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Swapping Red Meat For “Foraged Fish” Could Save 750,000 Lives a Year

Herring in a pile.
Credit: iStock
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The world could be a healthier place if millions more of us swapped our bacon sandwiches for sardines on toast – that’s according to a new study published in BMJ Global Health.

In their paper, the researchers from the Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies estimate that, by 2050, a global dietary shift from red meat to seafood could help avoid 500,000–750,000 annual deaths from ischemic heart disease (IHD), strokes, diabetes, colorectal cancer and other diseases associated with meat consumption.

Due to limited fish stocks, however, the researchers acknowledge that foraged fish like sardines could only replace a fraction (about eight percent) of the world’s appetite for red meat. Nonetheless, they say even this small dietary substitution could help halve the number of deaths linked to red meat.

Plenty less red meat in the sea

Many studies have linked the regular consumption of red meat, especially processed red meat, to increased risks of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – a broad class of diseases that accounted for approximately 70% of all deaths globally in 2019. Of these, IHD was the leading cause of global mortality, followed by strokes, diabetes and colorectal cancer.

To reduce these deaths and the carbon cost associated with meat agriculture, many researchers have advocated that consumers reduce their meat consumption.

And, according to the Japanese National Institute researchers, much of the replacement protein for these lost meaty meals could come from the sea.

Fish – particularly foraged fish like anchovies, herring and sardines – often provide higher concentrations of essential nutrients (such as calcium and B12) per gram than terrestrial animal meat, and are rich in two main omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), which both help prevent diet-related NCDs.

Foraged fish also tend to be cheaper than farmed fish like salmon and are abundant in the seas of low- and middle-income countries.

To estimate what level of global disease burden could be lifted if such countries ate more foraged fish, the researchers from the Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies first took estimates of local red meat and fish supply stocks from the United Nations’ “Alternative pathways to 2050” report.

With these data, the research group then created four fishy scenarios:

  • (I) A prioritized domestic supply, with forage fish caught for national consumption or red meat substitution.
  • (II) Minimized meat intake with substitution prioritized in countries with meat consumption from sheep and cattle above the recommended level of 15 kcal.
  • (III) Adequate fish intake, prioritizing countries with fish consumption below the recommended level of 40 kcal.
  • (IV) Equal percentage of red meat replaced in all countries.

Their analysis shows that, if widely adopted for human consumption, foraged fish could potentially provide substantial public health benefits, particularly in terms of reducing the occurrence of IHD. 

Of the four scenarios, scenario I had the lowest number of deaths averted, yet scenario III could reduce the global burden of disease more effectively if all foraged fish were allocated to regions with the lowest fish intake.

Globally, the researchers say this approach could prevent 500,000–750,000 deaths from diet-related disease by 2050, as well as averting 8–15 million years of life lived with a disability, most of which are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.

For landlocked countries without direct access to seafood, such as Mongolia, Turkmenistan and many central African countries, global marketing and trade in foraged fish would need to be expanded, the researchers acknowledge. Other obstacles to this enormous dietary rotation include limited fish stocks and the imbedded cultural importance of meat-based meals.

“Despite the theoretical potential of forage fish, several barriers, such as fish meal and oil processing, overfishing, climate change and cultural acceptance may prevent the health benefits of forage fish from being realized,” the research team wrote in their conclusion.

“Multi-sectoral policy coordination and action (eg: prioritizing access to affordable fish, such as forage fish, for the poor and promoting the use of nutrient-rich microalgae as fish feed) could help to address some of these barriers,” they suggest.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by British Medical Journal. Material has been edited for length and content.

Reference: Xia S, Takakura J, Tsuchiya K, Park C, Heneghan RF, Takahashi K. Unlocking the potential of forage fish to reduce the global burden of disease. BMJ GloHea 2024. doi::10.1136/bmjgh-2023-013511