As global trade in red and processed meats has increased, so have chronic diseases associated with meat consumption, a study looking at data from 154 countries.
Researchers focused on illness and death rates from three diseases strongly linked to red and processed meat consumption: colorectal cancer, type-2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.
They drew on meat import and export figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to find out where in the world red and processed meats had become more available.
They then checked these findings against health data from the Global Burden of Disease project.
“The increased intake of red and processed meat products via trade caused the abrupt increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases,” the study published in the British Medical Journal concluded.
The adverse effects of a diet high in red and processed meats is well known.
But the international trade of these products also has far-reaching impacts on the climate, through greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss, through shrinking habitat.
“Few international initiatives and national guidelines for sustainable diets explicitly address the spillover impacts of the meat trade across countries,” they said.
They calculated a worldwide increase in related deaths of nearly 75 per cent between 1993 and 2018, with major variations by geographical region.
While they estimated a 55 per cent rise in related deaths in developed countries, the rate of increase in developing countries was more than double: 157 per cent.
“These higher rates are because many developing countries around the world exponentially relied on red and processed meat imports to meet their increased meat demands under rapid urbanisation and income growth,” the study says.
Over the years covered by the study, developing countries expanded imports while rich ones expanded exports, the findings showed.
The study suggests that to achieve healthier and more sustainable diets, international dialogue should involve both health and trade bodies, citing the World Trade Organisation.
“Regional trade agreements of the WTO accelerate red and processed meat flows among countries,” it said and suggested it could coordinate with UN health and food agencies to improve future trade policy.
Since it is observational, the study can suggest but not confirm the cause-effect relationship between meat trade and diet-related illnesses.