Two recent papers by British and other scientists are calling for big changes in the type and amounts of meat we eat. One of these papers, co-authored by Professor Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, calls for a 50% reduction in total meat consumption. The other, co-authored by Professor Pete Smith from Aberdeen University, seeks a big reduction in the number of sheep, cattle and other ruminants. Large numbers of campaigners also see reducing meat, especially red meat, as the single most important change to make farming more sustainable and all of us healthier.
The Sustainable Food Trust has reflected some of this opinion on this blog, because we agree that meat is a key issue and we want to help stimulate debate and interest in this important subject.
However, we have grave concerns that the way this ‘eat less meat’ message has been conceived and articulated over many years – it has in fact been running in various forms for more than 30 years – and in its current manifestation, is actually part of the problem, not part of the solution – making agriculture less, not more, sustainable, making diets more unhealthy, food production less secure, whilst destroying wildlife and planetary ecosystems in the process. 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.
Cattle and sheep, we are repeatedly told, are one of the main causes of global warming due to their methane emissions, and they are making us ill because red meat causes heart disease, cancer, type-2 diabetes, low sperm counts and increases our risk of dying early. So you might wonder how we can possibly justify our position?
Let’s look for a moment at what has actually happened since 1980 to meat sales in the UK. Beef sales have halved from 208 to 104 grams per person per week (pppw). In 1950 they were close to 250g. Lamb and mutton sales have fallen even more dramatically from 128 to 36g pppw. Milk consumption has fallen by about one-third, with a huge switch from full cream to semi-skimmed milk. We have also largely switched from animal fats to vegetable oils.
Consumption of (mostly intensively produced) chicken though, the supposedly healthy meat, has almost doubled from about 140 to 270 grams pppw. In 1950 we ate on average just 19 grams of chicken per week. 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.
So how can we make sense of all this? One aspect may be that while most consumers think of pork as a white meat, scientists who study the links between diet and health classify it as a red meat. When they come up with a study linking red meat to a particular health problem there is a major tendency to assume that this must apply to beef and lamb because these meats are high in saturated fat, and everyone knows, or thinks they know, that saturated fat is harmful to our health.
One key way in which links between diet and health are made is by researchers contacting people suffering from cancer, heart disease or other diseases and interviewing them about the foods they normally eat. Once they have enough data, this is compared with similar information from a randomly selected group of people of the same age and background, who don’t have the disease in question, to see if those who eat more or less of various foods have a higher or lower incidence of that particular disease.
If you then combine the results of every credible study, it is assumed, not unreasonably, that this should give you a fairly reliable answer. This is what the World Cancer Research Fund did a few years ago – combine all the published research linking diet with cancer. They found a small but definite increased risk of developing colon cancer in people who ate large amounts of red meat. This led the Government and the NHS to recommend that anyone eating more than 90 grams of beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison or goat meat per day should reduce this to 70 grams or less. However, while all red meat is lumped together in most studies and in recommendations, it is far from clear whether this link applies to all red meats.
In the UK a large proportion of the pork we eat is consumed as bacon or ham. The links with cancer and red meat overall are only slight, but with processed red meats they are more significant. One possible explanation is that the additives used in processing, such as nitrates and nitrites, are forming cancer-causing substances in our intestines. Pork can be cured perfectly well just with salt, the only problem is that it has a very much shorter shelf life which doesn’t suit modern food distribution systems.
But, what about the slight association with red meat that isn’t processed? Assume for a moment that you have never read a story about red meat in the Daily Express or anywhere else for that matter. Close your eyes and consider, just based on your common sense, whether would you expect meat from sheep or cattle grazing wild grasses on a Scottish hillside to be better or worse for your health than meat from chickens reared entirely indoors and fed a diet no bird would ever encounter naturally? If you come to the same conclusion as me, the explanation must lie somewhere in how some red meat animals are fed and reared.
The Sustainable Food Trust starts from an evolutionary perspective. Modern humans have evolved, since the last Ice Age, in a range of ways, largely governed by climate and locally available sources of food. Evolution, through Darwinian survival of the fittest and a touch of Neo-Lamarckism epigenetics, caused populations to adapt to the available food supply in the regions where they lived.
When our early ancestors first started killing and eating the wild ancestors of today’s cattle, on the luscious grasslands of what is now the Sahara Desert, it is possible the meat didn’t suit them all. Some may even have died young as a result. But we are descended from those who were made more, not less, healthy by eating red meat; and we carry their genes. Similarly, before the introduction of processed foods into Greenland, the Inuit tribes became perfectly adapted to eating seal meat, even though it is very high in saturated fat.
So, even before we look at any scientific evidence, it seems far more likely to us that if we eat beef or lamb from animals grazing grass we will be more healthy than if we eat chicken, beef or pork from animals kept on concrete or bare earth and fed a diet they would never encounter naturally. Many studies provide a hint that this may indeed be the case, since grass-fed beef and lamb consistently has higher level of the important omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed equivalents, and a vastly better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than all grain fed meat, as well as higher levels of antioxidants and other beneficial micronutrients.
But this raises the next issue. Even grass is not all the same, some is heavily fertilised, some is far more natural. And while studies only rarely distinguish between say pork and beef, they never distinguish meat from animals predominantly reared on grain and those predominantly reared on grass, let alone what type of grass it is and how it was grown.
In addition, a high proportion of the studies linking red meat to health problems have been carried out in countries like the USA where most cattle are raised in feed-lots and fed a mixture of maize, soya and chopped straw, with no grass or hay whatsoever. But even in the pastoral landscape of the UK, a proportion of cattle and even some sheep are reared like most chickens, with little or no grass or grass products in their diet.
That only scratches the surface of the health issues, but let’s now take an example from the environmental side of the debate. Cattle and sheep are routinely condemned as worse than chickens or pigs because they produce much more methane, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. But 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. So in the long term cattle and sheep are not contributing to the relentless increase in CO2 levels that pose such threat to climate stability. This only fully applies however, if no nitrogen fertiliser is used, because manufacturing a tonne of nitrogen puts the equivalent of almost 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s also of note that about as much methane comes from landfill as from ruminants, and much of that is from decomposing vegetable food waste.
Almost three-quarters of British farmland (73%) is currently used to grow grass, and that is because much of it is not suitable for crop production. But with demand for chicken increasing year after year since 1950 and demand for beef and lamb falling, well over a million acres of grassland in the UK have been ploughed up and converted to grain production to feed the extra chickens, while even larger areas of virgin land, some of it belonging to indigenous tribes in South America with no paper land rights, are being cleared and ploughed to grow the soya to feed chickens to supply the growing demand. Incredibly Defra makes no allowance for carbon sequestration in grassland and hides away the emissions associated with ploughing grassland with those for carbon sequestration associated with new forest plantations. Emissions associated with land use change in other countries and imported livestock feed are also not included in calculations or policy decisions, and as a result of this we have been seriously misled on the true impact of different livestock products. Converting forest or grassland to crop production puts huge amounts of carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere adding to global warming. But that’s only part of the problem. The loss of traditional species-rich grassland and the corresponding rise of cereal monocultures in it’s place, has been a factor in the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects, in the latter case because it removes a vital source of food at a critically import time of year when few other nectar sources are available.
Grassland also takes carbon out of the atmosphere. For several decades the carbon sequestered by grassland following prolonged arable cropping will exceed the global warming impact of methane from animals grazing that land. There is still dispute about whether soils continue to take carbon out of the atmosphere after that, but several recent studies suggest they do this by storing carbon in the roots of grass deep down in sub-soil.
But there is another even more important issue, which is just about never considered by food campaigners – how we grow the grains that form such a vital part of diets globally.
Almost all food production currently depends on large quantities of nitrogen fertiliser produced in fertiliser plants. Globally over 100 million tonnes is used annually. However, the cost of the pollution caused by the use of nitrogen fertiliser in food production vastly outweighs the economic benefit to farmers of using it. The benefit to farmers throughout the EU has been put at between 20-80 billion euros annually but the cost of the pollution is between 35-230 billion euros. These hidden costs are paid by taxpayers, society and the environment.
Nitrogen fertiliser is mostly produced from natural gas, which is a finite resource. It could be made from coal, but the environmental costs would be higher and at the current rate of use known global coal reserves will last only 118 years. Yet, nitrogen fertiliser is a key input for most current farming systems. Stop using it, without redesigning those systems, and global food production would crash. Farmers could and should use nitrogen more carefully, but that will only delay a crisis slightly; it won’t prevent it. The only highly productive and sustainable alternative is to introduce nitrogen into the soil by growing legumes. Peas and beans produce some nitrogen but the plants that fix the largest amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere are forage plants like clover and lucerne. However we cannot eat these crops, and that is a key reason why more grazing ruminants will be needed in future. Clover grown with grass produces healthy beef and lamb but can indefinitely put enough nitrogen into the soil, free of environmental costs, to grow crops of grain three years in a row, after the clover (and grass) is ploughed up.
And this is why to make all agriculture more sustainable we would need more, not less cattle and sheep. To make this possible we’d need to eat only about a quarter as much chicken and pork as now, but increase our consumption of beef and lamb by about 50%. And that would still be 50% less than we ate in the UK in 1980.
Feature image by Steph French