Calls for a tax on meat and dairy products (Report, 8 November) are misguided and would increase, not decrease, overall emissions from agriculture. Instead we should improve production systems by taxing nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides, the underlying causes of environmental damage associated with food systems.

Something close to mass hysteria has developed in relation to cattle and other ruminants since the publication in 2006 of Livestock’s Long Shadow, by the Food and Agriculture Organisation. This report and its successor in 2013 are both flawed and misleading. They conflate the emissions from the destruction of virgin land in South America, the root cause of which is not chicken production, but our insatiable demand for vegetable oils, with the actual emissions from ruminants. They also failed to balance this by including emissions from the conversion of land to grow crops for human consumption, or the carbon sequestration associated with the planting of forests in parts of the world, such as the UK, that was taking place at the same time.

We do urgently need to reduce methane emissions, but fossil fuel extraction should be our primary focus because this puts new carbon into the atmosphere, whereas ruminants recycle existing atmospheric carbon and, under appropriate management, store large amounts of it in soils under grass.

Letter published in The Guardian on Monday 14th November 2016

Photograph: James Stringer

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