in five European Union countries were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

“Antimicrobial resistance linked to the excessive and inappropriate use of antibiotics in animal and human healthcare leads to an estimated 33,000 human deaths in the EU every year,” said the Meat Atlas.

Zoonotic diseases

Freshly slaughtered animals and processed meat in a market in Wuhan, Hubei, China

Certain wild animals – including rodents, bats, carnivores and monkeys – are among those most likely to harbour zoonotic diseases that are harmful to humans, according to the Meat Atlas.

The coronavirus, which originates in bat populations, is an example. One of the most favoured hypotheses put forward by the WHO scientists investigating the origins of the SARS-C0V2 virus causing the current pandemic is that it came from wild animals.

Approximately 60% of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and almost three-quarters of known zoonoses can be traced to wildlife, for example by people eating the meat of wild animals. 

The industrialized production of wild animals or domesticated livestock often serve as a  bridge for transmission, thus posing a “dire threat to global human health,” said the Meat Atlas. 

Emerging pathogens are crossing the animal-human barrier with increased frequency or greater impact.

The crowded conditions used to house animals in industrialised livestock production systems allow infections to easily mutate and jump to human hosts. In addition, the destruction of ecosystems to cultivate land for agricultural production is bringing people into closer contact with wild animals.

As consumption patterns shift towards more meat, the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases will increase.

Shifting to plant-based foods 

Trends in meat production (Meat Atlas 2021)

Shifting diets towards plant-based foods could help reduce diet-related non-communicable disease risks and global disease burdens of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes – and slow the rise in methane emissions associated with livestock production.

Plant-based and minimally processed foods “must be made available, accessible, affordable, safe, culturally acceptable and desirable to the whole population including the most vulnerable,” says the WHO’s compendium report. 

The world will need tailored approaches to curbing meat consumption, said Neira. 

“For more industrialised countries, we can move into stimulating the reduction of meat consumption and promoting healthy diets…[with] plant-based or unprocessed food,” Neira said. 

“A policymaker in a developed country…can go with more ambition on promoting [a plant-based diet], while in developing countries…we need to have a holistic view of their protein intake…and ensure that people will have access to foods that meet their protein needs every day,” she said. 

Interventions from health policymakers will require advocacy campaigns with clear arguments to “promote the importance of reducing meat consumption and increasing consumption of plant-based foods for the health of the people,” said Neira. 

“WHO will go to COP26 with a very strong report called the ‘Health Argument for Climate Action’ and we will put the focus on the health benefits that can be obtained be mitigating the causes of climate change and promoting a more sustainable food system from the beginning to the end,” said Neira.

Image Credits: Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Arend Kuester/Flickr, Meat Atlas 2021.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.