This week the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China announced new dietary guidelines calling for lower meat consumption, a move that could support several of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The change in recommendations was motivated by health concerns. In most countries, rising incomes are accompanied by increased consumption of meat and fatty, sugary processed foods. This in turn leads to a rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. These conditions make up a growing percentage of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) in China, reducing productivity and burdening the healthcare system. Reducing meat consumption is one way to promote healthier diets and reduce these deaths. In the United States, health concerns have led to falling consumption of red meat in recent years. SDG 2 calls for healthier diets, and SDG 3 on health names reducing non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease a top priority.

Reducing meat consumption could also contribute to several environmental SDGs. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock production is responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so any reduction in meat consumption will help meet SDG 13 on climate change. Improper disposal of manure contaminates water in many areas as well, and so fewer livestock may support SDG 6, which covers clean water.

P1050317Reducing meat consumption is an important step in countries where consumption is above recommended amounts, but it is important to remember that in other countries many people are not consuming enough protein daily. While there are plant-based protein sources, such as beans and lentils, livestock will remain an important source of protein for most people. In addition, nearly every smallholder farmer in a developing country depends on both crop and livestock for income. Rather than calling for reduced meat consumption across the board, the emphasis should be on ensuring every person has a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The SDSN supports the development of SDG indicators to monitor healthy diets around the world. To learn more, check out our paper on “Integrated Indicators for Sustainable Food Systems and Healthy Diets in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”