Is there a sustainable solution to eating meat?
10 minute read
Earlier this week, the BBC aired their documentary Meat: A Threat to our Planet? which sought to underpin the truth about meat production, global consumption and the dangers facing our planet as a result of this increased demand.
However, with so much conflicting advice on whether eating meat is bad or good, we set out to deliver a clear answer to the problem.
The demand for meat isn’t going away. Currently, it stands at 335 million tons a year and its expected to rise to 455 million tons by 20501. Most of this meat will need to be produced intensively using artificial, high protein feeds, which accelerate animals to their market weight with very little concern for the animal’s quality of life. Soon we’ll be a planet of ten billion people which will require us to grow more food in the next 30 years than we’ve grown in all of human history.
So what does this mean for meat production? Is eating meat the cause of our problems? Did the BBC offer a holistic, unbiased view of meat production and its impact on global emissions? Here, we look into the ‘meat problem’ and whether there really is a sustainable solution to eating meat.
THE TRUTH ABOUT METHANE
The finger of blame for global warming is undoubtedly pointed at livestock.It is true that all ruminant animals produce methane through burps or passing gas, however methane in the planet’s atmosphere comes from many sources. An article by National Geographic states that 40% of methane in the atmosphere comes from natural emissions, with wetlands alone accounting for a third of it2. Whilst most natural emissions of methane are also carbon sequestrations (they recapture carbon), most man-made sources of methane emissions aren’t.
In terms of meat, methane released by cows who are grass-fed is offset by carbon sequestration of the pastures they graze on3. This makes cows an essential part of the carbon sequestration process, but only if they are reared in a way that supports it – on natural grass pastures.
Professor Donald Broom from the University of Cambridge has been looking into how beef cattle affect climate change. He noted that new research found that “whilst methane is a greenhouse gas that has a substantial global warming effect, what happens after it is produced? If it goes into the upper atmosphere, it is broken down after 10-12 years and doesn’t stay there forever.”4 This suggests that the global warming effect of methane has been overstated and new studies by the University of Oxford5 further support this claim.
Methane was only part of Broom’s study, however he did find the following to be true regarding eating meat: “Red meat farmers are being a little more blamed than they should be. For the future, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not keep them at the same level, and to achieve that we, the whole world, needs to eat much less meat and the meat we do eat must come from a wholly grass-fed, sustainable system; the grass and leaves from trees and shrubs that we can’t eat.”6
Farming methods differ
Whilst the BBC’s documentary sought to give a real insight into how meat is damaging the planet, we are conscious that the documentary painted a very specific picture; for instance, the presenter travelled through meat-heavy Texas which makes up just a small part of the United States’ industrial-scale farming approach.
Here, we want to highlight the difference in farming methods across the globe. A study on US farming by the Science Institute found that “an estimated 99 percent of farmed animals in the US are living on factory farms at present.”7 Further to this, the United States is the world’s largest meat producer, producing 17.6% of the world’s meat in 20148.
If we think about grass-pastured farming systems, which as we mentioned are instrumental in sequestering carbon and which make up only 3% of US farming9, it is clear that choosing the US to demonstrate the negative impact of meat farming was an instrumental choice by the BBC to back up their claim of meat being damaging.
It also explains why they spent a disappointing five minutes discussing sustainable solutions to the meat problem and why a viable, sustainable, grass-fed system found in America was cut from the documentary when it aired10. We also question the BBC’s choice to fly to the US and Brazil when there are plenty of sustainable farms in the UK that could have shed light on a positive solution for the future, offering a more balanced view on those pursuing organic, sustainable farming to protect the health of our planet.
Education on sustainable farming
As you may already know, at Daylesford we farm organically and sustainably, raising all of our ruminant animals on an organic, free-range and grass-pastured system. This doesn’t just apply to our cows – even our chickens and turkeys enjoy a life roaming our lush organic pastures, foraging for bugs, insects, worms, fruits and clovers throughout their lives.
Earlier this year, we put the spotlight on our organic cattle and why organic farming really is better for the long-term health of the planet. One of the points we touched on is our cattle being a huge part of the full circle of life at our farm – “Aside from the benefits in sequestering carbon, reusing our cattle’s manure allows us to recycle nutrients in the formation of our crops… This rich manure is high in nutrients and extremely fertile, acting as an excellent natural fertiliser for our crops and making up an integral part of our organic farming methods, returning nutrients that our cows took from the soil, back to the soil.”11
In our opinion, there is nothing wrong with forage-raised animals that nature has been rearing for millions of years, allowing them to grow slowly and at their own pace. A proven, sustainable, organic system with the highest welfare standards could feed us all – but that requires some adjustment from both the producers and the consumers.
Eating less, but better quality
We also covered the question surrounding eating meat and the sustainable solution in our film which asked: can we eat meat with a conscience? The answer was yes, but choosing better quality is of paramount importance and undeniably better for the planet. Unfortunately, as demand has increased, many farmers have been pushed into mass production, meaning standards have slipped to meet production targets.
However, consumers tend to listen to the loudest voice, and we find that to currently be environmental, plant-based, anti-meat campaigners, meaning the voice of the sustainable farmers often isn’t being heard and all farming systems are being labelled as one. Take the University of Cambridge as an example, who have just banned red meat from their on-site restaurants, citing harmful emissions from meat farming despite their own professor’s research into the long-term benefits of grass-fed beef and the long-term effects of methane, which we already established may have been overstated.
Education on alternatives
When we looked into meat alternatives, we found that vegetarians and vegans are proof that stopping eating meat altogether is a viable solution, however in our view this is only sustainable if you are eating grains, beans, vegetables and fruit that are grown naturally, organically and without the use of artificial pesticides and chemicals. We do however realise this is not always an opportunity or consideration for many consumers.
If we take a look at soy which is in many vegetarian and vegan foods, the environmental impact of this shouldn’t be understated. Soya demand has increased around 70% in the last ten years and 300 million hectares of tropical forests have been felled for soya so far12. However, 90% of soya tends to be used in animal feed, with the rest going into foods for human consumption13. Whilst this may point to meat farming being the culprit here, if we return to what we think is a viable, sustainable, long-term farming solution for ruminant animals, it is that of a grass-pastured diet which does not and would not need to include soy.
So, whilst soy is a great protein alternative for vegetarians and vegans, providing some much needed vitamins and minerals which might be lacking due to abstinence from meat or a poor diet that doesn’t include a variety of fresh vegetables, it is also a huge culprit in intensive farming systems that use soy to feed their livestock. Therefore, we again want to advocate organic, sustainable farming as a reasonable solution for the planet.
The global hunger problem
Aside from eating meat that is sustainable, we also see the distribution of food globally as a solution to some of our problems. Currently, we are producing 1.5 times the amount of food needed to feed the global population14 – it just doesn’t reach everyone in need. Therefore, eating meat and the implications of this is just as relevant as politics, big business and the poverty problem. In our view, there is nothing to indicate that hunger would be a thing of the past in a vegetarian or vegan world.
The future of eating meat
In an interview with Today’s John Humphrys, Patrick Holden, Founder of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust and ex-Director of the Soil Association found that the real issue to our problems around eating meat is “which type of meat is part of the solution, and which is part of the problem?”.
He stated, “In Britain, two thirds of farmland is under grass. And the best way we can use that grassland – if we’re not going to re-forest it – is to graze it with ruminant animals – sheep, beef and dairy cattle. And if we did that, we could eat sustainably and with a clear conscience. But we do need to give up eating meat which is fed on grain from other parts of the world, which are causing devastating environmental damage”. He also added that we should align our diets to the productive capacity of the nation in which we live, so in the UK that would mean a significant portion of our diet coming from red meat raised in grass-fed systems.
The UK red meat market is depressed and in decline, partly due to the plant-based advocacy of recent climate change reports which group all meat producers, whether organic, pasture-fed or grain-fed, as the same, harmful, methane-emitting offenders. As an organic farm that operates by sustainable standards, we feel it is our responsibility to share what we know on the difference between farming systems and which we should be pointing the finger at.
A final note
As the BBC didn’t thoroughly delve into a sustainable solution for eating meat, we hope to have given our take on what is a solution to a growing problem. Firstly, we agree that we need to reduce our global meat consumption in order to alleviate the pressure on production. Secondly, we don’t feel we need to eradicate it from our diet entirely. We know there are a huge host of health benefits of eating meat – refer to our cattle or chickens for an insight on this – and the way we farm at Daylesford is better for the health of our planet, too.
Finally, a world with no meat means a world with no farm animals, and a world with no farm animals means a world without any rich, organic animal manure which is integral for putting fertility back into the soil that grows our fruits and vegetables – and which is already significantly stripped of its fertility due to intensive farming15. Without it, we would rely heavily on artificial chemicals and fertilisers to produce our food, which is not the natural way our ancestors survived over thousands of years.
To protect our planet for future generations, we must act now as a unified global force, reducing the amount we are consuming and questioning how each piece of meat we consume is produced.