Livestock are a critical resource for women and children in developing nations

Removing livestock would be devastating, especially to women and children in developing nations.

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When people in a position of privilege talk about reducing our meat consumption, one of the first things I consider is how this trend would negatively impact women and children in developing nations who rely on these animals for economic stability, food security, and vital nutrition. 

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the United Nations’ ninth Multi-Stakeholder Partnership Meeting of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL) at Kansas State University where 300 guests from 22 countries. As part of the Food and Agriculture Organization, GASL convenes annually to cultivate an open discussion among varied perspectives about livestock globally, including academics, agricultural researchers, global nonprofits, and government representatives. Each session was informative and showcased GASL’s work is tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty and hunger while fostering partnerships that will help secure these objectives. 

“By increasing livestock production, particularly in developing and emerging economies, we will be able to improve food and nutritional security to future populations,” University of Florida animal scientist Dr. Geoffrey Dahl said during the meeting. “And in particular, our interest is improving nutrition for vulnerable populations where it might have lifelong impacts on their quality of life.” 

Women and Children NEED more animal-based foods

Two of the leading nutrient deficiencies worldwide are Iron and Vitamin B12. Animal products deliver these in the best form. 

Chessa Lutter, a nutrition researcher with the Division of Food Security and Agriculture at the University of Maryland, noted that proteins from animal-based foods are especially important for the development of the brain in young children. She is part of a team that has studied the effects of adding eggs to the diets of infants at 6 months of age. 

Meat is a critical component of a child’s diet, particularly in developing nations where improved health and cognitive function is a key step to fostering a healthier, more successful nation. In a recent study evaluating the effects of substituting meat for milk, soy, or other vegetarian sources of protein in children’s diets, the results showed that the meat group had the best outcomes for growth, intellectual ability, behavior, and academic performance over a two-year period. They also excelled over the other groups in terms of physical ability, leadership, and significantly more growth during the study.

By comparison, children who only received milk lagged behind in every aspect. One potential explanation could be that milk has an impact on iron absorption, which influences cognitive ability. The researchers suggested the improvements in performance in the meat group could be due to the intake of high-quality protein, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron in the children’s diet, all of which positively impact development.

Soy is inferior to meat. Researchers have concluded that a high intake of soy for children impacts phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring in legumes and soy that can disrupt how hormones function in the body. Endocrine disruption is a particular concern for children in periods of development. A high intake of soy could lead to malformations of sex organs, infertility, abnormal hormonal cycles, and problems with ovarian function.

Pregnant women also benefit from animal protein in their diets. A child’s potential for healthy growth begins during pregnancy. One of the markers for healthy pregnancies is male-to-female sex ratio, which is usually 105:100. Malnutrition and lack of adequate calories during pregnancy has been identified as one cause of lower sex ratios. A study of over 6,000 pregnant women found that those who followed a vegetarian diet, when compared to those who followed an omnivorous diet, had a considerably lower sex ratio and were 23% less likely to give birth to a boy.

There is a Global Effort toward More Sustainable Livestock Production

When it comes to sustainability, the speakers largely agreed that it’s more about the methods used to produce animal protein and not the animals themselves. “It’s not the cow, it’s the how” is catching wind around the globe.

“We tend to think of dairy farms as large-scale operations, but the global average is 2.9 cows per farm — much smaller than we think,” Donald Moore, executive director of the Global Dairy Platform, said during the meeting. “Most of these dairies are part of a diversified operation: crops are grown to feed the cows, who produce milk for the family, and consumers.”

In the US, innovations in livestock production can have a massive impact for developing nations once the technology or practices are carried overseas. Businesses in the US have the money, time, and resources to experiment with new sustainability-focused innovations whereas operations in developing countries often can’t afford the risk. 

Tom Jones, a representative from Hy-Plains Feedyard in Montezuma, Kansas, spoke about the operation’s recent efforts to improve sustainability. It has focused on sharpening water conservation over the last four years including limited irrigation in cropping systems, selecting cattle that use feed more efficiently, and exploring feed ingredients that require less water during production. Optimizing cover crops, crop rotations, and other holistic management practices are additional activities the operation is implementing to bolster soil health.

Sustainability-focused efforts are already on the ground in developing communities. India’s ANTHRA, a non-governmental organization of women that works with small farmers, peasants, pastoralists, and other small-scale livestock producers, is developing solutions to combat antimicrobial resistance among dairy cows afflicted with mastitis, an infection in the udder. Traditional approaches to combating antimicrobial resistance were too expensive for poor farmers. ANTHRA developed a mobile technology to communicate with producers directly to source readily available indigenous plants, herbs, and roots in lieu of expensive medications.

“Mastitis is a big problem in dairy cattle, especially crossbred cattle in India,” Sambamurti Ghotge, co-founder and director of ANTHRA, said. “We trained dairy farmers in simple, but effective, hygienic milking practices. We also advised them to feed their animals certain herbs such as Tinospora cordefolia and Asparagus racemosus root which are traditionally known to have antimicrobial properties.”

The environmental case for better meat isn’t just about American ranchers, it’s a global effort. If anything, residents of developing nations stand to benefit even more from having access to new innovations and technologies that promote sustainable protein production as they work toward fortifying economic vitality in their regions.

Livestock provide economic security in developing countries, particularly for women

In many developing nations, women have unequal property rights to men. For example, in Kenya women comprise 80% of the agricultural labor force and provide 60% of farm income, yet own only 5% of land. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent roughly 40% of the agricultural labor force, according to The World Bank.

Shirley Tarawali of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, spoke at the meeting about the importance of livestock and property rights for women. She recounted two trips to Nigeria where she and her colleagues witnessed livestock’s economic importance firsthand.

“We were not allowed to meet with them privately [on the first visit]; two years later, those women were raising animals, growing feed for animals, and they could meet with any visitors that we would bring along,” she said. “The women were also keen to show off things like pasta makers and sewing machines — goods they had purchased through their own enterprise.”

According to ILRI, two-thirds of the world’s 600 million low-income livestock producers are rural women who are responsible for the day-to-day animal management, including processing, marketing, and selling animal products. The organization has found that when women control income, 90% is invested back into their household compared to only 30% to 40% when income is controlled by men. Enabling women to derive economic independence through livestock will directly improve the health, education, and food security of their households. 

The FAO has also recognized livestock’s ability to increase women’s economic power. 

“The influence of women is strong in the use of eggs, milk and poultry meat for home consumption and they often have control over marketing and the income from these products. Perhaps for this reason poultry and small scale dairy projects have been popular investments for development projects aiming to improve the lot of rural women. In some countries small-scale pig production is also dominated by women. Female-headed households are as successful as male-headed households in generating income from their animals, although they tend to own smaller numbers of animals, probably because of labour constraints,” the agency wrote in a 2011 working paper examining the role of women in agriculture.

The Biggest Takeaway: Livestock are critically important worldwide; a food system structured around ultra-processed plant-based proteins will only exacerbate existing challenges in developing nations

The notion that a meatless food system would provide the best benefits is a position of privilege and an ethnocentric view of the world. Affluent individuals who have never grappled with food insecurity, poor health, or inability to own personal property need to stop dictating a global diet that will do nothing but harm women and children in developing nations. 

It is unethical to force people to eat a diet that relies on foods that aren’t native to the region nor culturally appropriate. Developing nations should not be forced to import expensive plant-based protein substitutes. The idea that a group of privileged, wealthy, “civilized” people from industrialized nations can dictate a single, global dietary solution is myopic and misguided. 

There are countless misconceptions about the impact of livestock production on the environment that are not only false but serious threats to developing nations’ access to appropriate nutrition, economic independence, and women empowerment. Visit to learn more about how you can support the nutritional, environmental, and ethical case for better meat.