Animal-source Foods Combat Poor Nutrition

US - Food derived from animals is an important source of protein, energy, calcium and micronutrients — all of which can improve people’s health, their economic status and the environment, according to experts at the Fourth Annual Iowa Hunger Summit held in conjunction with the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue on 12 October.
calendar icon 13 October 2010
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Terry Wollen, veterinarian and interim vice president of advocacy for Heifer International, and Kevin Watkins , Ph.D. and co-chair of the Elanco Hunger Team and Hunger Board, discussed the role of livestock in reducing food insecurity during a presentation to the Summit’s more than 500 attendees. They shared information about a multi-year collaboration between their two organizations, and emphasized the need to consider four dimensions when evaluating food alternatives in the fight against world hunger.

“Thoughtfully evaluating how foods and food systems affect all four dimensions — human nutrition, people’s health, their economic status and the environment — is critical as we take on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) challenge of producing 100 per cent more food by 2050,” said Dr Watkins. “The good news is both research and real-world experience show that animal-source foods deliver on all four of these dimensions.”

Based on FAO projections, in 40 years the world’s growing population will need twice as much food as we produce today. While some of this food will come from additional farmland and cropping intensity, 70 per cent of the increase in supply must come from use of new and existing agricultural technologies.

A case study: improving nutrition in Zambia

Despite farmers’ best efforts, today nearly one billion people throughout the world are hungry. These people and others struggle with deficiencies of protein, energy and calcium (macronutrients), and iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B-12 (micronutrients).

To understand how adding livestock-based foods to a diet affects nutrition, Heifer International analyzed the scenario of a typical 40-year-old man living in Zambia. Today, this moderately active 165-pound man would eat a basic diet of cereals along with small amounts of fruits, vegetables and meat. Unfortunately, this diet delivers less than half of the recommended amounts of calcium, Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin A, and less energy and protein than he needs.

Adding 18 ounces of milk, two ounces of beef and one ounce of chicken to this man’s basic daily intake gives him 100 per cent or more of the recommended amounts of energy, protein, lysine, and vitamins A, B-2 and B-12, and increases his calcium levels to 75 per cent of the recommended amount.

The cycle of hunger and poor health

“Even just a moderate increase in the consumption of animal-source foods provides critical nutritional benefits,” said Dr Watkins. “This is one of the best ways to stop the cycle of undernourishment that leads to poor health and disease — a syndrome called the poverty micronutrient malnutrition (PMM) trap.”

The PMM trap starts with hunger. This leads to nutrient deficiencies and impaired development, which alter metabolism and can compromise people’s immune status, making them more susceptible to disease. When people become sick, their illnesses often are more severe and last longer, leading to a reduced appetite and poorer absorption of nutrients. This creates even more hunger and malnutrition.

“Through our work at Heifer International, we’ve found that providing living gifts of livestock along with training in sound agricultural practices can break this cycle of hunger and poor health,” said Dr Wollen. “Bringing these inputs to developing countries has proven to be an excellent investment that truly helps communities improve their nutrition and health status.”

Improving economic status sustainably

In addition to showing improved nutrition and health, research links societies that consume higher levels of animal-source foods to higher per-capita levels of gross domestic product. In 2003, in The Journal of Nutrition, FAO concluded that eating food from livestock improves human productivity and economic growth. However, while consumption of animal proteins is increasing in many places, consumption levels in some poorer countries actually have been decreasing.

According to Dr Wollen, an ongoing project in the mountains of western Honduras is an excellent example of how an integrated food-diversification can empower families to produce nutrient-rich foods, ultimately lifting them and their community to self-reliance.

“Impoverished people often make short-term choices based solely on their desperate need for food,” said Dr Wollen. “Introducing management practices like zero-grazing, terracing, tree-planting, and biogas generation creates an ecosystem that is both environmentally friendly and culturally acceptable. This focus on livestock and agro-ecology is transforming the lives of 2,058 families in 43 Honduran communities.”

Collaborating to end hunger

Drs Wollen and Watkins agree that a collaboration between their two organizations is making a similar difference for 2,100 families in Lampung, Indonesia.

“Donations from Elanco employees and funds from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation have provided cattle, poultry, ducks, seeds, trees and latrines to people who live with a 24 percent poverty rate and just 100 veterinarians to serve 1.1 million farming families,” says Dr Watkins. “Just as important is the personal touch from our veterinarians and other specialists who have worked side-by-side with the people of Lampung to transfer knowledge of animal husbandry, composting, biogas production and forest conservation.”

Because of the nutrition and other benefits they provide, animal-source foods are at the heart of Heifer International projects like this.

“Today, through integrated food-diversification initiatives, millions of people who once were hungry now are nourished by milk, meat, eggs and fresh vegetables,” says Dr Wollen. “Even though there has been a resurgence of hunger and poverty, we know that working together using the Heifer International model of integration will move us closer to eradicating hunger — one community at a time.”

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