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A new study has concluded that global increases in the red and processed meat trade contributed to the abrupt increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It also found that the attributable burden of diet-related NCDs had big geographical variations among countries. For example, from 1993 to 2018, island countries in the Caribbean and Oceania were particularly vulnerable to diet-related NCD incidents and mortality due to meat imports. It also found that meat imports also increased death and disability-adjusted life year rates in Northern and Eastern European countries. 

The study, conducted by Min Gon Chun from Michigan State University, Yingjie Li from the University of California and Jianguo Liu from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, was published by BJM Global Health Journal in 2021. Researchers selected 14 red meat and six processed meat items and investigated bilateral meat trade flows across 154 countries. Then they checked for changes in the incidence of three main types of NCDs: colorectal cancer, diabetes mellitus, and coronary heart disease.

The authors write: “Since the world has begun to pursue sustainable diets for both human health and environmental sustainability, various guidelines consistently recommend a diet with fewer animal-based foods and more plant-based ones. However, it would still be hard to achieve such sustainable diets even if the increase in red and processed meat consumption by individual consumers were small. With continuous urbanization and income growth, global red and processed meat trade have exponentially increased to meet rising meat consumption.”

The research only focuses on meat, but a study of similar effects caused by the dairy and eggs industries would be quite interesting. The authors concluded that rapid increases in the trade of global red and processed meat impede international efforts toward sustainable diets by increasing meat consumption, and both exporters and importers must urgently undertake actions to reduce the meat trade’s health impacts. They did not go as far as recommending the ultimate action that would have the maximum preventive effect of the health problems they detected: the complete cessation of any meat trade between countries, and the global shift from animal agriculture to plant-based agriculture.