Friend or Foe? The Role of Animal-Source Foods in Healthy and Environmentally Sustainable Diets

Ty Beal, Christopher D. Gardner, Mario Herrero, Lora L. Iannotti, Lutz Merbold, StellaNordhagen, Anne Mottet
Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA; Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine; Department of Global Development and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; Brown School, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; Integrative Agroecology Group, Agroscope, Zurich, Switzerland; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,
Resource type:
Peer review

Scientific and political discussions around the role of animal-source foods (ASFs) in healthy and environmentally sustainable diets are often polarizing. To bring clarity to this important topic, Beal et al  critically reviewed the evidence on the health and environmental benefits and risks of ASFs, focusing on primary trade-offs and tensions, and summarised the evidence on alternative proteins and protein-rich foods. ASFs are rich in bioavailable nutrients commonly lacking globally and can make important contributions to food and nutrition security. Many populations in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia could benefit from increased consumption of ASFs through improved nutrient intakes and reduced undernutrition. Where consumption is high, processed meat should be limited, and red meat and saturated fat should be moderated to lower noncommunicable disease risk—this could also have cobenefits for environmental sustainability. ASF production generally has a large environmental impact; yet, when produced at the appropriate scale and in accordance with local ecosystems and contexts, ASFs can play an important role in circular and diverse agroecosystems that, in certain circumstances, can help restore biodiversity and degraded land and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from food production. The amount and type of ASF that is healthy and environmentally sustainable will depend on the local context and health priorities and will change over time as populations develop, nutritional concerns evolve, and alternative foods from new technologies become more available and acceptable.

Efforts by governments and civil society organisations to increase or decrease ASF consumption should be considered in light of the nutritional and environmental needs and risks in the local context and, importantly, integrally involve the local stakeholders impacted by any changes. Policies, programs, and incentives are needed to ensure best practices in production, curb excess consumption where high, and sustainably increase consumption where low.


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This resource has been peer reviewed