FCRN commentary on Sustainable Food Trust blog on red meat.
Some of you may have noticed a recently posted blog by the Sustainable Food Trust’s policy director, Richard Young. In it, Richard comments on the growing scientific attention being paid to meat eating, and highlights two of the most recent academic studies concluding that we need to eat less meat, and in particular less red meat if we are to address the many environmental challenges we face. However, Richard then goes on to say: “Contrary to most other campaign groups, in direct opposition to them in fact, we believe that the consumption of red meat, dairy produce and animal fats needs to be increased, not decreased.”
He then makes a number of points about the health profile and environmental sustainability of red meat. We at the FCRN would like to offer our own commentary on some of these statements.
Richard begins by saying that red meat and milk consumption in the UK has fallen. This is true for the UK (although the decline in milk has been partially offset by the increase in other dairy products). But our comment here is that at a global level the picture is one of increase.
He then rightly points out that much of the evidence on the health impacts of red meat (and other kinds of meat) is associational and that there are a great many confounding factors that need to be taken in to account (and indeed studies do tend to take them into account) when linking meat or red meat consumption to particular health outcomes. The pathways linking meat (and red meat and processed meat) consumption to health are certainly complex and indeed the FCRN has explored some of this complexity in our discussion paper, “What is a sustainable healthy diet” here . Having said that, the blog then goes onto shift the health ‘blame’ onto grain fed pork and to infer an association between chicken consumption and various negative health impacts: “Consumption of (mostly intensively produced) chicken though, the supposedly healthy meat, has almost doubled from about 140 to 270 grams pppw. … Yet during this period obesity, type-2 diabetes and dementia have become major problems, while the underlying rates of heart disease and cancer have barely improved and may even have worsened, if all factors are considered” – an inference that is not born out by evidence.
Richard Young’s preferred approach is that we should all be eating more organic, grass fed beef, and indeed he argues that we are evolved to eat this way – an argument akin to those made by paleo diet advocates. Leaving aside for a moment what the global environmental implications might be of 9 billion people all eating more grass-fed red meat than your average UK citizen, it is worth noting that the idea we are all evolutionarily ‘meant’ to eat in a certain way is somewhat spurious - see for example a debunking article here. The great thing about humans is their adaptability to a very wide range of diets.
Turning now to the environment: Richard Young’s main points are as follows:
a. He suggests methane isn’t really a problem: He writes: “methane breaks down in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide and water after 7-12 years, and the total amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is exactly the same as the amount taken out by the growing grasses that grass-fed animals consume.” This is not the case. Averaged over a 100 year period, the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is about 25 (carbon dioxide is 1). Viewed over a 20 year period it is a much higher 72. See for example the IPCC on this. From a policy perspective, one might argue that, given the need reduce GHG concentrations in the atmosphere as fast as possible, addressing methane, which has a very high short term GWP, might be a sensible start.
b. He argues that the demand for grains to feed poultry (and pigs) has led to the ploughing up of UK grasslands and, overseas, to the ploughing up of land for soy destined for UK markets- leading not just to soil carbon losses but also the loss of indigenous land rights. He also says that the carbon sequestering potential of grasslands is not currently given consideration and it should be.
What should we make of these statements? For a start, the ploughing up of UK grasslands for grain production is indeed a problem. These grains go to feed not only chickens and pigs but also beef and dairy cattle. Of course Richard’s point is that grain feeding to livestock is at the root of the problems, whether this feed goes to chickens or to ruminants. However it is extremely difficult to see how everyone in the UK could eat ‘more’ red meat than they currently do on UK grasslands alone. At a global level, if all 9 billion of us ate (higher than) UK average quantities of grass fed beef we would be deforesting right left and centre.
As to the problem of soy (which is imported) - this is certainly a problem. Pigs and chickens are the main consumers of soy, although dairy cows consume considerable quantities too. The logical conclusion one might draw from this observation though, is that we need to eat less meat, not that we need to eat red meat instead of white meat. Note an excellent study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change and written by a team at Cranfield University, which modelled various scenarios of meat consumption in the UK and their impacts on land use – it is summarised here: The study models among other things a switch in UK consumption from red to white meat, and finds that while switch leads to some increase in land requirements overseas (for feed) this is over compensated for by a reduction in UK land requirements. A reduction meat consumption across all meat types leads to a substantial release of land which in turn could be used for diverse purposes including rewilding, afforestation or other forms of carbon sequestration.
This leads on to the grazing lands sequester carbon issue. In his blog, Richard highlights ‘recent studies’ that show that grazed grassland continues to take carbon out of the soil. But in response, it is worth pointing to a recent article in Global Change Biology by Professor Pete Smith, a soil scientist at Aberdeen University, and lead author of the IPCC’s chaper on agricultural mitigation in AR5 (see Chapter 11). The abstract of the article says this (bold emphasis is mine):
“It is increasingly commonly suggested that grasslands are a perpetual sink for carbon, and that just maintaining grasslands will yield a net carbon sink. I examine the evidence for this from repeated soil surveys, long term grassland experiments and simple mass balance calculations. I conclude that it is untenable that grasslands act as a perpetual carbon sink, and the most likely explanation for observed grassland carbon sinks over short periods is legacy effects of land use and land management prior to the beginning of flux measurement periods. Simply having grassland does not result is a carbon sink, but judicious management or previously poorly managed grasslands can increase the sink capacity. Given that grasslands are a large store of carbon, and that it is easier and faster for soils to lose carbon that it is for them to gain carbon, it is an important management target ton maintain these stocks.” The full citation for this is Smith P (2014). Do grasslands act as a perpetual sink for carbon? Glob Chang Biol. 2014 Mar 7. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12561. [Epub ahead of print]
In short, while there are important reasons for maintaining existing grasslands (as carbon stores and for their role in maintining biodiversity) grasslands do not constitute a get-out-of-jail free card for carbon sequestion.
Richard’s final point in the blog is that synthetic nitrogen is the cause of all our troubles and should be replaced by grasslands containing clovers. Synthetic nitrogen use and overuse has indeed cause a vast number of problems, including GHG emissions, eutrophication, ammonia emissions and more. But Richard does not address the land-requirement implications of a switch over to synthetic nitrogen free organic agriculture (although others have – a great deal more land would be required to feed us at current consumption levels – see for example articles here , here and here – although things would be easier if we ate less meat, including red meat (something Richard doesn’t want us to do).
This has been a long commentary which perhaps pays more attention to the SFT blog than it deserves. The two main points to note are these:
1. If we all ate red meat at the levels that Richard Young apparently seems to recommend, then we would have no forest left on this planet at all.
2. Given the increasing demand for meat globally, the evidence is clear for the need for countries with relatively high consumption levels (including the UK) and high consuming individuals to reduce their consumption of meat of all kinds.