Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Reducing meat consumption will not address environmental challenges

Thanks to single issue pressure groups like Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday, consumers are increasingly being led to believe that they should cut back their carnivorous habits in order to ‘save the planet’.

Livestock production does have a significant ‘carbon hoofprint’, as it has done for centuries, emitting 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions, largely methane and other gases expelled as a result of the natural digestive process. Taking that figure at face value, living on a diet of vegetables and cereals, which account for 2% of UK emissions, would seem like a simple way to reduce emissions. But it’s just not as simple as the pressure groups would have us believe.

If consumption of meat reduced, there would be a fall in livestock numbers which would lead to a net reduction in emissions from the sector. However, reducing consumption would not make livestock production more efficient. The carbon footprint of the beef produced would be the same. Surely the real drive should be to increase efficiency to physically reduce emissions from each animal? If not, then we could vastly decrease global emissions simply by reducing the number of vehicles on the road rather than pursuing the current strategy of investing in greener engine technology.

People would still need to eat if meat consumption was reduced, so there would have to be a corresponding rise in production of other foodstuffs which would have its own negative environmental impact – devaluing the gain achieved by lower meat production.

Simply digging up areas currently grazed by cattle and sheep to plant them with more crops to maintain food security for the country is not feasible. Much of the countryside currently grazed by ruminants, in particular the hills, moors and less favoured areas, is not suitable for food production. And in the areas where you can cultivate the land, on top of the negative effect that increased production would have, digging up grassland would release vast amounts of carbon which had been captured from the atmosphere and stored in these natural carbon sinks, managed effectively by grazing animals.

Allied to this, and an issue frequently overlooked by many campaigners, is the vital role played by farmers and their stock in terms of countryside stewardship. Grasslands in general, and hill and upland environments in particular, fundamentally depend on beef and sheep production. If these areas were not maintained by grazing animals, valuable wildlife habitats would be lost, and the quintessentially English landscape of rolling green pastures would no longer exist. Some areas would need to be actively managed in an alternative manner which again would have its own carbon cost.

The livestock industry is investing heavily in research and development to cut emissions (the two EBLEX roadmaps are a good example of this), and figures show that significant progress has already been made, with 5% fewer prime animals being required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998. Rather than cutting meat consumption therefore, ensuring instead that consumers are encouraged to buy high quality, farm-assured beef and lamb is the best way to help 'save the planet' through decreased emissions from meat production.

Find out more about livestock and climate change in our previous blog, Putting the record straight on climate change .