Swapping red meat for forage fish: a potential lifesaver

Replacing red meat with oily fish, such as herring, sardines or anchovies, could save thousands of lives in a year and help tackle the climate crisis. Especially in the poorest countries

Switching from red meat to forage fish such as herring, sardines, and anchovies could save up to 750,000 lives annually. A study published in BMJ Global Health has estimated the health benefits of replacing red meat consumption with forage fish.

The findings suggest that replacing red meat with forage fish (so named because they are preyed upon by larger fish) in the global diet could prevent a significant number of premature deaths due to non-communicable diseases like strokes or colon cancer by 2050, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Increasing evidence links red meat consumption to a higher risk of diseases in humans and significant environmental damage. In contrast, forage fish are highly nutritious, environmentally friendly, and the most abundant fish species in the world’s oceans.

The study

The study, led by Shujuan Xia of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan, estimated that forage fish “could replace only a fraction (about 8%) of the world’s red meat due to its limited availability but could increase the global per capita daily consumption of fish closer to the recommended level.”

According to the researchers, this substitution could prevent between half a million and 750,000 premature deaths and significantly reduce the prevalence of disabilities due to diet-related diseases, especially in low-income countries.

Forage fish as an alternative to red meat could double (or more) the number of deaths that could be prevented by simply reducing red meat consumption.

This type of fish accounts for 30% of global catches. However, only a quarter is used for human consumption. The rest, including much of the fish caught in countries struggling to feed their populations, is used in fish farms to fatten other fish such as salmon or trout, which are then sold to consumers with higher purchasing power.

Xia and colleagues warn that this use of forage fish “is inefficient because fewer nutrients are retained.” For example, they say, less than 50% [of the fatty acids in the consumed fish] are retained in farmed Scottish salmon.

The authors reached their conclusions by proposing four different scenarios for the global distribution of fish in 137 countries. One scenario prioritized the use of fish caught in each country for national consumption and focused on replacing red meat consumption. The second proposed prioritizing access to forage fish in countries with a consumption level below 40 kilocalories per day. A third scenario suggested that the same amount of red meat be replaced in all countries, while a fourth outcome was determined by the availability of forage fish. Of all these options, the first would prevent the fewest deaths, and the third the most, although this distribution of fish would likely be more straightforward in a model than in reality.

the impact of forage fish on global health and sustainability

@BMJ Global Health

Indeed, this is a thirty-year forecast, and there are many uncertainties. One of them? Certainly, ensuring sustainable fishing. To support the sustainable production of this type of fishing, the authors propose adopting strategies such as moving fishing sites to more favorable areas. Feasible?

Source: BMJ Global Health

The article draws upon studies published and recommendations from international institutions and/or experts. We do not make claims in the medical-scientific field and report the facts as they are. Sources are indicated at the end of each article.
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