Thursday, 28 August 2014

Green farming of red meat is not black and white

Since last week’s blog about part one of the BBC’s ‘Should I Eat Meat’ Horizon programme, part two has been broadcast – and once again the beef and sheep  industry has been left frustrated by sensational suggestiveness and blasé comparisons. 

The show did highlight the complexities surrounding the environmental sustainability of livestock production.

In case you missed it, part two focused on the environmental impact of producing the animals we need to feed the global population, including factors such as greenhouse gases, water usage and the effect on soil/earth. The show advertised that it would assess the worldwide impact of such farming, but given that it was broadcast to a UK audience, many were perhaps surprised to see so little of our production system and recognition of the many positives it brings.

One important area that the programme didn’t explore was the economics of livestock production. The fact is that wherever you look in the world, beef farmers are not making significant profits, and many are barely breaking even.

The programme almost presumed that, as the world population grows and demand increases, farmers will simply produce more.

The majority of people in this industry know that unless prices rise, farmers will have no incentive to produce more, as it would just add to their outlay. If, however, prices were to rise then demand would drop, cancelling out the theory that demand and production will grow hand-in-hand as the population expands.

The programme acknowledged that the UK is one of the most sustainable places in the world to raise cattle and sheep due to its low-impact grazing system, and the role that ruminant animals play in converting grass and other indigestible materials into nutritious food. Yet focus was clearly squared on any negative aspects they could find. 

Natural emissions, such as methane from cow belches, are a by-product of rumination and although it’s still an emerging area of research, there is a general consensus that grassland can offset these omissions to some extent. This was acknowledged in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beef and Lamb enquiry, titled: The Carbon Footprint of the Beef Cattle and Sheep Sector, which was published in May 2013 - although it didn’t get a mention on the Horizon programme.

The TV show no-doubt did what the programme makers intended, grabbing the attention of viewers and making them think about how their eating habits impact on the environment. But, it’s essential that any debate on sustainability considers profitability along with environmental impact to ensure a balanced dialogue is maintained.