Despite their best intentions to avoid such conflicts, environmentalists often end up squaring off against those who say protection measures deny them jobs or other resources. Perhaps nowhere is this debate more heated than when it comes to Africa, whether the issue is malaria vs. DDT or GMOs vs. the precautionary principle. Among the most incendiary topics of all is starving children, and how environmental policies may be affecting them.
At first glance, a study released today from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, may seem to pile fuel on the fire, although News Watch spoke with one of the study’s authors, who urged a thoughtful and measured response. The research was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study’s lead researcher, Christopher Golden, PhD, MPH, explained to News Watch that the group’s research in rural Madagascar found that consuming bushmeat had a measurably positive impact on children’s nutrition. According to a release, the researchers, “estimated that a loss of access to wildlife as a source of food – either through stricter enforcement of conservation laws or depletion of resources – would lead to a 29 percent jump in the number of children suffering from anemia. Among children in the poorest households, the researchers added, there would be a three-fold increase in the incidence of anemia. Left untreated, anemia in children can impair growth and cognitive development.”
The research was primarily supported by the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust and the National Science Foundation.
The scientists reasoned that because most people get their bio-available iron primarily from meat, consuming bushmeat would mean lower incidence of clinical anemia. They tested this theory by examining the diet and hemoglobin levels of 77 children (all under 12 years old) every month for a year. The youths live in a remote part of eastern Madagascar in the Makira Protected Area, which is often called one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
Kids who ate such bushmeat as captured lemurs and bats did show higher levels of iron-containing hemoglobin in their blood, even after researchers say they factored in such variables as consumption of domesticated meat, household income, sex, age and nutritional and disease status. The scientists also noted that meat from domestic livestock is prohibitively expensive in this highly impoverished, remote area.
They found that among locals, bushmeat accounted for up to 20 percent of overall meat consumption. This despite the fact that hunting of most species in the area is illegal, though enforcement remains a challenge for the cash-strapped government.
We asked Golden if his study could be interpreted as a case for sustainable hunting of wild animals in the area, many of which are endangered. He replied, “It is difficult recommending hunting sustainably as it is illegal according to Malagasy national law. In order to abide by conservation laws, and to provide opportunities for dietary sufficiency, livestock alternatives would need to be developed.”
Lia Fernald, a UC Berkeley associate professor in the School of Public Health who worked with Golden on the study, said in a statement, “It is clearly not environmentally sustainable for children to eat endangered animals, but in the context of remote, rural Madagascar, households don’t always have a choice.”
She added, “In places where a diverse range of nutritious food is unavailable, children rely upon animal-sourced food — milk, eggs and meat — for critical nutrients like fats, protein, zinc and iron. What we need for these children are interventions that can provide high-quality food sources that are not endangered.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone is on board with that idea, either. Priscilla Feral, president of the animal rights group Friends of Animals, told News Watch via email, “When lemurs and bats are wiped out of Madagascar, do goats appear to feed children, or do plant-based diets provide the best means for feeding a hungry world?”
Feral told us she has traveled extensively throughout Africa, and has not had difficulty keeping her vegan diet. She often accuses aid groups like Heifer International of exporting an “unsustainable” reliance on animal protein to the developed world, when we should be encouraging development of wholesome plant-based diets instead, as a way to save resources and reduce abuse of animals, she says.
Golden responded, “I think her viewpoint is valid. Unfortunately, in areas without fortification and supplementation programs in place, it is extraordinarily difficult to have a diet adequate in iron without consuming meat. This is not to say it’s impossible, but there is a reason that over 2 billion people are afflicted with anemia. In these tropical developing countries, malaria and intestinal parasites are adding burdens to people’s micronutrient deficiencies. Everyone can get an adequate diet in protein from vegetables. However, it is not as easy with iron.”
Golden added, “I think our study supports a solution that develops dietary diversity both in vegetarian and meat form.” He explained that just giving an iron supplement can lead to drops in zinc, calcium, magnesium and other +2 cations, which leads to reduced immunity, especially to malaria. “A very quick technical fix here is not the solution. We need to improve diets through partnerships between public health and development organizations,” he said.
Bushmeat: Not Just for the Rich?
Golden’s work also further complicates what had been an emerging picture of bushmeat, that it was largely not going to feed hungry impoverished children, but rather wealthy elites in African cities, who view meat from lions, lemurs and gorillas as a luxury good. Some have suggested that it may provide some kind of link to an increasingly urban population’s roots to the land. Others point out that poachers are often better paid and better equipped than government agents, swooping in with Jeeps and helicopters.
Golden told us, “In many places in Africa and Asia bushmeat is definitely a luxury item and we tried to be careful that the policy implications from our study in rural Madagascar should not be applied everywhere that bushmeat is eaten. Developing meat alternatives will not work in those instances because the bushmeat is actually preferred.”
But regarding his study population, Golden said, “In this area of Madagascar, less than five percent of what is hunted is sold. It’s almost entirely a subsistence form of food acquisition for people in desperate need of the nutrients. This study brings a tension between biodiversity conservation and human health and livelihoods because it is truly the food of the poor.”
Connection to Disease?
Scientists have long warned that bushmeat may lead to serious diseases crossing the animal-human species barrier. Some have suggested that is how we ended up with Avian flu, monkeypox and HIV. Golden told us that his group is collaborating with Nathan Wolfe to look for novel pathogens in the mammal community in the study area, although his primary focus has been to better understand bushmeat’s nutritional importance.
Around the world, hundreds of millions of people continue to rely on marine and terrestrial wildlife for an important source of nutrients. However, many of these species have been severely over harvested, and the ecosystems they rely on are under increasing threats from rising human population, pollution and climate change. It suggests that we may be heading closer to the type of ecological collapse Jared Diamond has warned about in his books and lectures.
What happens when the forests of Madagascar go silent, the last lemur roasted over an open fire, or the last bird made into a stew? Will trees stop having their seeds spread? While inedible invasive species take over?
At the other end of the spectrum, what happens if conservation measures fail because villagers are given no viable alternatives to bushmeat? Who can blame someone for finding food for their starving toddler?
Golden told us his study is a “first-step to demonstrate frameworks of research that could elucidate mechanisms through which people receive health benefits from intact ecosystems.” He added that the policy dilemma is that “a lack of access to wildlife for food could arise from either unsustainable hunting/ecosystem degradation or the enforcement of existing conservation policy that restricts local people’s access to these meats. In this way, biodiversity conservation policies may be exacerbating local health outcomes (although not intentionally) and this dilemma requires partnerships between conservation, development and public health initiatives to solve.
“We need to find ways to benefit the local population in our conservation policies, not hurt them,” Golden said.
Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.