A new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that meat, eggs, and dairy provide essential nutrients that are harder to obtain from plants.
The findings followed the analysis of more than 500 scientific papers and 250 policy documents. From here, they deduced that macro-nutrients – including protein and carbs – and certain micronutrients are readily provided by animal-derived foods. Specifically, the FAO states that animal parts offer the “required quality and quantity” of nutrients needed for human health. And, that they can be harder to locate in plants (though not impossible).
Notably, the report was compiled at the request of the FAO’s Committee on Agriculture (COAG). The mandate was to support a pro-livestock food system agenda.
“The assessment supports COAG’s Sub-Committee on Livestock in its quest to optimize the role of livestock, including their contributions to poverty alleviation, food security and nutrition, sustainable livelihoods and the realization of the 2030 Agenda,” the foreword reads.
Meat and dairy deemed conditionally appropriate
A closer look at the FAO report reveals that meat and dairy are deemed suitable for meeting nutritional targets, if embraced in a “healthy way.” They are, at no point, labeled as the only way to approach a nutritionally balanced lifestyle.
Furthermore, the nutritional targets themselves – set out by the World Health Assembly and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – only relate to certain people. The targets aim to reduce stunting and malnutrition in children under five, underweight babies, and anaemia in women deemed to be of “reproductive age.” Reducing the likelihood of adult obesity and disease development are further aims.
The crux of the pro-animal products argument appears to be their potential ability to support healthy development in all humans.
However, citing previous scientific studies, the FAO report favors interpretive language such as “largely indicative,” “suggests,” and “relatively robust.” The authors repeatedly rely on such phrasing when addressing the reliability of evidence. For example:
“Overall, the evidence suggests that, among apparently healthy individuals, terrestrial animal source food intakes at appropriate levels benefit several health outcomes.”
Meanwhile, in its key findings, the report maintains that evidentiary gaps make it impossible to fully assess animal product benefits.
The EU takes a different view
Mentions of embracing a healthy meat-free diet are conspicuously lacking in the UN’s FAO report. This puts it at odds with recent European Parliament findings and directives.
For instance, the report actively downplays the connection between red meat and chronic diseases. It states that eating unprocessed red meat in moderate amounts “may have minimal risk but is considered safe with regards to chronic disease outcomes.” It does, however, acknowledge that “even low levels” of processed meat can increase the chance of developing life-threatening diseases.
Conversely, the European Parliament repeatedly advocates for reduced meat consumption across the board, in part due to increased cancer risk. Simultaneously, the potential of plant-based diets to create positive health and sustainability impacts are acknowledged and promoted.
Since taking a pro-plant-based stance, the EU has witnessed a significant uptick in vegan food consumption. Meanwhile, meat and dairy sales are reported to have stalled.