How much meat should we eat?

28Mar2016

Jo Biggs, AHDB Beef & Lamb Communications Manager writes:

Last week I attended a debate, hosted by Riverford Organic, which addressed the contentious subject of how much meat we should include in our diets. The event was part of a wider campaign Riverford are running, looking at meat consumption from the standpoint that many of us are already eating more meat than is good for us and the planet.

The campaign was the brainchild of Riverford founder Guy Watson. As a producer of organic vegetables, he may appear far removed from the issues affecting the meat industry. However, as a meat eater himself and with relatives involved in livestock farming, he’s keen to explore the issues around meat production and discuss ways of finding the right balance in the diet.

Sitting on the panel alongside Guy was Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University, and Peter Melchett, Policy Director for the Soil Association, both of whom have strong views on commercial livestock farming and choose not to eat meat themselves. The chair was the Daily Telegraph’s food columnist, Xanthe Clay.

It was evident from the outset that all three panellists and the vast majority of the audience were in favour of reducing meat in the diet. As a result, it was clear that the debate was going to focus on how much we should reduce our meat consumption rather than whether such a move is necessary.

With a focus on sustainability and the environmental impact of meat consumption, the discussion was intelligent, lively and wide-ranging, however for me it failed to answer several big questions. While there was broad agreement from the panel that we should be eating less meat and replacing it in our diets with fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, there was little discussion about how the UK can produce enough of these foods to feed a growing population.

We know that a significant proportion of our agricultural land, particularly in upland areas, can only be productive if we use it for grazing livestock. There was much enthusiasm during the debate about the benefits of rewilding swathes of the countryside that are currently used to graze cattle and sheep, however taking this land out of food production will only lead to an increasing reliance on imported food, a consequence which would be counter-productive in terms of our environmental footprint.

With any debate about meat consumption, making the distinction between the situation in the UK and what’s happening globally is a major challenge. Meat production in many other parts of the world is resource intensive and we can certainly not shirk responsibility for the environmental impact of products we import. However, it’s important to distinguish this from meat produced using our own rain-fed pasture system. The UK climate makes it ideally suited to rearing grazing livestock in an efficient manner – surely it makes sense to continue using our land for this purpose?

Another point that is often overlooked and is little understood is the issue of carbon sequestration. While the potential of grassland to store carbon is acknowledged and was touched upon at the debate, quantifying this and other benefits, such as the contribution of the livestock sector to enhancing biodiversity, is very difficult.

With it often being quoted that the level of emissions generated by the global livestock sector is equal or higher than that generated by the transport industry (although this comparison, made in the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report, has since been discredited), having robust figures to defend the livestock sector is essential. This was touched upon by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Beef and Lamb in its 2013 report looking at the carbon footprint of the beef and sheep sector. The area of soil carbon storage is also being addressed by work being undertaken by AHDB Beef & Lamb as a supplement to the 2011 Landscapes without Livestock report.

When you scratch the surface, what becomes clear is that the “eat less meat to save the planet” message is too simplistic to be credible given that we are not yet fully able to quantify the carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Only with more research in this area leading to robust scientific evidence and data will we be in a position to provide a true account of the environmental impact of red meat. In the meantime, the industry will continue to work towards reducing its impact right along the supply chain.

Watch the How Much Meat debate online here.

From the AHDB Beef and lamb website