Hosted by scientist Liz Bonnin, Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?, sought to examine livestock production, the effect it has on the climate and wildlife. Whether it successfully answered questions on such a complicated issue like meat production in one hour is debatable but what it did succeed in doing is infuriate the British farming community.
Accusations of bias against meat and too much focus on US intensive farming were levelled against the documentary. During its broadcast and following, social media was alight with complaints as the industry moved to defend itself.
All aspects of the UK meat supply chain came together to speak out about the documentary.
First up was the levy boards. In a joint statement, chief executive of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Jane King, chief executive of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Alan Clarke and chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymru / Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) Gwyn Howells said the documentary “gave an unbalanced and inaccurate view of the environmental challenges facing livestock production, potentially misleading UK consumers about how their meat is produced. By concentrating on the issue at a global scale, it failed to show the positives which sustainable production in the UK offers over the systems featured”.
The letter went onto state that the programme “focused heavily on intensive farming practices in the US and South America. Little or no time was given to the other side of the debate and the significant efforts of UK agriculture to reduce our environmental impact and that the UK industry did not have a voice in the programme, despite being produced and aired on a terrestrial station to a UK audience”.
The trade bodies went to criticise the focus of the argument, particularly the climate side.
“In addition, we do not agree with the claim that meat production has a greater environmental impact than transport. The highest volume of CO2 is produced by the fossil fuel industries, with livestock farming contributing just 4% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. Given this statistic, cutting your individual meat consumption would in fact not reduce the UK’s overall CO2 emissions nearly as significantly as structural changes in the energy and transport sectors.”
UK farmers took a different tack with their criticism of the programme. Another joint letter, this time from the leaders of the four farming unions stated how the gaps in the BBC documentary highlighted the importance of protecting British producers. “Simply showing the environmental impact of beef production in North and South America does nothing to help people make informed choices about food which can be grown and reared in ways that offer benefits for the environment. For example, with the UK’s climate, landscape and grass-based systems we have the means, and the ambition, to provide quality, nutritious meat in ways that not only protect the environment, but help mitigate the world’s impact on the climate.
“The documentary did, however, demonstrate the concerns UK farming has about future trade, and what we could expect to see on our supermarket shelves if the government were to allow food into the country which has been produced in ways that would be illegal here.”
On the processing side, the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) took to Twitter to suggest that there was an opportunity to present a more-balanced view but that this was not taken up.
It seems that a lot was left out of the BBC's film, making it just another one-sided, headline-grabbing attempt to push a particular agenda.— BMPA (@BMPA_INFO) November 28, 2019
What we as consumers really need is a balanced, fact-based debate so we can make properly informed decisions about our lifestyle choices. https://t.co/4Ygk9pMoxG
It's rare the meat community has such a joined-up approach to showcasing the positives. In the days since the documentary aired, numerous meat businesses have promoted their sustainability credentials, both in the UK and abroad. It’s just a shame it took this for that to happen.