Confused about the meat/milk/diet wars? That’s OK. It’s complicated. And poorly fact-checked. And under-studied.

All illustrations by Japanese graphic artist Zenji Funabashi.

Just in time to add fuel to the fire of the current meat, milk and diet wars being waged in scholarly and lay media alike comes the latest issue (Oct 2019) of the scientific journal Animal Frontiers on Foods of animal origin: A prescription for global health, with the term ‘health’, here, covering both human and environmental health.
For readers attending to the ongoing storm of polarized arguments, accusations and evidence about the health risks or benefits of eating meat, alt-meats and other ‘real’ and ‘alternative’ livestock-derived foods, this article may not offer safe harbour.
What it does offer, however, is valuable—a clear-headed, evidenced based, balanced look at the facts as we know them, and the facts that we need. One message that comes through loudest is that we just don’t have the evidence needed to make definitive statements on any sides of the global livestock debate.
Consider, for example, this paper in this issue, on The role of livestock products for nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, written by three scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and focusing on the available evidence for the roles consumption of livestock-derived foods play in the first 1,000 days of life.
The paper starts off conventionally for a development-oriented paper by noting that diets of most people in low- and middle-income countries remain nutritionally inadequate, leading to the world’s highest levels of undernutrition, especially among children.

Poor people in poor countries often subsist on suboptimal diets based on cheap staples and have limited access to nutrient-dense foods such as pulses, fruit, or meat . . . As a result of these circumstances, individuals do not receive sufficient nutrient intakes to sustain optimal well-being.

The common reality in Africa, say the authors, is that milk, meat and eggs, while highly nourishing are also relatively dear, and so are uncommon foods for young children in poor households.
The authors then note that while ‘a shift from food security (access to enough food) to nutrition security (access to enough nutritious food) has prompted the development of interventions to increase nutrient intake’ such as by fortifying food with nutrients, ‘[l]ittle attention has been given . . . to the specific role of . . . meat, milk, and eggs (and their derived products) on nutrition and their potential to help achieve nutrition security goals.’
One factor not helping to redress this odd neglect, they suggest, is that ‘Media outlets in recent years, primarily in high-income countries, have increasingly been flooded with reports that are critical of the role of meat, in particular, and livestock-derived foods (e.g., milk and eggs), in general, as part of diets. Their environmental footprint, as well as their suggested negative effects on health, are ostensible arguments used to promote a shift to diets containing little to no animal-sourced foods. . . .’
The remedy for this, imply the authors, is staring us in the face in the manner of all the farm animals populating most poor countries, where ‘it would represent a significant missed opportunity to not harvest livestock-derived food products to optimize the nutrition of the most vulnerable. . . .’