For any food systems to be sustainable, it needs to contribute to society and economic growth, in addition to being environmentally conscious. Sustainable eating is defined as choosing and consuming “food to meet current dietary needs while maintaining ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment”. Livestock production and the consumption of the red meat produced are often criticised as being unsustainable due to the large carbon footprint attributed to this food commodity. However, what is often excluded from these arguments and debates is the potential beneficial role which animal source foods can play in meeting the dietary requirements of human populations, both in developed and developing countries and communities. The recent Global Nutrition Report (2014) emphasizes nutrition as being central to sustainable development. Within the post-2015 development agenda, improvements in nutritional status could make large contributions to the draft Sustainable Development Goals on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender and employment.
This thesis presents the sustainability of red meat consumption from a nutrition perspective. Forming the scientific foundation for this argument was the analytical determination of the updated nutritional profile of South African beef as currently consumed, as well as a review of the composition of South African lamb and mutton as published in 2007 and 2010 (Chapter 3). The data obtained reflects the impact of South Africa’s unique classification and production systems on the composition of locally produced red meat. These animal source foods can be considered good sources of high quantity and quality nutrients, including protein, minerals and essential fatty acids. Trimming of the visible subcutaneous and intermuscular fat deposits from the meat has an even greater impact on nutritional profile (Chapter 4). Fat generally dilutes other essential nutrients, while the beneficial fatty acids (omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acids) are found in the intramuscular fat deposits between muscle cells which are not removed through trimming (Chapter 5).
Consequently, red meat products can play a positive role in human nutrition and health. Sustainable food-based interventions to combat under nutrition require the accessibility and availability of nutrient dense foods, and adding even small amounts of red meat could play a significant role in improving the nutritional quality of the starch based staple diets of these individuals. Over nutrition, or the excessive consumption of nutrients and energy, has resulted in a significant rise in the incidence of overweight and obesity globally. In South Africa, more than 65% of women are considered to be overweight or obese, with the incidence in children increasing. Many of these overweight individuals are also suffering from a deficiency of other essential nutrients such as iron. This co-existence of under and over nutrition in the same individual justifies the necessity to promote the consumption of foods higher in nutrients, and lower in energy. Trimmed red meat thus has the potential to play a beneficial role as part of a food-based intervention (Chapter 6).
To increase the impact of the findings of the research beyond scientific publications, the results of the analytical study were incorporated into influential outputs, including forming part of the scientific background paper to the Department of Health’s revision of the national Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (Chapter 7). The arguments of this thesis also feed into the consumer education campaign of Lamb and Mutton South Africa which endeavours to influence social perceptions surrounding the sustainability of red meat consumption (Chapter 8). A short communication of the findings was also selected as one of only 28 science writing pieces which was published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, entitled “Meatless Mondays might be harmful in South Africa” (Addendum 1).
The South African policy landscape promotes and supports the sustainable production of livestock (Chapter 2). Numerous research projects are exploring ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by livestock to improve the environmental impact of the industry. However, as the concerns of sustainable development include economic and social aspects in addition to environmental concerns, the data and arguments generated through this thesis could be used as tools when social concerns within sustainability in particular are voiced. Red meat can play a beneficial role in the nutrition and health of humans by providing high quality nutrients per portion, without necessarily contributing to excessive amounts of fat (and thus energy intake). The updated nutritional profile of South African beef provides evidence for the industry to present the sustainability of red meat consumption from a nutrition perspective.
Recommendations for future research include the extrapolation of the findings into quantitative models to depict the nutrient density of specific food products compared to their carbon footprints. Research on the degree of food waste in the context of sustainable diets could also contribute notably to related arguments in the future, keeping in mind that as meat is the most expensive item in the food basket, waste in this food category is less than in the other food groups.