When it comes to talking about meat, and especially when discussing a tax on red meat, we must be careful to differentiate between livestock that are part of the problem and those that are part of the solution. While we agree that the polluter pays principle should be applied to food, and the sugar tax is a good example of this, there is a real problem with the blanket use of the term, ‘red meat’, which is freely used but is flawed on two counts. Firstly, it is generally used to refer to all ruminant meat, meat from pigs and all processed red meats. This is irrational and misleading because these meats can be produced in very different ways which have very different impacts on nutrient composition and the environment. Secondly, in failing to differentiate between methods of production, the blanket use of the term ‘red meat’ is intellectually sloppy, creates confusion amongst the public and does more harm than good when used to advocate meat taxes.
Two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass, mostly for sound environmental reasons. This is a major carbon store and one of our most important food-producing resources. Ploughing large areas to grow crops would add to, rather than reduce, climate change. Keeping ruminants on this land is the only practical way to get dietary proteins and fats from it. If we were to stop doing this we would only put additional pressure on rain forests in South America to grow yet more soya, and in S.E Asia to produce yet more palm oil.
It should also be noted that anti-meat campaigns are often a little selective in their choice of evidence. They fail to mention a major study published in The Lancet last year which found that people who regularly eat meat (including red, but not processed meat) are 25% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people who did not eat meat, providing, and this is the important qualification, that both meat eaters and non-meat eaters are eating an otherwise balanced diet.
Methane from ruminants is an issue, but it has been grossly exaggerated, since the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled from the atmosphere via photosynthesis in the plants that ruminants consume. In contrast, methane from fossil fuels is responsible for a third more methane than ruminants, and all the carbon in that methane is additional ‘fossil’ carbon. This adds to carbon dioxide emissions, which also mostly come from fossil fuels.
So, let’s try to have a more balanced debate about these issues in future.
Here is my previous letter to The Guardian from 2016
Photograph: Patrick Gruban
Article amended on 9th November 2018 from “This is our major carbon store” to “This is a major carbon store.”
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