The population of the world is set to spiral to 10bn by the year 2050, posing an unprecedented challenge in terms of providing enough sustainably-produced nutritious food to feed everyone, an expert has warned.
However, significantly reducing the production of animal-sourced food is not the answer to increased sustainable food production, she has declared: “There are currently 7.5bn people in the world, all of whom should ideally eat nutritious food three times a day,” warns Alice Stanton, professor in cardiovascular pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and director of human health at Devenish Nutrition, an agri-tech firm which works in the area of sustainable production of nutritious food.
“The figure of 10bn people is probably the highest number for whom we can produce nutrition in a sustainable fashion, that is, in a way that does not cause irreversible climate change and the loss of biodiversity.” The issue, she observed, had provoked much expert discussion on what a healthy diet is and how it can be produced sustainably.
It had been proposed by some, she added, that a solution could lie in a reduced supply of animal-sourced foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy because they produced more greenhouse gas emissions, particularly red meat and dairy, which produce methane: “The problem with such a reduction in animal-sourced foods is that it will lead to nutritional deficiencies and damage child development because of the loss of a balanced intake of protein, vitamins and electrolytes including iron,” she warned.
There was evidence that excessive consumption of red meat — that is, eating it more than seven times a week —“has a small damaging effect on human health, causing a small number of cancers, heart attacks and strokes,” Prof Stanton acknowledged.
However, she said, in reality red meat was “a very small player in the case of heart attacks, strokes and cancer.” In fact, she said, diets which were excessively high in calories and salt, and low in fruit, vegetables and oily fish accounted for about “100 times as many deaths” as the excessive consumption of red meat.
Prof Stanton also said she had concerns about the impact the loss of livestock farming could have on soil health and its ability to produce food.
“I am optimistic that there are technological solutions which can reduce emissions from livestock and increase the crucial embedding of carbon in soils, grassland and forestry.
"It is increasingly recognised that trees, hedges and grasslands sequester carbon and it is now recognised that carbon is in the soil."
“Soils that sequester more carbon are also more fertile, so agricultural science and practices are working hard on both of these solutions and making considerable progress.
On Tuesday, July 28 Professor Stanton will speak as part of the AgCredible Shed Talks which aim to promote agriculture and the importance of its contribution to society. Her discussion, ‘Animal sourced foods – Harmful or beneficial to human health and wellbeing?’ takes place at 8pm.
To register for the Shed Talk series, sign up at https://bit.ly/2MJDxpW