The Dublin Declaration: the call from the scientific community for an evidence-based debate on meat

 Photo by Dr. Kaye Burgess, Teagasc Food

On Wednesday, October 19, Teagasc – The Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority – hosted an important international event in Dublin about meat production and consumption. “The Societal Role of Meat – What the Science Says” was the topic of the two-day summit. Several world-leading international experts gathered in the Irish capital to discuss the importance of meat in today’s society and the various debates surrounding meat production and consumption.

All summit attendees with academic and scientific credentials were invited to endorse the evidence base presented by signing the ‘Dublin declaration of scientists on the societal role of meat’. This declaration aims to give voice to the many scientists worldwide who research diligently, honestly and successfully to achieve a balanced approach to the future of animal agriculture.

Today’s food systems face an unprecedented double challenge: to increase the availability of animal-origin foods to help satisfy the unmet nutritional needs of an estimated three billion people in poorer areas, with regard at the same time to biodiversity, climate change and nutrient flows, as well as animal health and welfare within a broad One Health approach.

For this reason, livestock systems are too precious to society to become victims of simplification, reductionism or zealotry, and they must progress based on the highest scientific standards. For that, scientists are asked to provide reliable evidence of nutrition and health benefits, environmental sustainability, socio-cultural and economic values, and solutions for the many necessary improvements. This is the purpose of the Dublin Declaration, taking into account the importance of livestock for human health, the environment and socio-economic aspects.

This important summit encouraged debate around key issues on meat, exploring livestock farming, the role of meat in the diet, health and society, and addressing how farming and meat consumption play a significant role in economics, culture and the environment. The summit also examined the importance and scale of meat production in different countries.

Among the key speakers was Alice Stanton from the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland, who discussed how much red meat is good for us. Or the Spanish scientist Pablo Manzano, from the Basque Centre for Climate Change, who has presented the ecological aspects of livestock agriculture. He explained that well-managed livestock systems applying agroecological principles could convert large quantities of non-edible biomass, recycle plant nutrients back to the land, sequester carbon, and improve soil health, biodiversity, and watershed protection, offering many ecosystem services.

Another interesting presentation, among many others, was the one by Wilhelm Windisch, Professorship of Animal Nutrition, from the TUM School of Life Sciences, about the role of grassland and nutrient circularity in animal agriculture. Or the speech given by Professor Frédéric Leroy from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, speaking about the controversial restriction of meat through policy.

Farmed animals are irreplaceable for maintaining a circular flow of materials in agriculture by recycling the large amounts of inedible biomass generated as by-products while producing foods for the human diet. Livestock is optimally positioned to convert these materials back into the natural cycle and simultaneously produce high-quality food. Ruminants, in particular, are also capable of valorising marginal lands that are not suitable for direct human food production.

Since meat production is often listed among the largest contributors to climate change for the biogenic methane emissions of the global herd of ruminants, from the summit emerged that such wholesale assessment is stated in simplistic terms, making use of a myopic selection of metrics. One example of oversimplification is comparing the warming effect of different greenhouse gases. This highlighted the importance of addressing agricultural heterogeneity in systems analysis, including Life Cycle Assessment. To further reflect the food-environment nexus, nutritional LCA approaches represent a methodological step forward, incorporating human health considerations.

Teagasc assistant director of research, Declan Troy, said that in advance of the UN Climate Summit in November it is important to ensure that agricultural, industrial, governmental and educational stakeholders have the information they need to act in everyone’s best interests: “The best-available scientific information regarding livestock farming and meat consumption’s impacts on individual and population health, the environment, and livelihoods must be available to political decision-makers”.

Livestock-derived foods are the most readily available source of high-quality proteins and provide a variety of essential nutrients and other health-promoting compounds, many of which are lacking in diets globally. Regular animal-origin consumption as part of a well-balanced diet is advantageous for human beings, especially for those with high needs, such as young children and adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, women of reproductive age and older adults.

Livestock ownership is also the most frequent form of private ownership of assets worldwide and forms the basis of rural community financial capital. In some communities, livestock is one of the few assets women can own and is an entry point towards gender equality. Advances in animal sciences and related technologies are improving livestock performance along all the dimensions mentioned above, such as health, environment and socio-economics, faster than at any time in history.

The speakers’ lectures and the findings from the summit discussions will become scientific papers in a peer-reviewed edition of Animal Frontiers, scheduled to be published in March 2023.