Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Beef production and the environment: the truth behind the headlines


The beef industry was back in the media for all the wrong reasons this week, with several British newspapers running articles about a US study which claims that beef production is 10 times more damaging to the environment than production systems involving other livestock. Some of the most attention-grabbing headlines have focused on the land and water requirements of beef production, with the study finding that it requires 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than other types of livestock production.

It’s easy to see why the study caught the attention of the British media as the results make compelling and disturbing reading, particularly when accompanied by carefully-selected images of cattle squeezed into arid feed lots.

However, I’m sure we at EBLEX HQ weren’t alone in reacting with frustration and possibly uttering a few choice words about this latest critique of beef production, which painted a picture of a resource-hungry global industry with little regard for the consequences of its actions.

Broadening the conclusions of a study such as this out to a global level fails to acknowledge important differences between production systems around the world. Most of the coverage included a line about how, while the study is based on US data, its findings are equally applicable to Europe. But, even within the confines of a single continent, the diverse range of climates and terrains means that any conclusions are going to be an over-simplification at the very least.

In the UK we primarily graze ruminants to convert grass, which cannot be used to feed people, into nutritious food for our growing population. In many cases these animals occupy areas of farmland which couldn’t be used to grow other crops, meaning that livestock rearing is the only way this land can be productive. And our rain-fed pasture system means we have very little reliance on irrigation; In fact it takes just 67 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.

There are also additional environmental benefits of grazing cattle and sheep, not least in terms of landscape management and maintaining biodiversity, as well as the ability of permanent pasture to capture and store carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

That’s not to say that we as an industry aren’t acutely aware of our environmental impact or our responsibility to reduce it. EBLEX, in addition to producing a three-part environmental roadmap geared towards practical ways of reducing the industry’s environmental footprint, funds numerous research and development projects in the area of climate change. We're also involved in the industry-led Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP), together with the other AHDB sectors. As evidence of the effectiveness of the GHGAP, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has now reported that the agriculture sector is on track to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets set by Government. 

The true picture of beef’s environmental impact is complex and nuanced – in short, not the sort of thing that makes for a good newspaper story. However, one thing consumers can be certain of is that while they continue buying quality assured beef from England, they’re supporting one of the most efficient and sustainable livestock production systems in the world.