What’s our beef with beef?

organic cows

Organic cows.

Red meat is not inherently unsustainable, despite recent headlines - it’s how it is farmed that matters.

Grain-fed white meat can be more harmful – as well as inhumane

A new report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for us to make radical changes to the way we farm and eat to prevent further global warming. But what did the IPPC report actually say on meat eating? Were the NFU and others right to say reporting was misleading?

As ever, the issues are complex, hard to convey accurately in an eye-catching headline or a snappy tweet.

The IPCC is clear that, on a global level, ruminant livestock – that’s cattle and sheep - carry a high greenhouse gas footprint. This leads to the conclusion that if we eat less red meat, we can reduce these emissions. 

Intensive production 

However, the IPCC acknowledges that “analysing ruminant meat production is highly complex” because the way it is farmed varies hugely across the globe, and the authors note the environmental benefits of cattle and sheep in grass-fed systems. They say: “Ruminants can have positive ecological effects (species diversity, soil carbon) if they are fed extensively on existing grasslands.” 

So where and how we produce meat and dairy matters. American style “feed lot” beef production, where cows are kept in confinement eating masses of grain and protein crops that could feed humans, is both ethically and environmentally wrong. But cattle grazing biodiverse grasslands, where appropriate incorporating loads of trees, can bring multiple benefits. 

To grow arable (cereal) crops like wheat and barley, farmers need to build fertility in the soils to provide nutrients, especially nitrogen, to feed those crops. But synthetic nitrogen is very energy intensive to make and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion – indeed the UK’s arable soils have lost 40-60 percent of their soil carbon already.

Organic farmers avoid synthetic nitrogen by rotating their cereal crop fields with leguminous crops like clover and sainfoin – which naturally pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil.

When farming in this nature-friendly way, it makes economic and environmental sense to allow animals to graze these crops, building organic matter in the soil along the way. 

Harmful and inhumane

The IPPC deliberates on the debate between red meat and that from monogastric animals like pigs and poultry. From a climate change point of view, monogastrics are a problem because feeding them can lead to land use change with rainforests being destroyed or savannah grasslands ploughed out to grow the grain these animals eat. 

Grain-fed white meat can be more harmful – as well as inhumane

The report concludes that while ruminants (like cows) emit methane - a very potent greenhouse gas, but one which is short-lived - a stable population of ruminants will not add to global warming, while a rapid increase or decrease will. Destroying forest habitats to grow more grain for pigs and chicken certainly will make matters worse. 

So, while the IPCC arrives at an unambiguous directive towards “adoption of diets low in animal sourced products”, they state that their primary concern is with reductions in the consumption of grain-fed livestock. 

The authors note there is robust evidence that what we eat has a significant impact on carbon emissions and that this is “driven particularly through the amount of (especially grain-fed) livestock and products”. 

This is the Soil Association’s position too, and not just from a climate change perspective. Many of the grain dependent, intensive animal systems around the world are inhumane, dependent on antibiotics, and produce extraordinary amounts of manures that can be a problem in themselves in less well-regulated countries than the UK. 

Major shift

Finally, did the IPCC (as the Guardian claims) promote “a major shift towards vegetarian and vegan diets”? Well, no. 

The IPCC does present a table showing a hierarchy of diet patterns, with vegan and vegetarian diets shown to have the lowest greenhouse gas footprint, but it does not go on to propose that these diets should be prioritised. 

The final summary for policy-makers promotes: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems.”  

They add: “The question is not about eating less meat for everyone, but to adopt sustainable supply and consumption practices across a broad range of food systems.”  And so say all of us.

The Author

Helen Browning is an organic farmer and business owner. She is chief executive of the Soil Association and a member of the Food Ethics Council.

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