Knowledge for better food systems

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Response to Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust

July 10, 2014
Tara Garnett

Dear Richard

Thank you for this lengthy response to my commentary.  I will confine myself to a few quick points and clarifications, structured according to your headings 

Dear Richard

Thank you for this lengthy response to my commentary.  I will confine myself to a few quick points and clarifications, structured according to your headings 

1. Red meat consumption statistics: Figure 1.13 (p29) of the FAO-OECD Agricultural Outlook report (2013) indicates that globally beef, sheep and dairy products – ie. all outputs from ruminant systems - are expected to grow.

2. Grass and grazing animals: I agree with your concerns about the conversion of land for pig and poultry feed – as I have already said consumption of all animal products needs to be reduced.

3. Healthy and unhealthy diets: I already agreed that the evidence on the health impacts of different meat products is nuanced and complex.  And since this is the case, and since neither of us is expert in this area, and as association is not causation, and the issues here are riddled with confounding factors, then we need an evidence- rather than advocacy-based approaches,  involving nutritionists and epidemiologists. The point I am trying to make is more simple: there is plenty of research showing that diets containing small quantities of meat, or none at all, are compatible with good nutritional health.  This is not the same as saying that meat (of any or all types) is bad for you.

4. Organic farming – fair point, especially since organic farmers certainly use grains to feed their livestock (including ruminant livestock in the case of dairy farmers).

5. Would there be enough food? Again I agree with you about the need to reduce waste and to stop feeding grains to livestock.  I just don’t think that we should also expand our consumption of beef.  Instead we should be increasing the consumption of plant based foods in our diet. You infer throughout, despite my emphasising to the contrary, that I am comparing ruminant meat unfavarourably with intensively reared pig and poultry meat.  I am not.  My view is that meat consumption across the board – of all kinds - should be cut down. I should emphasise ‘cut down’ – not eliminated.  Moreover, in accordance with the principles of contraction and convergence, but obviously also subject to geographical variations, rich high-consuming people should cut down their consumption so that poor people can consume more, to the benefit of their nutrition and livelihoods. 

6. Evolution and human adaptation: I’m not sure what your point is here, but see my point about diets above.

7. Methane: all GHGs are a problem and I agree that we shouldn’t focus on methane at the expense of CO2 from fossil fuels or indeed land use change.  But methane is a certainly problem as is nitrous oxide.  Livestock systems – monogastric and ruminant – contribute substantially to N2O emissions.  This contribution is both direct (via dung and urine) and indirect –from the cultivation of feed crops, particularly those grown with synthetic fertilisers.

8. Land use change: not sure what your point is here.  We are in agreement that we should not be converting permanent pastures or forest.  A shift towards less meat intensive diets would reduce pressures on land and land conversion.

9. Grassfed beef and lamb: yes, we should be eating the whole animal.  See latest report on Changing Consumption (see Box 1) which makes that same point.  But I don’t think it follows that we should also be rearing and eating more of them.

10. Carbon sequestration: I will restate the point I made in my last commentary: 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.   

And I would also add this comment from Professor Pete Smith, a soil scientist at the University of Aberdeen:

“ There is no evidence of high carbon storage under these deep rooting mixes. There are some biomes with permanent deep rooted species, but still the C is concentrated in the topsoil (some deep roots still leaves the vast majority of the root mass close to the surface). Some C will be transferred deeper – but not much. If grasslands (on the same grass species on which the flux measurements were taken) were sinking carbon at the rates suggested, they would contain twice as much carbon as a metre deep peatland which are ~100% organic matter. Dig down as far as you like and you will not find this much carbon. So we agree that deep rooted species may put small amounts of C into the subsoil compared to shallow rooted species – but nowhere near at the rates claimed based on flux measurements. Grasslands are large C stocks, but are not perpetual C sinks (at least not at the rates claimed from extrapolation of flux measurements). The mass balance does not make sense – making this statement untenable: “Grazing mixtures like this will have an almost infinite capacity to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil at great depths”.

It’s also worth reminding you of this paper by Stehfest et al which finds that a transition to a plant based diet, far from leading to ploughing up of land for arable crops would lead to the release of up to 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland for wilderness, resulting in a large carbon uptake from this vegetation regrowth. Additionally, methane and nitrous oxide emission would be reduced substantially.  This is simply a theotical study and I’m not saying that we should suddenly stop rearing livestock on pastures they’ve been grazing upon for hundreds if not thousands of years.  I’m simply to point out that the potential alternative to the grazing Eden you depict is not a world where all land is ploughed up for intensive monocultures – but rather the reverse – the release of land for other purposes, including for carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

11. Organic farming:  Again I think you have misinterpreted me, Richard.  I totally agree that we need to increase the use of forage legumes and reduce reliance on synthetic nitrogen.  Where have I stated otherwise? I just don’t believe that we should be dogmatic about prescribing or proscribing any one course of action.   

12. Your final comments:  You make a whole range of points here and since I don’t have time to go into them in detail I will just make three comments.  On per capita consumption – I think you might have got that figure from something in The Guardian but, but according to the more official National Diet and Nutrition Survey, average UK daily consumption of red meat (which includes pork) is 71g/day. Looking at the appendices ( Table K 1.a), beef, veal and lamb accounts for about 50g a day (ie. of this 71g figure).  To which one should add 146 g of milk, 17g cheese (equivalent to about 170 milk) and 23g yoghurt (perhaps 30g milk). Plus about an egg a day.  Your concern is with ‘low’ levels of beef consumption – mine is with high consumption of animal products, all of which, in their varying ways, incur high environmental costs.  Plus NDNS food diaries have to deal with persistent problems of underreporting.

I agree – and have already made this point in my last commentary -  that some grassfed beef production is a good thing.  I am certainly not in the ‘all red meat is evil’ camp.  But that doesn’t mean it should be expanded. 

On palm oil – yes this is a very major concern, on a par with the problems posed by growing demand for meat and dairy products.  The drivers of growing palm oil production are complex and include not just food but also cosmetics, detergents and increasingly biofuels . I This interesting looking and recently funded project by the Wellcome Trust on palm oil should help improve undertanding and I’d rather wait and see what it has to say before jumping to conclusions.  On rapeseed: it’s worth noting that rapeseed is used as an animal feed, particularly for dairy cows. You say that you are not in favour of feeding livestock on anything but grass.  That’s fine.  But if we do, and as I have pointed out in my last commentary, the land required to achieve levels of meat consumption even half of what we eat today would be enormous.

I think we’ve now aired our views on the subject.  From now on I think we’ll probably just need to agree to disagree.


Julian Water21's picture
Submitted by Julian Water21 (not verified) on

Dear Tara

As you say in respect of diet, the 'confounding factors' here are vast, and of course this applies to this whole environment subject area.  'Science' - absolutely vital though it is - can only ever be partial in its view and often self-selecting in its perspectives.  When driven by the commercial imperative this becomes dangerous; hence the need to balance with traditional and indigenous knowledge and interests.

From our community-interest perspective (LA21) in the Cotswolds, the shift over past half century from pasture livestock to arable (much of it to feed livestock) has been catastrophic in terms of soil humus/nutrient/carbon losses (up to 60 tonnes/ha/year; at fertiliser value up to £100/tonne):

The wider environmental and economic effects/consequences here are very substantial, largely unreported and might be termed 'the unaccounted externalised costs of agriculture', summary here (extract from confidential reporting for water company aquifer study) :

•  Increased flood & drought cost largely results from aridification of topsoil, compromised aquifer recharge, increased run-off & evaporation (intensified rainfall).

•  Flood damage & shrinkage of house foundations are the biggest UK insurance cost. (UK home insurance premiums may be surcharged 10% for raised flood risk).

•  Agricultural chemical contamination of aquifers (nitrate & pesticide) is a major limitation on the UK's public water supply. (increased water treatment costs and leads to greater costs for water storage and transfer).

•  Huge siltation effects of watercourses, loss of nutrient, eco-toxicological effects and contamination of coastal waters.

•  Even livestock farming implicated. eg over-the-counter anthelmintics - increased mobilisation of manure into watercourses – compromised nutrient cycling/aquatic eco-toxic effects.

•  Nutrition & public health standards.

                         …. other social/environmental costs .

Short 7 min working edit summary film of problems :

When we looked overseas for solutions (Australia/2009) we found a range of common sense approaches (film 45 mins) that seem very effective and widely applicable (but not with much scope for corporate investment) :

The application of low levels of composted manures and correct pasture cultivar selection/grazing practice (Rob Richmond/Nuffield Scholar) seems a good solution (16mins film, Rebuilding Soils) :

In our area unless demonstrated otherwise any other farming practice could be viewed as illegitimate and not worthy of any grant or other support.

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