BE­HIND THE HEAD­LINES: SHOULD WE SAY NO TO MEAT?

Can meat farm­ing on the cur­rent scale be en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able?

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - By Mark Rowe

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.

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