Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Great beef begins at home

From Will Jackson, Beef & Lamb Sector Strategy Director

As an industry we’ve been bombarded with negative messaging recently regarding the sustainability of livestock and the perceived impact it is having on the environment.

Yes, I do believe that globally the industry needs to make changes, but here in the UK we have some of the most climate-friendly and sustainable methods in the world. 

The picture that’s being painted of our industry doesn’t give credit to the hard work our farmers have put in to enhancing their landscapes. 

What are the facts?

To start with let’s get the figures correct – the latest Committee on Climate Change figures show that UK agriculture is responsible for 9% of total UK emissions, with cattle and sheep responsible for just 3%. That’s very different to global production figures.

And that doesn’t take into account the fact that the majority of sheep and beef cows are managed on grassland, which absorbs carbon and locks it in the soil. Or that more than 60% of agricultural land in the UK is currently used for livestock, and a lot of this would be taken out of food production if it wasn’t grazed.

British farmers have never been more environmentally proactive. In recent years, they have planted 19,000 hectares of pollen plants and wildflowers, and planted or restored 280,000km of farmland hedgerows and ditches, creating habitats for our native wildlife. 

When it comes to tackling greenhouse gases, farmers are also taking action. Almost 40% of farmers are already rolling out innovative measures like using renewable energies by installing solar panels, erecting wind turbines, upgrading to more efficient machinery and modernising farming practices. A further 20% have said they will roll out climate-friendly initiatives within the next two years.

Would cutting out meat benefit the environment?

Our unique climate is suited to livestock, with rainfall making up over 99% of water needed to breed cows and sheep. And with so much land less suitable for other crops, it would be taken out of food production if not used by livestock. How would we then provide a secure and affordable food supply here in the UK? Would we just export our carbon emissions to other countries where it’s out of sight, out of mind and more difficult for us to affect the positive changes we need to make for the planet? 

That’s why we, as an evidence based organisation, are not only working with UK farmers to help them identify where they can improve and reduce their environmental footprint further, but also provide a balance to the mixed messages consumers hear to ensure they know the facts about UK livestock production. Just last week I took part in a number of interviews for radio stations across the country explaining how different our practices are in the UK in comparison to those on a recent documentary showing intensive farming in the US and South America. It’s fairly unlikely that people here will be consuming beef from a farming system which depletes rainforests, as Brazilian beef imports made up just 1% of the total global beef imports in 2018. 

The climate crisis debate has highlighted that we do need to consider the environmental impact of our diets and question the sourcing of all of our food. The environmental impact of food is also wider than just carbon, but needs to consider the loss of biodiversity, pollution of air and water, and the loss of soil health. Therefore, the question we should be asking is not whether we should be eating meat or not, but where has it been produced, and to what environmental and animal welfare standards. We also need to ask the same questions for all meat alternatives, and to consider both the local impacts and the wider global impacts for some of these non-meat alternatives. Only through assessing all of the potential impacts for meat and non-meat alternatives can we have a balanced debate that hopefully results in a balanced diet that is good for both us and the planet.