Radical environmentalists are trying to tell us eating less meat would save the planet. But would it? AHDB Beef & Lamb Sector Strategy Director Will Jackson says it should be about balance:
The recent report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impacts of global warming has reignited the crusade against eating meat, specifically on this occasion, beef. However, the real messaging of the report appears to have been twisted to suit the needs of headline writers and single-issue campaigners.
From Parliament to dinnertime chat at home, the perceived impact of livestock farming on the environment is the hot topic. The BBC’s interpretation of the report on August 6 fed the fire of anti-meat rhetoric, suggesting the report should lead viewers to question whether meat-free diets could be a long-term solution to climate change.
However, what the report actually stated was: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.” Doesn’t sound very anti-meat does it? In fact, it backs the common sense notion that responsible livestock farming is part of the solution to climate issues, not the biggest offender.
If you take nutrient density into account meat looks even better than a lot of alternatives.
Even as reporters tried to drive an anti-meat line in the press conference, experts from the panel repeatedly pushed back to say the analysis was not suggesting people turn away from meat – or any other food stuff. This did not stop the media creating their own story with the IPCC report as yet another nail in the coffin of eating meat.
Just a couple of days later, we had the announcement that Goldsmiths University of London has withdrawn beef from their menu on campus in a stance to tackle their own negative impact on the environment. This decision was, we are led to believe, partly steered by the messaging from the IPCC report.
How much faith do you have in a university that bases policy on misinterpreting a report rather than science?
Along with other industry bodies, AHDB has been supporting farmers to highlight a key fact missed in almost all reporting on emissions and livestock farming: meat and dairy production in the UK is among the most sustainable in the world. We have clear standards on animal welfare, increasingly, farms have right grass management systems in place, we have plenty of rain to make naturally occurring grass growing which grazing animals eat to create protein for humans with very few additional inputs needed. It is a natural cycle that also returns fertility to soils through manure. . .
New Zealand production is even more sustainable.
There is a lack of understanding about British beef production and the distinction between it and production elsewhere in the world. With British livestock grazing in grass-based systems, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are 2.5 times smaller than the global average. In fact, latest figures for the Committee on Climate change (CCC) acknowledge that emissions from farming amount to 9% of the national total, with 47% of that (so less than 4.5% total) from livestock digestion.
Again New Zealand is even better.
Combating environmental degradation is without doubt in everyone’s interest. However, the UK is very different to other places on earth and, because of our natural environment and the weather, remains one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce red meat. In fact, without grazing cattle and sheep, as much as 60% of agricultural land in the UK would be taken out of food production, due to the fact it is not suitable for cropping or growing other produce. This would also significantly change the cherished landscapes we have in this country which livestock help to manage efficiently and naturally.
Another recommendation in the IPCC report around livestock is to have improved manure management systems in place and to research into genetic improvement of livestock. At AHDB we are proud to support our farmers with a number of campaigns to combat both of these issues including work to neutralise slurry and Signet Breeding Services which provides genetic evaluations to livestock producers to help them identify sheep and cattle with superior breeding potential. . .
Amidst the slating of the beef industry for its environmental impact, there has also been a re-emergence of claims that red meat causes health problems, with headlines such as ‘Red meat raises risk of breast cancer in women’ and ‘Swap beef burgers for chicken cuts’. However, the evidence continues to support the position that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balance diet. To help push that message, we’ve put together a number of fact-based tools with the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) which help highlight the positive health benefits of eating red meat https://ahdb.org.uk/redmeatandhealth. There is also a Podcast available to listen to about meat and health here https://audioboom.com/posts/7319846-meat-and-health
So, the message when we are speaking to people about these challenges on welfare and red meat, is to look behind the headlines and seek out the facts. Plus, always remember, all foodstuffs have an environmental footprint of some kind and perhaps talk about the water demands of avocado farming or nut production for a change?
It should be all about balance.
Anyone familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of need understands the importance of food security.
Grass-raised free-range stock on extensive farms which are the norm here produce meat which has a much smaller environmental footprint than intensively farmed stock elsewhere and plays a very important role to play in a healthy diet.
Unfortunately this is lost in the rhetoric of people who want to save the planet without taking account of the cost to the world and the need to feed people.