As the pandemic pushes global malnutrition to rates not seen in more than a decade, how can livestock products like milk, meat and eggs help? And how do we weigh the nutritional benefits of livestock, particularly in the developing world, against the fact that livestock can be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions?
In this episode of The Boma, presenters Brenda Coromina and Elliot Carleton talk to Lora Iannotti, a specialist in child and maternal nutrition, as they explore why context and food choices matter when it comes to avoiding malnutrition.
Award-winning holistic farmer Emma Naluyima explains how integrated farming techniques can reduce the carbon footprint of livestock farming, and gives her vision for how children can become responsible global citizens of the future.
Finally, Susan MacMillan, Emeritus Fellow at ILRI, describes her dream future for livestock in a more equitable and sustainable world.
Criticism of animal farming in the west risks health of world's poorest - The Guardian, September 2021
New report from UN Nutrition untangles risks and benefits of food from livestock for sustainable healthy diets, focusing on challenges linked to both abundance and scarcity - ILRI, June 2021
Brenda: Welcome Back to The Boma. A podcast from the International Livestock Research Institute where we discuss how sustainable livestock is contributing to development efforts in the Global South.
My name is Brenda Coromina.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Carleton. We want to take some time before we start today’s episode to thank Tim Offei-Addo, who recently completed his Princeton in Africa Fellowship with ILRI. Tim was instrumental in getting the podcast off the ground, and we would not be here with you today were it not for the great work he did over the course of the past year.
Brenda: Absolutely, thank you, Tim! As we mentioned in a previous episode, Elliot and I are the new Princeton in Africa Fellows with ILRI, and we will be your hosts.
Elliot: Today, we are talking about animal source foods -- basically, meat, milk and eggs. Why are they important to countries in the global south? And why should people around the world care?
Brenda: Coming from the United States, I think we are both familiar with the stigma attached to animal source foods -- ethical and environmental.
Elliot: Right, we have certainly seen a lot of controversy surrounding animal source foods recently. And a lot of that controversy originally comes from a 2006 FAO report called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’. While that report was full of good information, it got condensed around the world to a single idea: that ‘a cow in the backyard is as bad for the climate as an SUV’.
And ever since, there has been growing criticism of livestock and animal source foods, specifically of their environmental impact.
Brenda: Right, and 99% of that criticism comes from the developed world. Whereas for many countries in the developing world and across Africa, livestock are fundamental to life.
Elliot: But a recent article in the Guardian, titled ‘criticism of animal farming in the west risks health of world’s poorest’, shows that not only is criticism of animal source foods often misguided, but it is actually potentially harmful to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on livestock for their livelihoods and nutrition.
Brenda: That piece was written by two women of very different backgrounds who came together to address the controversy surrounding animal source foods from the perspective of the developing world, which is usually ignored.
Elliot: One of those authors is Dr. Lora Iannotti, a child and maternal nutrition specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the lead author of the 2021 United Nations nutrition report and a part-time contributor to ILRI.
Lora: So initially, actually, I really wanted to work on hunger and that was unfortunately motivated by famine situations, which we see repeating itself right now in climate change, sadly. So drought situations that were causing a lot of severe famine in Ethiopia.
So I started my career I would say, in maternal and child nutrition, focused really more on hunger and food security.
So now I sort of merge the two; public health nutrition as well as food security and hunger.
Brenda: Working alongside Lora Iannotti on that Guardian article was Dr. Emma Naluyima. She is a veterinarian by trade who took an interesting path to become an award-winning sustainable farmer on a one-acre mixed farm in Uganda.
Emma: I get married and give birth to premature twins. And when I give birth to premature twins, I stopped working as a vet.
I had to stay home to look after my kids. And I'm a busybody, as in I can't sit anyway. So, and then the cost of living was high. I needed to put food on my table, so I said, OK, wait a minute, I can do all these things, I can look after my twins while doing some farming because I have this land at my disposal. And that's how I started farming, really. I started farming, like doing the veggies or before that, actually, when I get married. So I was doing as I'm a vet. I was a vet and then doing active vet practice, but also started keeping pigs.
Brenda: While Lora Iannotti and Emma Naluyima come at animal source foods from very different positions, they are both committed to using their expertise to seek a more balanced and informed discussion of the different roles livestock and animal source foods have around the world today.
Elliot: One motivating factor behind their partnership was the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed global malnutrition to rates not seen in more than a decade.
Brenda: And another was the impact of the growing climate crisis, which is helping to fuel famines around the world.
Elliot: Given the devastating impact that climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have had on global malnutrition, we asked Lora Iannotti what specific effects we are seeing.
Lora: Sure, so for most of my career I've worked on undernutrition, so populations where people don't get enough of certain foods or they have deficiencies in certain nutrients. And that problem, the problem I mostly focus on, which is stunted growth and brain development affects about 144 to 149 million children around the world. And it has increased, for the first time in history, it's increased again in COVID so that's something really to pay attention to.
About one in five children experience stunted growth, they don't grow to their full potential. Then there's, of course, the problem that we're seeing in many places, of over nutrition; not my area of expertise but it's certainly an increasing problem globally, it's something we call nutrition transition. I see that at the overlap of these two problems; under and over nutrition, something called hidden hunger, and that is experienced by communities around the world.
Elliot: And what exactly is hidden hunger?
Lora: That is where you have poor quality diets and that's sort of central again to the theme of this podcast, which is people don't have access to high-quality foods, they might live in a food desert in St. Louis, Missouri where I am, or they might be very poor in a community I'm working in in Haiti and not be able to purchase fruit, vegetables, or livestock derived foods, fish, for example, and that leads to nutrient deficiencies.
So you have about 17.3% of the world experiencing zinc deficiencies. You have about a third of children around the world experiencing vitamin A deficiency, then you have iodine deficiency, which is inexcusable from my point of view. We have that low tech technology to iodize salt and yet there're still people around the world who are iodine deficient. And then, of course, you have highly prevalent again, in all countries around the world, iron deficiency and this is again, a lack of access to the bioavailable rich nutrient-dense foods that we need in our diet. So, there are many problems yet to solve in nutrition for sure.
Brenda: So poor-quality diets and a lack of access to nutritious foods are behind global problems with undernutrition and hidden hunger. But as Dr. Iannotti said, many of these nutrition deficiencies are inexcusable because we have the tools necessary to address them.
Elliot: Right, and she has done a lot of research into the nutritional benefits of animal source foods.
Lora: Yes, so with animal source foods, what happens is in that diet, in that food matrix, you have a set of nutrients and bioactive compounds, and it's the way those nutrients are packaged in animal source foods that makes them highly bioavailable for the body. And when people don't have access to animal source foods, they're not getting these nutrients in very efficient ways. So vitamin A is the best example where you have in plant-based foods, carotenoids or beta carotene in carrots for example, we all know about that, whereas in animal source foods, it comes delivered as retinol. And you need approximately 12 times the amount of beta carotene to get to one retinol equivalent unit. So it's a highly inefficient way to get those nutrients .
But in low resource settings, they have homogenous diets that are plant-based, not out of choice.
And when you have a young child who has a very small stomach, they are unable to absorb efficiently the nutrients from a plant-sourced food, and that results in malnutrition, actually.
So animal source foods are extremely important in certain phases of the life course for that reason, for the bioavailability of those nutrients.
Elliot: OK, so it turns out that, despite growing criticism in the developed world, for a significant portion of the world’s malnourished people, animal source foods offer essential nutrients not readily available in plant-based alternatives.
Brenda: Right, and the high concentration of essential nutrients in animal source foods also makes them highly valuable at specific stages in life, including early childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and lactation.
Elliot: Exactly, but even with the nutritional benefits of animal source foods, I would guess that many of our listeners are saying ‘OK that is all great, but what about the fact that livestock are a significant source of greenhouse gases and have contributed to the destruction of tropical rainforests and other natural areas?
Lora: Without doubt, we need to be focusing on the food systems globally in terms of the contribution it's making to greenhouse gas emissions, losses in biodiversity. These are really important issues and the food system and food production is fundamental to some of those environmental assaults. So my work is absolutely taking into consideration sustainable healthy diets because we can't ignore this problem any longer. And the bidirectionality, I think this is another very important point to make; you have bidirectionality when it comes to food systems, and climate change. Climate change is really having some pretty harmful effects on small scale production, but then also on nutrition.
So it's a complicated world right now, and we need to solve these problems, there's no question and make sure that there's equity and balance in the approaches that we take.
And there're some very creative approaches there that use these mixed systems that are not just about factory farming of animals but rather have livestock integrated, like Dr. Emma's farm, into the cultivation practices. So those mixed systems are critical.
Emma: OK, I kept pigs on my farm on one-quarter of an acre, and on this quarter when I keep pigs, the pigs will produce the dung.
Brenda: That is Dr. Emma Naluyima again, the award-winning farmer from Uganda who employs those sustainable, nature-positive approaches to livestock farming that Dr. Iannotti sees as crucial to a sustainable global food system.
Emma: I play with this dung in so many ways. So even like what I do here, many people will be like, no, no, no, I can't touch my gods. Oh, no, I can't do this. But this is what we do.
So first we get this dung and introduce it to, we introduce it to flies, houseflies or the black soldier flies, and they feed on this dung. So as they are feeding on the dung, they are degrading the dung.
And then we feed the animals like the chickens and the fish on the maggots or the larva stage. And then also, that is one part, and then after this dung, when we've removed it, when you've collected the larva stage from the dung, we still use the same dung. We introduce earthworms in it. So these earthworms will still continue to biodegrade the dung. And when they do that, the dung later turns into soil, and this is the soil we shall use or we always use to grow our vegetables.
This is the soil we use to grow anything we have at our disposal.
Elliot: So livestock actually play a fundamental role in growing the fruits, vegetables and everything else on her farm.
So the pig dung is gold to me. So I'll play with the pig dung to make the maggots and earthworms, and then I'll play with the cow dung to make biogas.
OK, I'll play with the cow dung to make biogas, so in the process, I'm not going to cut down trees, I'm not going to buy charcoal because charcoal comes from cutting down trees and in the process, by the way, I will have already worked on the carbon footprint.
And then because I don't have enough land, I'm like, OK. Because when you see livestock farming takes 80 per cent of arable land. And then we have to use because we have to use a lot of land to grow the chicken, to grow food for the cattle or to grow food for the pigs. Food for livestock. And then I don't have this land. I'm like, OK, I don't have this land, but I have this. I can do hydroponics. So I will use hydroponics to grow three-quarters of the food, but my pigs and cows need to eat.
So basically, that's what I do, and then I'll still play with the, now the water that comes from the fish. I'll use the same water to irrigate my plants. Either the vegetables or the matoke. So basically, that's a cycle. One thing leads to another, one feeds into it, feeds into another.
Brenda: Emma Naluyima’s farm is a great example of how important livestock are in an integrated farming system, where outputs from livestock are inputs for the rest of the farm, and nothing goes to waste.
Elliot: Exactly, but as we know, not all farms are like Emma Naluyima’s.
Emma: Integrated farming is the way to go.
70 to 80 per cent of what we earn, we spend it on food. And it's very important if you don't have food, this is a basic at the base of the pyramid, if you don't have food, then you can't do anything beyond that. You can't think, you start being a menace in the country, to your neighbours. So food, food, food is very, very important. So whichever way we can to teach and train people how to put food on their table or on their plate, that's good to go. So policies around putting food on people’s table and making sure they get money out of the little space they have. That's OK.
Elliot: So, at the local and national levels, governments should be implementing policies that promote integrated, or mixed farming systems, which allow smallholder farmers to make the most out of small plots of land. But it is also important for all people, not just farmers, to better understand where their food comes from.
Things that I do here, like in the country, like here, I do decide because once I got to know that people. People don't even have a lot of knowledge about farming, so there should be things like ways to disseminate the knowledge. And then we went ahead and actually. I opened a school, I this school teaches children no more, school is a normal school, but then we teach them. You see, even in America, whereby kids don't know where food comes from, they think food is in the refrigerator. They think yeah, it's at the supermarket. But once we do policies and we do things that can enable these kids touch base with the soil where food comes from. That is also another way, once the children are where once these young children are where, we’re already old, we've already done, we’re already old. But then what happens to the young children? What do they know? What are they going to do? So we go as far as, we should go as far as we should instruct, maybe in parliament, or on all people. We have to go as far as the young children to make sure they also know, they touch base with the food. They know where it comes from, how to cook it, how to grow it. That way, they will be better citizens, and they will learn how to care for the environment anyway.
Brenda: And I think Emma Naluyima’s point about becoming better global citizens also means working to understand the growing gap between the developed and developing worlds. That disconnect is part of what makes animal source foods such a contentious topic.
Elliot: Right. Despite all the benefits animal source foods provide, especially to those in the developing world, they continue to receive growing criticism from people in the developed world.
We were puzzled by how to overcome this apparent disconnect between the developed and developing worlds. So we spoke to Susan MacMillan. She has worked with ILRI for more than 30 years and continues to do advocacy work for ILRI as an Emeritus Fellow. We asked her what we can all do to reorient our perspective on livestock, so that we not only see the risks associated with livestock, but also their tremendous benefits to millions of people around the world.
Susan: There's a lot we can do.
What I would do is to ask everyone to keep a worldly view.
If everyone could have in their brain, the different worlds at the same time, then I think our decisions, our choices, etc, would be much fairer, not just more equitable but we had a discussion today where if we could manage that to be more global in our outlooks, we would probably be more innovative and get faster solutions to these problems, which is what we need as we hit the planetary boundaries, as we are hurting our environment and as we are creating global warming, we need to act fast. We need everyone's ideas and everyone as my boss at ILRI, Shirley Tarawali always says, everyone is coming from a different starting point. If we could just remember that, then I think no one would say we should get rid of a billion livelihoods of people who are living on under $1 a day , I think we would say no one should get rid of all industrial systems because some of them are working very well and feeding people well and treating animals well. What we should do is look at everything on a case by case basis and get them more efficient, more environmentally friendly and more equitable and that would be my dream future for livestock.
Brenda: And that future -- one in which livestock contribute to a healthier, more environmentally sustainable and more equitable world -- is a future we can all get behind.
Elliot: And if we can all work to cultivate that global perspective, then I think we would start to realize that as we are faced with all these complex global issues, we really should see livestock as part of the solution, not the problem.
Brenda: Absolutely, and that is a great place to leave off for today. Thank you so much to Dr. Lora Iannotti, Dr. Emma Naluyima and Susan MacMillan for sharing their time and expertise.
Elliot: And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. If you enjoyed today’s episode, we hope that you will leave us a review, and please don’t forget to subscribe! We will catch you next time on The Boma. I’m Elliot Carleton.
Brenda: And I’m Brenda Coromina.