Mark Rosegrant, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and co-author of the study, said the impact of eating more meat was felt on the cost of maize, which was used as livestock feed, rather than on the prices of wheat and rice, the main staples in most developing countries.
But in Sub-Saharan countries, where maize is a staple, lower meat consumption could reduce the number of malnourished children younger than five by a million by 2030. In countries outside of Africa, the effect on the number of hungry children was not as great, said Rosegrant.
The study by Rosegrant and Siwa Msangi, another IFPRI researcher, was prompted by an ongoing debate on the pressure of a surging demand for meat and dairy products on the supply and global prices of staple grains, particularly in developing countries.
The IFPRI report was one of three on the issue released during a three-day International Conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition & Health, in New Delhi, India, which ended on 12 February.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in a study and an assessment for a forthcoming book, sounded an alarm over the possible spread of animal diseases as more people in developing countries were able to afford meat, and an intensive form of livestock production gathered pace.
The authors, Delia Grace and John McDermott, warned that the intensification of livestock production in many developing countries was focused on increasing food production and making more money, with little regard for the potential effects on human health.
Animals transmit about 61 percent of all human pathogens and 75 percent of new human pathogens, according to the ILRI. The resulting illnesses are called zoonotic diseases, such as avian influenza and the Nipah virus infection, which causes inflammation of the brain and respiratory ailments.
Livestock diseases could not only endanger food security in poor countries, where some 700 million people keep farm animals and up to 40 percent of household income depends on them, but also threaten human health when viruses spread from their animal hosts to human beings.
The economic repercussions could be huge. In a 2010 study, the World Bank estimated that if avian influenza became transmissible from human to human, the potential cost of a resulting pandemic could reach US$3trillion.
Give up on meat?
“I am not suggesting people in developing countries should give up on meat - I am all for balanced diets and sourcing minerals, such as zinc, from meat naturally,” said McDermott. “What we want to highlight is the need to manage the risks.”
He said better surveillance systems and incentives to farmers and governments, encouraging them to become more transparent about disclosing infections, would help early detection. Getting countries to work across sectors by integrating veterinary, medical and environmental expertise in a “one-health” approach to manage the risks, would also help.
Rather than focusing on reducing meat consumption, the IFPRI paper suggested that developing countries ensure good economic growth. This would provide incomes that allowed their people to access food and invest in agricultural and infrastructure development, such as irrigation, domestic water supply, good roads, communications, and effective markets, resulting in improved food security.
Eating less meat could help, Rosegrant said, and diversifying diets to include vegetables and fruits would have additional health benefits.
Meat consumption was a subject of debate until the last session of the conference. Food expert Ricardo Uay, a professor of nutrition at the London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said people did not require a meat-based diet.
He suggested that meat not be subsidized and prices kept real, which could deter people from consuming more of it. Uay cited the example of Japan, where meat was not subsidized, yet people were healthy.
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