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.

I love ewe red meatHowever, 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 acdeforestationres 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.

clover, a nitrogen fixing legume

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, in text images by Steph French, MartinLeBar and Wakx

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  • Sam

    You are joking? It’s clearly cherry picking season at the Sustainable Food Trust

    • Casa Rosa Farm

      Sam, I’m curious what your farm management plan does that is so much better? Please, if it’s worthy of a quick net post by you, then surely it is worth educating millions of other skilled growers across the planet of how you do it. All ears. Growers’s experience only please, life is too short for bs.

  • Iacchus Dionysus

    These points by Allan Savory bolster your position on the environmental advantages of managing ruminants on grass.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change

  • BS Detector

    Nitrogen is finite? Er, only the same way air is…

    • Rob

      No, it says that natural gas is finite.

  • http://foodandland.org Daniel Kieve

    Very interesting article. However, the problem of ‘meatification’ mentioned by Tom Levitt in last week’s article, applies to ALL meat consumption, including ruminant livestock animals (cows, sheep and goats) particularly cattle which are the least efficient of all meat types in terms of land use, requiring up to 50 times more land area than chicken to produce equivalent weight of meat. Cattle are responsible for water and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from methane as well as being a significant source of ammonia (leading to formation of particulates), and nitrous oxide, with methane contributing to  ground level ozone pollution and smog. 70% of Brazil’s deforestation emissions this century have been due to making room for cattle grazing (compared to 30% for soya plantations..mainly used for chicken and pig feed). The overstocking of cattle has also been responsible for the degradation of soil through compaction and erosion. The methane given off by ruminants is not only a potent greenhouse gas 84 times as potent as CO2 but is also responsible for damage to crops …including clovers and legumes …indirectly, through the production of ground level ozone for which methane is a key precursor chemical. Ground level ozone crop damage is estimated to be as much as $25bn dollars per year. Ruminants gave off over 88Million tonnes (Mt) of methane in 2012, compared to 37.4Mt methane from landfill and are certainly the largest single anthropogenic source of methane globally. We need to reduce ALL types of meat consumption…eating less and better quality meat (from free range / extensive/ organic farming) when we do as we go about our ‘demeatification’ before lack of resources impose it on us anyway.
    With increasing impacts from climate change such as increased risk of flooding and volatile crop yields, we need a more efficient and resilient source of protein and calories than pasture fed beef which requires up to 47kg feed per kg beef..more plant protein would be better (much higher efficiency than meat) and would help ensure we could feed the growing global population. We also need more managed forests and tree planting, including in upland areas, to help stave off lowland flood risk as well as sequester carbon. Unfortunately, rather than trees being an integral part of farming in the UK, currently (as discussed in an article by @GeorgeMonbiot) upland livestock farming is actually diminishing such natural protection from trees due to a perverse CAP subsidy system which incentivises tree and shrub clearance rather than tree planting.

  • pinquiniusch

    Very interesting article, thank you!

    I just read Cows save the planet! and other improbable ways to restore the soil to heal the earth…

    It’s about time that sustainable food enthousiasts let go of their vegetarian beliefs…

  • http://journalisted.com/arran-frood Arran Frood

    An original article with some good points you won’t read much elsewhere. There is a useful commentary on this blog post from the Food Climate Research Network: http://www.fcrn.org.uk/blog/fcrn/fcrn-commentary-sustainable-food-trust-blog-red-meat

    Particularly on the methane stats Gunner, which it says are erroneous.

  • https://www.foe.co.uk/page/land-food-water vicki Hird

    This article rightly broadens out the debate from the crude headlines on meat. And presents some of the evidence for promoting grass-fed animals over grain fed. Frustratingly though it ignores the fact that environmental groups have been saying this for years. Reports on the benefits of pasture fed (not forgetting free range animals fed on by-products and food waste) have been launched and debated by NGOs over past 6 years in the media and in the corridors of power. {I can send links to loads of FoE work on this}. Groups like Friends of the Earth, WWF and CIWF have been clear that there are broad benefits of well managed high welfare livestock farming in a mixed system – including biodiversity, here and overseas, and rural economies. The carbon capture and health benefits are being increasingly recognised though they are less clear cut. But it must be within an eat less context.

    It would be good to see acknowledgement of the work and aims of these organisations. And to avoid getting into a fight when we are essentially after the same goals.* Those promoting factory farmed meat would like nothing better.

    Whilst the article mentions the potential carbon storage capacity of grass (though much UK grass is loaded with inorganic fertilisers and so less than helpful), the article does not focus on the very acute and very urgent need to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in all sectors including livestock – yes this means ending factory farming which has such a huge impact but it does also mean ruminants. Methane is a far more potent GHG than carbon dioxide (not less as the article suggests) – so we should be cutting methane faster to have the urgent reductions we need. There is a double moral imperative – to reduce our emissions (and land and water use) to allow developing countries both leeway to increase theirs from a very low point if desirable and to reduce the climate impacts they are already experiencing.

    Phasing out factory farming is key but so is the message that we need to eat less. Purely saying eat beef and lamb instead (or more?) would be misleading and confusing. It also ignores the realities of people being used to chicken and pork (and beef from cull dairy cows..). We need a more nuanced and clever and positive approach tailored to different consumers.

    But the reality is that if we care about climate change as well as rural livelihoods and public health we need to work together, now, to promote the message around eating both less and better meat. And it is not going to be easy. I hope people will feel able to support the work of the Eating Better Alliance. (www.eating_better.org ) use new materials such as the new Eat Smart Activity Pack (https://www.foe.co.uk/node/22131) which SFT wrote about, and promote better meat initiatives such as organic and pasture fed..

    *i.e. about tackling the whole planetary emergency related to land use (not that we have to bang on about it) not purely about promoting extensive farming and fine dining.

    • Leafie.com

      Thanks for your interesting and informed response.

  • Jane Wright

    What about animal feed? Most upland farmers i know feed their cattle and sheep all year round despite them being ‘grass fed’ (not the farmers)

  • DietititianScotland

    Some great points, particularly about studies supposedly linking red meat intake with bowel cancer. These are mainly US studies (intensively farmed cereal-fed beef) which don’t account for confounding variables such as meat processing, cooking methods, physical activity and dietary fibre consumption. Typically, high meat consumers are also smokers with a higher body mass index, who take less physical activity. Clearly bowel cancer is a lifestyle condition which demands a lifestyle approach. It is entirely possible that diets containing lean red meat, appropriately reared and cooked, and served with vegetables are cancer-protective, not cancer-causing.

  • Amanda Kay

    Overall a convincing article, although given existing over-consumption in the west I would disagree with any urge to increase high land use sources of food. I would have thought a push for organic grass fed beef/lamb over grain fed beef/lamb or conventionally raised chicken and pork and a higher priority for diverse organic vegetables and legumes, would be preferable.

    Regardless, I’d love it if you would disclose your funding sources and/or major donors to clear up any suspicions and make the article all the more powerful.

  • Casa Rosa Farm

    The only folks who listen to monbiot’s opinion are the same that have to listen to this article’s real world experiences. There is lot’s of hope

  • panayota anna

    dont slaughter the chickens- sheep or cow for meat- use their manures to make the soil more fertile and grow and eat more fruits and veggies- farm fish not mammals- we are ready for the next level of human development of land and mind and soul- truly loving the earth and the dominion over all things granted to us to be done in peace and true compassion not just humane-

  • Isabel Natrins

    I completely agree with the points raised by Lynda Brown…a woman after my own heart! But, I have reason to be a little more optimistic about selling the ‘eat sustainably’ message to the public…

    My work – as a real food ambassador, nutritional chef & tutor, speaker and writer – (Once Upon a Cook…Food Wisdom, Better Living) is concerned with helping people to change the way they shop, cook and eat along the lines of Lynda’s penultimate paragraph “Last week was an exception…..”

    As well as equipping folks with the skills to cook from scratch and ditch processed foods, I consider a crucial part of my ‘purpose’ is to raise awareness and understanding of how the complex interdependencies within and between local and global food production methods impact the nutritional value of the food people are eating (animal, grain and plant based); how this impacts their health; and ultimately, the planet.

    I’d like to add two more elements into Lynda’s holistic mix: a) the diminishing capacity of health care services, in the West and globally, adequately to meet the demands of the exponential rise in chronic diseases, and b) the role of the human microbiome in preventing disease and how a ‘western’ diet of highly processed, industrially produced ‘fake’ foods lacks the CRITICAL probiotic content to maintain a healthy gut flora and so keep disease at bay.

    In my experience of both teaching and speaking (most recently to 50 very ‘conservative’ Rotarians and their wives), when people have the time and opportunity to consider and discuss these interdependent issues, and understand that REAL food, traditionally and sustainably raised and grown on clean, healthy, unsprayed pasture and sourced directly from the farmer, grower or producer is not only nutritionally superior and good medicine, but tastes fabulous and is actually CHEAPER than impoverished supermarket or high street offerings – the biggest response, by far, is “My God – there’s food for thought. Tell us more, Isabel…we want to make a change”.

  • Rod

    Richard Young wrote: “..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.”

    Actually the only reason we “cannot” eat those crops is that we are not applying technology that was developed decades ago that can extract over 70% of the protein and other nutrients from such leafy crops. It is a mechanical process that simply pulverises the crop and separates digestible cell contents from the indigestible cellulose components. In a low-yield version it has operated on a large scale for over 30 years, with a protein/lipid concentrate being sold commercially for animal and fish feed. The product is not offered commercially for humans, but there is no fundamental reason why it should not be: the nutritive profile is very good.

    Leafy crops can have double the protein yield per hectare of soybeans, four times that of grass-fed milk, and more than ten times that of grass-fed beef. There is virtually zero greenhouse gas emission or water pollution, especially with a nitrogen-fixing lucerne or clover-based crop.

    Forage crops are agronomically robust and usually perennial, so the soil damage of annual cultivation is avoided. Pesticide use could be a lot lower than for arable agriculture or horticulture, because there is no need to protect the vulnerable parts of the plant that we conventionally use for food, such as grain, tubers and tender leaves.

    The cellulosic components remaining after extraction of the cell contents are reduced to fine fibre by the processing and are low in lignin content, so would be well suited to rapid conversion to biofuels, and the net carbon footprint could be a sink. Alternatively the combined cellulose hydrolysates and plant sugars could be used for making other more valuable fermentation products such as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, or simply used to make high-digestibility silage for ruminant feed.

    When eventually the real costs of grain and meat production – greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, deforestation, soil loss and resource depletion – are properly attributed, the use of leaf proteins might get some attention. Some work on converting the protein to interesting foods, in the way that Beyond Meat has been transforming pulse crops, would
    help.

  • Sam

    I am an organic ruminant farmer, I also eat primaly. I want to thank you for such a modern and intelligent take on what is common sense and yet completely ignored within the media. example Michael Mosley’s can I eat meat programme.
    Thanks

  • Tim C

    While methane breaks down relatively quickly into CO2, its global warming potential (GWP) over 20 years is 72 times that of CO2 and over 100 years it’s still 25 times that of CO2. One cannot therefore simply say that the climate impact (looking solely at carbon based gases) is neutral. (The article doesn’t actually say this but it does seem to imply it). That might be why you haven’t seen the argument before. It’s a whole load more complex than that.