How to produce food in ways that keep both us and the planet healthy, is one of the defining questions of the 21st century. The SFT has previously investigated some of the environmental dimensions of this issue, but a major study published this week looks set to provoke controversy, since it suggests that current advice on fats, carbohydrates and red meat is almost entirely wrong. SFT policy director, Richard Young, long an advocate of diets containing meat and fat from organic and grass-fed livestock, reflects on the findings within the SFT’s wider views on sustainable farming and healthy diets.

I’ve just come back from the Shambala Festival in Northamptonshire; my first ever music festival, at the age of 68. Well, I suppose it was now or never. I was told the festival has a very friendly atmosphere, as well as high social and environmental standards, and that I would enjoy it – as indeed I did. I could write a blog just about the experience and the reflections it has provoked, but the main reason I was there was to take part in three events which, in different ways, considered issues to do with meat consumption.

For anyone who doesn’t know – and I didn’t until recently – going to the Shambala festival is like stepping into another world of happy, enthusiastic people of all ages who appreciate and care for good food, the environment, and most importantly each other, but it has a strong vegetarian and vegan ethos. No meat is sold at the event. This both reflects and encourages the growing trend, especially amongst Millennials, of going meat-free.

Simon Fairlie, Tara Garnett, Ed Gillespie, Richard Young and Peter Harper

One of several events chaired by Ed Gillespie was a debate on whether meat from animals reared in more sustainable ways, such as grass-fed and organic red meat, or pork from pigs fed only on waste food, should be allowed at the festival next year. Simon Fairlie and I argued in favour, Tara Garnett and Peter Harper argued against. On a show of hands, roughly three-quarters of the audience were in favour of keeping Shambala meat-free.

Another of the events was The Trial of Daisy the Cow, more precisely the retrial, a 60-minute play written by Sarah Woods, incorporating comedy, factual evidence and a song, which we performed with only minor hiccups after just one rehearsal. Based on an idea by Peter Harper, Daisy, a pantomime cow representing the whole livestock industry, was convicted on an 11:1 majority verdict for crimes against the environment at the mock trial last year. I won’t say anything about what happened this year when the trial was restaged and a fresh jury was selected at random from the audience because I hope to return to this in a further blog once a podcast has been made.

Cows and ruminants in general have been singled out by anti-meat campaigners due to their methane emissions. But as I have argued before, that needs to be considered within a more comprehensive analysis of the issues. While ruminants do produce a lot of methane, and the high level of methane in the atmosphere is a major contributor to climate change, fossil fuels are not only the major source of carbon dioxide, they are also the major source of methane. At the same time, grass is an essential component of sustainable food systems. If we don’t keep the pastures we still have, and graze that grass with cattle and sheep, and then consume the meat and milk they produce, we actually do more harm than good to the climate, as well as to long-term food security.

That apart, many ruminants, in countries using feedlots, as well as most pigs and chickens are kept too intensively and mostly fed on grain. The growing global population and the increasing demand for meat is therefore likely to increase the demand for grain far beyond the highest sustainable production levels the planet could withstand.

Well-managed grasslands with forage legumes like clovers, however, only recycle atmospheric carbon. They can’t add to the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide or methane) more carbon than the plants they consume take out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis. In contrast, any food or feed production based on nitrogen fertiliser puts additional ‘fossil’ carbon into the atmosphere during the fertiliser manufacturing and use processes. It also transfers carbon to the atmosphere as the soils lose carbon and degrade while they are used for continuous cropping. In addition, in a country like the UK, where the climate is more suited to grass than crop production, if we don’t make maximum use of our grasslands, we end up importing additional beef and soya from countries where more and more virgin land is being cleared for food production.

Fresh evidence of this has come this week in a special report from Reuters, Soy boom devours Brazil’s tropical savanna. This points out that the growing global demand for soya has resulted in a further 105,000 square kilometres of tropical savanna in the Cerrado being destroyed in the last decade, a rate of destruction double that occurring in the Amazon during the same period, even though the Amazon is three times larger. This is adding about 250 million tonnes of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere each year, driving hundreds of species towards extinction, causing soil erosion on a massive scale and altering the local climate so that rainfall has declined by almost 10%. Yet, encouraged by the Brazilian government, farmers – some of whom already farm as much as 50 square kilometres each – are still clearing more virgin land each year and expanding, despite the efforts of Greenpeace and WWF to halt this.

But this is where it gets complicated. Campaigners often claim all this is driven by the growing global demand for meat, and in one sense that is, of course, correct. By weight, soyabean oil accounts for only about 11% of the soya bean, so the vast majority of it is meal, not oil. Yet as I showed in an article last year, only a third of the soya products imported into the UK go for livestock feed and a high proportion of that is fed to pigs and poultry, rather than cattle. And, because dairy cows in the UK get a very high proportion of their diet from grass, each kilo of soya meal that is fed to them produces at least 60 litres of milk. In contrast, a kilo of whole soya beans only produces 7.5 litres of soya drink, or ‘milk’ as it used to be called.

But we then have to consider the fact that we use all the soya bean oil. Like palm oil, it’s a major ingredient of processed foods which just about everyone consumes in large amounts these days. The approximately 170,000 tonnes imported into the UK each year comes from about 1.5 million tonnes of whole beans. On top of this, we import almost 700,000 tonnes of whole beans for soya-based foods and flour improvers. The rest goes to make pet food, paint, pharmaceuticals and, among other things, an additive used during the surfacing of roads.

There are no easy answers, but in my view, one of the conclusions we should draw from this is that we should try to get as much of our protein and fats in the form of red meat and milk from animals eating grass here in the UK, with these animals principally supplemented, where necessary, by grains and arable by-products that can’t be consumed by humans. But what would this do for our health? We’ve been told for decades to avoid animal fats because they are high in saturated fat and will increase our risk of heart disease. We’ve also been advised to eat only small amounts of red meat to reduce our risk of certain cancers.

Throwing fresh light on this question and supporting the SFT’s own analysis of the issues, a major review of evidence from 18 countries following over 200,000 people, published in The Lancet this week, finds that people who eat significant amounts of red meat and dairy products have a lower, not higher, overall risk of dying than people who do not. The Times reported this as Red meat and cheese back on the menu in healthy diet for heart. However, it needs stressing that these findings only apply when red meat and dairy are part of a very well-balanced diet. In direct opposition to long-standing dietary advice, the study also finds that neither total fat nor type of fat are related to lower risk of dying and are also not a cause of increased cardiovascular disease or heart attacks. The study even finds that those eating higher levels of saturated fat had a lower incidence of stroke, something which makes sense given that the brain contains a high proportion of saturated fat.

So, what are we to make of all this? We have growing evidence that red meat and at least some animal fats are likely to be good for us after all, but we also know that increasing meat consumption will push us beyond planetary boundaries even more quickly than is already happening. In summary, the SFT’s answer to this is that we need to reduce our consumption of grain-fed meat – pork, chicken and some types of beef – dramatically, but actually increase our production of grass-fed beef and lamb by reintroducing grass into crop rotations on large parts of our arable farmland, something urgently needed anyway to address the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and because it is the best way to reverse soil degradation.

No doubt many of those who demonise animal fats and red meat will take issue with this study. And, of course it cannot be the last word on all this, not least because no study to date has considered the potentially important differences in the health- or harm-giving properties of meat produced in different ways, especially in relation to its omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, the levels of antioxidants, conjugated linoleic acid, trace elements and also pollutants, such as fat-soluble pesticides. And while this study suggests saturated fats from any source are all okay, questions must remain about the different impacts of the 14 different saturated fats and the extent to which these need to be in balance with one another and also with other types of fat.

Nevertheless, this study adds to a growing body of research that shows we have been given very flawed dietary advice for the last 35 years and that evidence from some previous studies was misrepresented and sometimes withheld. I believe we will eventually establish that campaigns to reduce the consumption of animal fats were also a key factor behind the obesity and type-II diabetes epidemics, strange as that may sound . But what is absolutely clear is that we urgently need a fully-independent, major review of dietary guidelines.

The SFT will be returning to many of these issues over the coming year and looking at each in more detail.

Photograph: Aggie Morris

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