Meat plays a vitally important role in the global food system by providing humans with several bioavailable micronutrients poorly supplied by plants.
This was one of the points made by Professor Warren McNabb, from the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative™ at the Riddet Institute, Massey University in his address at the recent Red Meat Sector Conference in Auckland.
Taking a global perspective on human nutrition and food products, Professor McNabb said red meat’s role in the global food system is the supply of micronutrients, not just proteins, and the world would have a real problem if meat was taken out of the equation.
“It’s nearly impossible to get vitamin B12 from plants.”
Meat also contributes vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, zinc, selenium, iron, phosphorus, and copper but is a poor source of magnesium, fibre, vitamin C and E, hence the importance of plant-based foods along with animal-sourced foods in balance in global diets.
Global food systems need to be plant based and animal optimised so people get the nutrients and micronutrients they need, he says.
Globally, meat supplies 16-32% of global amino acid supply, partly due to the high bioavailability of these nutrients in meat.
Referencing the DELTA Model®, which uses information about current production of major food items to predict the nutrients available to the global population now and in the future, Prof McNabb said running scenarios that remove meat from the global food supply results in several nutritional deficiencies.
He says the removal of meat wouldn’t compromise energy or protein, but it would create significant deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin A and iron.
Even if all the food that is now fed to ruminants was to be fed to humans, it still wouldn’t cancel out these deficiencies.
Research has shown that globally, one in every two pre-school age children and two out of every three women are suffering from at least one micro-nutrient deficiency.
One in every three women in the UK are iron deficient and one in every five women in the USA are lacking in this micronutrient.
DELTA modelling shows that the world couldn’t become vegan while meeting all nutrient requirements. There isn’t enough land to produce the amount of plant material required, and then there is the issue of the micronutrient deficiencies and the higher cost of a vegan diet.
“The world could become vegetarian, but people would need to drink a lot more milk than they do now to get the required nutrients.”
Prof McNabb touched upon the complexities of measuring the environmental impact of food production systems and combining this with their nutritional value, particularly using international data.
In one example, onion rings, roasted potatoes, chips and rice came out as the most nutrient dense foods with the lowest environmental impact, which highlights the flaws in these types of models.
He says New Zealand needs to understand the environmental impacts of its food production systems (typically less than other countries) and push that information out onto the world stage rather than let other people decide what it is.