Campaign groups are increasingly calling on people to eat less meat to save the planet and improve their health. However, experts argue that the debate surrounding meat and the environment is not as simple as it seems. Carina Perkins investigates
Last month, environmental group WWF-UK released a report calling on retailers to promote more “sustainable” diets in order to improve the health of the population and the planet. It pointed to its 2011 Livewell Report, which claimed that by reducing meat consumption to just 4% of the overall diet, the UK could improve the health of citizens and meet its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) targets.
The report marks a worrying trend of late — with animal rights activists, environmental groups and health campaigners joining forces to argue that meat is bad for our planet, bad for animals and bad for our health. However, there is mounting evidence that slashing red meat consumption would be neither healthy or sustainable.
Many leading scientists, nutritionists and food campaigners believe that a low-meat diet is actually fundamentally unhealthy, pointing out claims meat and saturated fat cause heart disease are not clinically proven, and adding red meat contains vital minerals, proteins, vitamins and fatty acids that you cannot get from eating a purely plant-based diet. Some also argue that the environmental case against meat has been hugely over-simplified and based on figures which are, quite simply, wrong.
One of the most important weapons in the war to reduce red meat consumption has been a 2006 FAO report, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, which claimed that the livestock sector was responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — which is “a higher share than transport”. This figure is still regularly quoted in attacks on meat, despite the fact that it has been proven to be incorrect.
A 2010 paper written by air quality specialist Frank Mitloehner revealed that the FAO’s comparison between livestock and transport is fundamentally flawed, because while it takes into account the whole life-cycle emissions for livestock — from farm to plate — it includes only the burning of fossil fuels by vehicles for transport, and fails to consider the production of fuel and vehicles. “They did a life-cycle assessment for one and not the other,” said Mitloehner. “They basically compared apples and oranges.”
One of the report’s authors, Pierre Gerber, later acknowledged that the comparison was flawed, telling the BBC: “We factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport.”
Author and former editor of The Ecologist Simon Farlie points out that this was not the only flaw in the FAO’s calculations. “The carbon dioxide figures are grossly distorted by including figures for deforestation of the Amazon, which are attributable only to a tiny proportion of the world’s livestock — and which, anyway, are currently causing much less damage than the FAO projections anticipated,” he explains.
Farlie, who scrutinised many of the arguements used against meat consumption in his book Meat: a benign extravagance, also dismisses another often quoted statistic — that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. “This figure takes into account every drop of rain that falls on the land occupied by the beef cow, which is plainly ludicrous. The rain would fall on the land and do much the same thing whether the beef cow was there or not,” he says.
Additionally, he points out that many of the greenhouse gas calculations used for meat fail to take into account the implications of removing livestock from the fields. “The FAO figures for methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock do not take into account the replacement emissions of these gases that would occur if we got rid of all our domestic animals — for example, emissions from wild animals, wild fires, termites, undrained wetlands etc,” he says.
The issue of carbon sequestration of grasslands — and the emissions that would result from a change from livestock to crops — is one that is increasingly coming to the fore when it comes to the debate about red meat and the environment.
Chris Lloyd, industry development manager for UK meat levy body Eblex, argues that the failure to include carbon sequestration in the carbon footprinting of ruminant farms puts red meat at a distinct disadvantage to intensively produced pork and poultry. Lloyd says that the major factor holding back a serious debate on carbon sequestration is the huge variables that exist when it comes to exactly how much carbon soils store, such as the type of soil, whether it is waterlogged and whether it is permanent or temporary pasture.
However, he says that preliminary research by Eblex, which took possible carbon sequestration figures from scientific studies and applied them to existing carbon footprint data, revealed that the potential could be significant. “We took figures from a 2009 report by Ostel et al, which calculated effective sequestration ranging from 40kg to 440kg of CO2 per hectare per year,” he says. “We then ran the minimum and maximum possibilities through the 131 data sets that we have carbon footprints for. On the minimum, the average reduction would be around 3%. On the maximum, the average is 30%. The average overall was about 16%, but the range was huge within that. One farm reduced its footprint by 136%.”
Lloyd points out that this process was “hugely unscientific” and was meant only to establish whether the issue of carbon sequestration would be worth fighting over. “The sequestration issue offers us the potential to view the carbon footprint of grazing livestock from a slightly different perspective,” he says. “As a supporter of the grazing livestock industry, we feel that would be a positive thing to strive for. The ‘look see’ work we have done indicates that it is worth striving to get that debate and recognition.”
The UK's Soil Association has also looked at how carbon sequestration can reduce the carbon impact of red meat production. Policy advisor Richard Young explains that he took figures from a Dutch study, which calculated that converting a hectare of permanent grassland into cropland would release 250t of carbon dioxide over 100 years, and compared them to methane emissions from ruminants.
“At an organic stocking level of half a livestock unit per hectare over the whole farm, you actually find that the methane emissions are slightly higher than the CO2 losses from ploughing the grassland, but only slightly,” explains Young. “But then you factor in the fact that if you are ploughing that land to grow intensive vegetables or cereals, you would need to put on fertiliser. That fertiliser is going to give you an additional carbon cost.”
Taking the emissions from nitrogen fertiliser into account, the ruminant-based system has the net advantage of 660kg of CO2 per hectare per year across the whole farm, suggesting that removing all cattle and converting land into crops would be worse for the environment than maintaining a mixed system of production.
Carbon sequestration is not the only argument for maintaining red meat production in the UK. Young points out livestock are vital to replenishing nutrient-rich topsoils, which are fast disappearing in the face of intensive agriculture. “If we are losing 2m tonnes of topsoil per annum from British farms now, how much more would we be using if we ploughed up grassland? And how much more fertiliser would we be having to use to grow the crops,” he asks.
Healthy soils can also offer important protection against flooding and droughts. “Organic matter, or humus, holds 20 times its own weight of water,” he explains. “So soils with high organic matter will retain moisture for very much longer than they would with low organic matter. It also means if you get too much rain they are able to soak it up, so it doesn’t just run and wash the soils away.”
Another key issue is the important role that livestock and grasslands play in maintaining biodiversity. “A lot of British wildlife species that we hold dearest have developed in conjunction with farming over thousands of years,” says Young. “The RSPB actually pays farmers to graze cattle on some of its nature reserves simply because, without them, it knows it would lose some species that are incredibly important.”
Researcher and author Barry Groves points out that grass is the world’s most ubiquitous plant and can survive drought, flood, fire and aggressive cropping. Importantly, grasses will flourish in areas where cultivation of other cops is impossible. “Grasslands cover one-fourth of the world’s land area,” he says.
However, humans cannot eat grass, or use some grassland areas to grow anything else in its place without expensive and unsustainable irrigation and drainage, as well as fertilisers. The only sustainable way to produce food in these areas, therefore, is to graze cattle, sheep and goats. “We can — and do — eat their meat, milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt. As such, although we cannot use it directly, grass is one of our most valuable resources. And critically, it is entirely natural and self-sustaining, without any input from us, as long as we let it do what it does best,” he says.
Farlie, Young and Groves all stress that the environmental implications of growing soya for feed make grain-fed meat an environmentally questionable choice. However, they insist that grass-fed meat, such as UK-produced beef and lamb, is vital to a sustainable agricultural future.
“[If we all stopped eating meat] we would be expelling an entire order of creation from our agricultural system, reducing its complexity and making it more reliant upon fossil fuels and chemicals,” says Farlie.