BEHIND THE HEADLINES: SHOULD WE SAY NO TO MEAT?
Can meat farming on the current scale be environmentally sustainable?
Globally, only 9% of emissions in the agricultural sector comprise carbon dioxide, 35-45% arise from methane and 45-55% from nitrous dioxide. Most greenhouse gases are emitted at the farm level and nearly half result from digestion and fermentation by ruminant animals
Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust Dr Jude Capper, livestock sustainability consultant and author of the pro-dairy Bovidiva.com blog.
DOES MEAT HAVE A ROLE IN FARMING IN THE UK AND WORLDWIDE?
PH: Absolutely. Livestock plays a critical role in sustainable food systems, but as consumers we need to understand the difference between those livestock and farming systems that are truly sustainable, and therefore part of the solution, and those that are damaging, from environmental and health perspectives. If we choose the right kind of meat, we can feel good about eating it, because we will be supporting farmers and farming systems that are good for us and the planet.
JC: Yes. In the UK, livestock is an integral part of food production, as our crop and meat production systems work together.
Livestock manure is used to fertilise crops, reducing our reliance on inorganic fertilisers, returning nutrients to the soil and improving soil structure and health.
Byproducts from human food production that we cannot or will not eat (such as sugar beet pulp, wheat straw or misshapen vegetables) are used to feed livestock, turning human-inedible crops into highquality meat. Most importantly, due to soil quality, terrain or climate at the national and global level we have huge areas of land that are unsuitable for crop production. But we can graze livestock on this land, protecting natural landscapes and native wildlife, while producing food on otherwise unusable land.
WHAT CAN FARMING DO TO MITIGATE ITS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
PH: Industrial-scale cattle, chicken and pig farming systems damage the environment with their high greenhouse gas emissions and their dependency on intensively produced grain for feed. Due to an imbalance of essential fatty acids in the meat and the high usage of antibiotics, they are also less healthy.
But it is hard to imagine a mainstream UK transition to sustainable food production without grass-fed ruminant animals (cattle and sheep). They alone are able to graze the clover-rich grasslands that fix nitrogen naturally, rather than needing chemical fertilisers, so they’re producing food while helping to build and maintain our soil carbon stocks. Soil can hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, which means soil carbon gains can potentially offset the methane emitted by grazing animals.
Reintroducing crop rotation with a fertility-building grass phase on previously intensively managed land could have huge climate mitigation potential, but only if consumers help farmers by purchasing grass-fed meats from those systems.
JC: Livestock farmers have made big gains in reducing environmental impacts. Primarily this has been achieved through a better understanding of how to breed, feed,
manage and care for animals to the highest welfare standards, thereby improving productivity. As in any business, from a farm to a coffee shop, if we improve productivity and efficiency, then waste is reduced and fewer resources (land, water, fuel and greenhouse gases) are required.
The carbon footprint of a litre of British milk has dropped by 24% over the last decade. Farmers have also made environmental stewardship a priority – taking care to ensure that grazing, land cultivation and crop harvest are conducted in ways that improve wildlife, protect air and water courses, reduce the release of carbon from soils and protect endangered species.
DO CONSUMERS HAVE A ROLE IN HOW OR WHETHER MEAT IS PRODUCED?
PH: Absolutely. Consumers represent a hugely powerful force in influencing our future food systems – but only if enough of us choose to purchase meat and other livestock products from sustainable farming systems. We need to exercise that power by eating mainly grass-fed red meats and pastured chicken and pork, and ideally avoiding intensively farmed chicken, pork and dairy products. If everyone did this, we could largely eliminate the impact of intensive livestock systems.
To bring about change on the scale that is needed, it would help if sustainably produced meats were more affordable. But this can only be achieved through government intervention, by taxing the farming systems that cause damage to the environment or public health and rewarding those that deliver benefits. This would shift the balance of financial advantage towards more sustainable methods of production.
JC: We are fortunate in the UK to enjoy a wide variety of food and dietary choices. Although a number of plant-based meat or dairy alternatives are prominently displayed in many supermarkets, these do not appear to be gaining significant market share (soya and other plant-based milks comprise 4% of the UK liquid milk market) and are nutritionally inferior to meat and dairy.
Similarly, although campaigns such as Veganuary gained traction earlier in the year, these trends are short-lived, with few people actually adopting long-term dietary change. As consumers, we have significant opportunities to demand how (or indeed whether) we want meat to be produced. It is great to see so many people becoming more interested in food production, from attending Open Farm Sundays to undertaking butchery classes, but there are no signs that the majority of consumers are looking to eliminate meat from their diet.
WHAT WOULD BE THE IMPLICATIONS OF A COUNTRY OR WORLD WHERE FARMERS DID NOT REAR MEAT? IS THAT A REALISTIC OR DESIRABLE SCENARIO?
PH: It’s hard for me to imagine a sustainable farming world without farm animals. Of course everyone has the right to be a vegan or vegetarian, but if everyone switched to those diets, it would reduce UK food output and increase food insecurity. This would also be true for developing countries and semi-arid regions, where, due to unsuitable climates for growing crops, there is a huge reliance on livestock farming. This would also impact the more temperate regions including the UK, where two-thirds of the farmed area is currently in grass, delivering important biodiversity and environmental benefits. Since humans cannot eat grass, the only way to produce food from this land is by grazing it with ruminant animals or pastured poultry and pigs.
Dietary fats and oils make up over a third of our daily energy. By turning away from animal fats, we are depending more and more on vegetable oils, especially soya oil and palm oil, both of which are associated with the destruction of rainforest and wildlife species. Even the production of rape and sunflower oil is responsible for water pollution and the decline in important pollinating insects, due to the toxic chemicals needed to grow such large areas of these crops to meet demand.
JC: We could theoretically move towards a country without meat production; it is conceivable, though at a cost. It would come with some logistical challenges, including increased reliance on inorganic fertilisers for arable crop production and high wastage of crop and food byproducts. But livestock provide many benefits worldwide, especially in low-income regions where owning goats, sheep or cattle extends far beyond the provision of food, manure and draught power, to improving human health, household income, social status, education and female emancipation. It is easy to forget, in our relatively privileged country, that billions of smallholder farmers are entirely reliant on livestock for their future. We may choose a veggie burger over a quarter-pounder, yet livestock is essential to billions of people in the developing world, and it cannot simply be replaced by soy beans or quinoa.