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The effects of livestock-derived foods on the nutrition (and health) of infants and their mothers in developing countries

For decades, scientists and nutritionists have proclaimed the nutritional and health benefits of consuming modest amounts of meat, milk and eggs – livestock-derived foods (LDF) – especially to children and their mothers in poor countries.

To test these assertions, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security recently reviewed evidence from low- and middle-income countries on the nutritional effects of livestock-derived foods on infants and their mothers during the crucial first 1,000 days between conception and 2 years of age. The study also looked at the health and environmental externalities associated with global LDF production and consumption.

The report of the study – the influence of livestock-derived foods on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life – reveals the ‘clear nutritional benefits’ of providing infants, particularly in countries in Africa and South Asia with livestock-derived foods such as meat, milk and eggs.

The results indicate that adding animal-source products to the diets of poor and vulnerable mothers and children has clear nutritional benefits in low- and middle-income countries. They also show there are risks – to health and the environment especially – that need to be properly addressed.

Worryingly, the study shows that the evidence base from low- and middle-income countries is actually very limited, with very few rigorous studies carried out. Despite all the attention to diet generally, and controversies around the ethics of livestock-derived foods consumption and the effects of livestock on climate change, it is difficult to make firm recommendations.

A reason for these gaps in the literature, as the review points out, is a result of the complexity and cost of carrying out rigorous studies in this area. The gold standard of double blind trials is near impossible to achieve. And the highly complex nature of the very many possible linkages between livestock keeping and human health and nutrition, both positive and negative, make it difficult to assess the overall net impact. Addressing this evidence gap though additional and different types of research is thus on of the key recommendations of the study.

The report sets out a framework to understand the ways that LDF positively or negatively influence nutrition, and the key synergies and trade-offs involved.

It provides up-to-date information on the absolute and relative contributions of meat, milk and eggs to human diets and the prevalence of undernutrition in developing regions. While this is not all specific to the first 1,000 days of life, it provides a deeper understanding of the dietary context.

It presents empirical evidence about the impact of interventions that provide meat, milk and eggs on the nutrition of children as well as pregnant and lactating women.

It summarizes available evidence on how interventions based on providing animal stock or improving the productivity of livestock have an impact on human nutrition.

It looks at livestock products as sources of food-borne disease (FBD) and the impacts of LDF-related diseases on human health and nutrition.

Finally, it provides an overview of the sustainability dimensions of different livestock production systems and diets, including environmental sustainability and social and economic well-being.

Read an article by author Silvia Alonso on IPS News.

Download the full report: Grace, D., Dominguez-Salas, P., Alonso, S., Lannerstad, M., Muunda, E., Ngwili, N., Omar, A., Khan, M. and Otobo, E. 2018. The influence of livestock-derived foods on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life. ILRI Research Report 44. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.

This research was supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on Livestock and on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

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