Misinformation: The lies, damned lies and statistics behind dietary advice
There is a long history of misinformation regarding the environmental impact of meat and the health risks linked to meat consumption, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this started. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Livestock’s long shadow report1 is undoubtedly a good place to start when it comes to environmental impacts.
Published in 2006, the FAO’s report argues that meat’s contribution to global warming emissions is 18% of the total, making animal agriculture one of the top two or three most significant contributors to serious environmental problems, higher than all transport. Although the FAO revised their findings in 2013 to 14% even this figure could be overestimating the true picture.
The reason is that livestock emissions in this context are analysed using a life cycle assessment approach (emissions from animals, feed production, processing and transport) whereas FAO only measured direct emissions (exhaust). In addition to this significant miscalculation the use of global averages for meat disguises the differences between emissions factors in different locations around the world and fails to recognise the differences between animal species.
Further evidence of misinformation around emissions can be found in the much cited ‘Reducing foods’ environmental impacts through producers and consumers’ by Poore and Nemecek2. Published in 2018 this meta-analysis of five key environmental indicators across 37,000 farms in 119 countries inevitably leads to global averages which are lacking in detail. In addition there is an absence of any recognition of livestock agriculture carbon sequestration and stock in grasslands, no differentiation between water types consumed (green/blue/grey), and the use of GWP100 to incorrectly measure methane emissions.
Regarding human health misinformation, the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet3 recommends a near vegan diet which has been criticised for being ‘intrinsically harmful’ and could lead to widespread malnutrition. Apart from being unaffordable for a large number of the world’s population, by the EAT commission’s own admission their planetary health diet is unsuitable for the young, old, sick, frail, pregnant women and the malnourished.
Additional dietary inaccuracy can be found in the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) basket initiative4 which calls for a 50/50 plant/animal protein split following WWF Livewell plate guidance5. On closer inspection the revised split is 70/30 animal/plant respectively with an average reduction in meat products of 66% and an increase of non-meat protein and fish of 168%.
It is interesting to note that there is a common link between sustainable and healthy diets within these reports and in all cases there are omissions, errors and misinformation in order to make the data fit the narrative.
While the evidence outlined points to the pro ‘plant-based’ community being guilty of distorting science, there is an argument that the pro meat community is also guilty. This polarisation of viewpoints serves to confuse consumers in their quest to make the right decisions based on their priorities and values. Surely it is in all our interests to provide the consumer with accurate, science based evidence to support healthy diets and environmentally sustainable choices. We may never agree on the role of meat but shouldn’t we all try to do better?