Working out how best to produce food in the future is one of the key issues on which the future of the planet and ultimately the human race depends. As such, we are equally grateful for all the supportive and critical comments my recent article on eating red meat has generated.

Of course, we don’t have answers to all the problems, and our intention was to stimulate a debate in order to hear as many points of view as possible and get more people thinking about these important issues.

The most comprehensive critique came from Dr Tara Garnett at the Food Climate Research Network, which has been republished here by agreement. I intend to respond to all comments of substance in due course, but having just spent two weeks haymaking – yes I’m a beef and sheep farmer, so I have a vested interest in this issue – I will just respond to Tara’s comments for now.

I can say with a reasonable level of confidence, that both Tara and I share the same passionate concern that the way we are currently producing and consuming food globally is not only unsustainable in food security terms, but also having a disastrous impact on the natural world and on our health.

Grazing animals

However, there is a substantial level of disagreement between us on the issue of grazing animals and the meat that comes from them. In the discussion paper she refers us to, ‘What is a healthy and sustainable diet,’ Tara states, ‘Grazing livestock, and less directly, the production of feed crops, are together the main drivers of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation.’ Our position couldn’t be more at odds with this. We agree about the feed crops, but we see grazing livestock as the one indispensable cornerstone of productive and sustainable food systems, the most non-negotiable factor in preserving biodiversity and the only way to prevent long term land degradation. We fully recognise that a lot of grazing livestock is managed very inappropriately, but the solution to that in our view is to manage them in a different way, not get rid of them and plough up the grassland to produce more feed for chickens.

Tara accepts my point that red meat and milk consumption in the UK have fallen. They have in fact fallen very substantially, but she adds, ‘Our comment here is that at a global level the picture is one of increase.’

Red meat consumption statistics

I accept as a valid criticism that my article was predominantly looking at the UK situation and using UK statistics, when this is a global issue. I am just wondering, though, whether Tara may have missed a key part of my argument by looking at global figures for red meat consumption, when I was careful to draw a distinction between red meat from grazing animals, like beef and sheep, and red meat from pigs, which are predominantly fed on grain?

Although pork consumption has fallen in the UK, at a global level, annual consumption increased from 9.1 to 14.6 kg per person, between the mid-1960s and about 2002. I pointed out in my article that officially pork is classified as a red meat, even though it is often promoted as a white meat, so I was making a point about all red meats excluding pork.

I haven’t made an exhaustive study of all the statistics, but to the limited extent I’d looked at the global situation, I was relying on an FAO report, ‘World Agriculture: towards 2015/2030,’ published in 2003, which, in a section entitled, ‘Rapid growth of the poultry sector,’ states, ‘In contrast, per capita consumption of ruminant meat (from cattle, sheep and goats) actually declined a little’.

Grass and gazing animals

Going back to the UK situation for a moment though, one of the many reasons for our concern about declining consumption of beef and lamb in the UK is that there are critically important biodiversity, water quality, flood prevention, climate change and food security reasons for not reducing the overall area of UK grassland any further. Overgrazing can of course completely reverse that, both in the UK and in other countries, but one of the reasons that overgrazing occurs is because so much land is being used to produce feed for pigs and poultry.

In 2011, 3.67 million hectares of British grassland were classified as permanent pasture, but as the National Farmers Union acknowledged in 2012, large areas were being ploughed by farmers seeking to beat the introduction of EU restrictions to prevent the area of permanent pasture in the UK falling below 3.4 million hectares. And this followed a reduction of 6.1% in the area of grassland in 2007/8, all part of the progressive reduction in the area of grassland and increase in the area of arable crops that has been taking place since the Second World War.

Given that the Sustainable Food Trust sees grass as central to sustainable food production, it’s important to explain that grass is the only crop that takes less out of the land than it puts back in, but more out of the atmosphere than it adds to it. But it needs to be grass with legumes as a source of nitrogen for plant growth, not grass getting nitrogen fertiliser, which apart from being very damaging is produced from a finite resource, natural gas.

Healthy and unhealthy diets

Tara next claims that my inference that we’ve got less, not more, healthy, since we increased our consumption of chicken and reduced our consumption of beef and lamb isn’t supported by the evidence. She doesn’t actually cite any evidence in support of her claim and I’m not sure there is any. I feel it’s a myth that’s been repeated so often we’ve come to assume it must be true. Either way, it’s difficult to deny that obesity, type-2 diabetes and dementia have all increased during the last 30 years or so, while some cancers have also increased. That doesn’t prove a link with increased chicken consumption, but it suggests to me we should at least be open to the possibility that there could be one.

My view is that we were all stampeded into a huge dietary experiment on the recommendations of a few industry scientists, who were hand picked by senior elements in the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health. What shocks me almost as much is that so few food campaigners at the time bothered to look at the evidence themselves in any detail. Trusting instead the conclusions of committees which were heavily dominated by the sugar and vegetable oils industry representatives, who had a vested interest in implicating saturated fat in the dramatic increase in coronary heart disease, which took place between about 1930 and 1980, in order, I suggest, to create a smoke screen to hide the fact that the increased consumption of sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils were actually the principal dietary causes of this. Chicken was just the inadvertent beneficiary, because at a simple level it too ticks a number of boxes.

Chicken has been promoted because it is low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, c/w beef or lamb. Methane emissions from chicken are also tiny – seemingly it’s a win-win-win situation. However, this is terribly misleading. There are 14 different saturated fats, they have very differing effects and their relative proportions in meat change, depending on the proportion of grass and grain in the diet. More importantly still, evidence suggests that the absolute amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is less important than the balance between omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 – too much of either interferes with vitamin synthesis and hormone production – a potential mechanism that might help to explain some of the health issues. Chicken is only part of the diet of course, but since the recommended increase in consumption of carbohydrates also increased the proportion of omega-6 in the diet, there’s been a cumulative effect.

From the few available studies, intensive chicken would appear to have a very unhealthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of between 9:1 and 14:1. Grass-fed beef on the other hand has a ratio of less that 2:1. But it gets worse. It’s not omega-3 as such that our bodies need most, but three long chain omega-3 fatty acids and there are none of these at all in white chicken meat, whereas grass-fed beef and lamb provide small, but reliable amounts.

Organic farming

Tara next says that my preferred approach is that we should all be eating more organic grass fed beef. I can see why she might think that, but this issue is bigger than organic versus non-organic farming. I focused exclusively on the importance of grass and legumes because together these crops have the potential to produce healthy food in an environmentally sustainable way. This is an option open to all farmers, and there are already many non-organic farmers growing grass and legumes to reduce their dependence on nitrogen fertiliser. And organic production is about a lot more: non-use of water-soluble phosphates, non-use of synthetic pesticides, non-use of GM crops in animal feed, no routine use of antibiotics or other drugs, and then a whole range of positive things that must be done to create naturally healthy soils and animals. Personally I happen to feel all these issues are important too, but you don‘t have to be an organic farmer to base your system on grass and legumes instead of nitrogen fertiliser.

Would there be enough food?

The next point raised is that if we all ate more grass-fed meat there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone. That too is a more detailed discussion than I can’t go into properly here, but suffice it to say that I disagree. I don’t believe we can feed an ever-growing global population sustainably on a finite planet, but there is still just a little room for manoeuvre, with 30% of food wasted, vast amounts of human edible grain fed to animals housed on concrete and over-consumption by a billion or so people, triggered I believe in significant part by the promotion of carbohydrates and vegetable oils over animal fats from grass-fed animals, large quantities of which get incinerated instead of eaten. And if we weren’t growing so much grain and soya for intensive pig, poultry and dairy production, there would be space to put some arable land back to grass and keep more cattle and sheep.

Evolution and human adaptation

Tara also takes exception to my suggestion that because we all evolved to eat meat from grazing animals – think of our teeth – that’s what we should be eating. She points out that as a species, we have been highly adaptable to food. My point here, however, wasn’t that we can’t adapt, but that because we evolved eating the meat from grazing animals, it is very unlikely that evolution will have left us a genetic predisposition, which makes such meat unsuitable for our bodies. Yes, humans are highly adaptable and over time can become suited to very new and diverse diets. But the adaptation within a population arises because those who are made ill by a new diet are likely to die earlier than average and produce less children – and I’d suggest that is exactly what is happening now with our diet-related diseases, something that would be even more obvious were it not for the amazing ability of modern healthcare systems to defy evolution.

Greenhouse gases

Turning now to methane, Tara assumes I’m saying that methane isn‘t really a problem. I accept my point was too tersely expressed. That was due to limitations on the length of the article and I wasn’t clear enough about this. Methane is of course a big issue, not least because there is a continuing flow of methane from ruminants, which means that its global warming potential is significantly higher than the widely used IPCC figure. This is because a high proportion of it breaks down to carbon dioxide and water in a decade or so, whereas the IPCC figures are calculated over 100 years. But this is another place where I take a different view from Tara and those scientists who argue that because methane breaks down quickly it’s the gas we should target to address global warming.

The relentless rise in greenhouse gases is incredibly serious, we agree on that. But the biggest problem has principally come from burning fossil fuels. As a society (both UK and global) we’re still not willing to give up the comfortable lifestyle that comes with them, not even in many cases willing to put up with a windmill on the horizon because we still haven’t twigged how bad things will get, or take more holidays at home and less abroad to save aviation fuel.

I doubt if it’s possible to produce any food for human consumption commercially without generating greenhouse gases. So we have to make choices, and for me the nitrous oxide emissions coming directly and indirectly from nitrogen fertiliser pose a greater long term threat than methane from ruminants. Because, while methane is 72 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 20 years, nitrous oxide is 289 times more potent over the same period. Methane, be it from ruminants, rice production, landfill or oil and gas exploration does add to air pollution as well and that’s another negative, but then so does ammonia and other gases associated with the farm use of nitrogen fertiliser.

Two surprising things about methane:

  1. Since CFCs were phased out, nitrous oxide has become the most damaging ozone depleting chemical, in addition to causing global warming. It’s been calculated that the increasing concentrations in the upper atmosphere in recent years have reduced the damaging impact of nitrous oxide on the ozone layer by 20% and as such reduced the incidence of skin cancer as a result. That’s not a reason to be complacent about the high atmospheric methane concentrations, but it does help to illustrate how all the adverse publicity on methane has rather blinded us to the even more serious impact of nitrous oxide.
  1. Soils that don’t receive nitrogen fertiliser contain bacteria that use methane as an energy source. That makes them ‘a methane sink’. The quantities aren’t enormous – up to 5 kg of methane per hectare per year on the most undisturbed soils (that’s about one-fifth of the methane emitted by cattle on a typical mixed organic farm with a stocking rate of half a livestock unit per hectare across the whole farm). The use of nitrogen greatly reduces these bacteria and since a large part of the land now farmed organically has been farmed with ammonium nitrate fertilisers in the past, in practice the breakdown of methane is likely to be significantly lower. However, worldwide the loss of this methane sink, due to nitrogen fertiliser, will have contributed significantly to the increased methane levels in the atmosphere.

Land-use change

When it comes to the issues associated with ploughing grassland for grain and soya production or felling trees to grow grass for cattle, Tara and I both see this as a big problem. Ploughing grassland and then leaving it in crop production thereafter, typically puts greenhouse gases equivalent of 250 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per hectare over 100 years. On soils naturally high in organic matter this can be significantly higher; on sandy soils lower. When trees or scrub is burned as well to clear the land, the amounts can be hundreds of times higher.

Eat more grass-fed beef and lamb

Tara and several others who commented on my original piece don’t accept my case that ultimately, to make agriculture (in the UK at least) fully sustainable we’ll need more sheep and cattle than we currently have. I feel they’ve been told so many times and in so many ways that cattle are the biggest problem, that they can’t see how to reconcile their long held views with my position and accept that, while they can be a problem, managed properly they provide a long term solution to food security and the significant problems associated with using nitrogen fertilisers, despite their methane emissions.

When I said we should eat more, I also meant we should make better use of the animals we slaughter. We’ve become too fussy. Huge amounts of highly nutritious offal, such as liver, get discarded because we no longer realise now nutritious these are. If the cattle are grass-fed, the beef fat shouldn’t be burned in an incinerator, instead we should be cooking with beef fat instead of vegetable oils, and using suet in meals as we used to, instead of consuming so much palm oil, which is just as high in saturated fat anyway. We’ve been conditioned on the basis of false evidence to see the fats from ruminant animals as inherently unhealthy; we need to take an honest, impartial look at the evidence and see if that really stacks up.

Carbon sequestration

On whether or not grassland goes on taking carbon (and nitrogen) gases out of the atmosphere over long periods of time, Tara and I also find ourselves on opposite sides of the argument. I recognise that the science here isn’t clear, with some scientists saying it does and others saying it doesn’t. But let’s just forget science for a moment and try using common sense instead. Carbon levels in top soils, whether grass or arable, do appear to stabilise over time – typically 100 years, with the biggest changes at the beginning and the smallest towards the end. We can agree that much, but it’s not quite that simple.

The predominant grass grown by farmers over the last 50 years, perhaps longer, has been ryegrass. It’s highly palatable, productive, easy to grow and well suited to the application of nitrogen fertiliser. However, it’s about the shallowest rooting grass there is and it suffers badly during drought conditions as a result. The key point is that because of its shallow roots it can only increase soil carbon in the top 60 cm of the soil. So if scientists study ryegrass, they won’t find any soil carbon sequestration going on deeper than that and the sequestration will follow the typical pattern of eventually levelling out.

However, this isn’t about how most people have farmed in the past, it’s about how we need to farm in the future to help address climate change and make farming as resilient as possible in what will be increasingly uncertain and difficult conditions. If instead scientists look at a well-designed, long-term ley containing deeper rooting grasses, like timothy, cocksfoot, smooth meadow grass and tall fescue (as well as some ryegrass), some of these put down roots as deep as 150 cm. Add in a herb like chicory and you’re down to 300 cm, then legumes, like red clover and sainfoin and the roots go down to 400 cm. Include lucerne (alfalfa) and they go down to 500 cm and well beyond. Grazing mixtures like this will have an almost infinite capacity to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil at great depths. They will also be drought resistant and draw up most if not all the minerals they need for excellent growth from underlying soils and rocks. Better still, after a few years they can be ploughed up for 2-3 years at a time before being returned to grass, during which time they will produce excellent yields of grain with no external inputs – that’s sustainable farming in practice and it doesn’t even have to be organic.

Can we feed the world with organic farming?

Tara provides links to three studies, which conclude that because organic farming produces, at most, 80% of the yields associated with nitrogen fertiliser use, that it couldn’t feed a global population of 9 billion. Behind her position are a large number of papers, some of which she has authored, which advocate the poorly thought through concept of ‘sustainable intensification’. What she doesn’t say, is that even less is known about the ability of ‘sustainable intensification’ to feed 9 billion people, because it’s essentially still a pipe dream of scientists who remain hopeful that genetically engineered crops will perform better than they have done to date and bring about the miracle of increasing yields, protecting biodiversity and doing all this with a lot less inputs than at present. We can live in hope, I suppose, but based on what we’ve seen so far they seem more likely to do the opposite.

As already mentioned, I wasn’t promoting a specifically organic approach here, just the use of forage legumes, which are used by many farmers, organic and non-organic. In countries like the UK, where farmers use very high amounts of nitrogen fertiliser, it’s doubtful if organic farming will ever be able to match the maximum yields that have been achieved. However, as I detailed in my original article, thanks to a major project, The European Nitrogen Assessment, which involved over 200 scientists, we now have some idea just how damaging the use of nitrogen fertiliser is, and how it costs us as taxpayers and citizens two to three times as much as the commercial advantage farmers get from using it. This was calculated by adding together the health and environmental costs associated with its production and use. But now that we know this, can we afford to allow very high levels to be applied as fertilisers? I would argue no. If we imposed a tax on nitrogen fertiliser, just reflecting a small part of the real costs, its use would fall significantly overnight and the yield gap between organic and non-organic would close considerably.

If we look at Africa though, the continent where it is expected the largest population growth will occur, the evidence already favours organic. A report in 2008 by the United Nations (UNEP-UNCTAD) found that ‘Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally sustainable and appropriate technologies’. It also found that ‘Organic agricultural systems are making a significant contribution to the reduction of food insecurity and poverty in areas of Africa and to an improvement in rural livelihoods’. In large part, this is because it increases soil organic matter and that increases moisture retention. Greater soil organic matter also means less crop disease, as well as carbon coming out of the atmosphere and being stored in the soil. Advocates of intensification and sustainable intensification see a big role for greatly increasing the use of fertilisers in Africa, but they forget that many of the soils are extremely fragile, and in a country which is prone to drought, using nitrogen fertiliser, which encourages shallow rooting plants at the expense of deep rooting ones, is not a terribly clever approach.

Tara’s concluding points:

  1. If we all ate red meat at the levels that Richard Young apparently seems to recommend, then we would have no forest left on this planet at all.

Tara, I assume, is thinking about the destruction of Amazonian rainforest to make way for cattle. That of course has been a tragedy, but I wonder how much this has been driven by illegal logging and how much by cattle ranchers, how much by population growth, how much by greed and corruption? Tragic though this is, the ploughing of the Cerrado to grow soya to feed to chickens, pigs and dairy cattle in Europe and China is of the same order of magnitude.

But against this, what about the destruction of rainforest in SE Asia to provide palm oil to replace the animal fats we now discard? It is predicted that this alone has sealed the inevitable extinction of the last great apes from this part of the world within the next 25 years.

Here in the UK, and in some other parts of the world, cattle and sheep play a huge part in retaining trees. Hedgerows and shelter belts can only be justified financially where they are used to enclose and protect livestock and all livestock farmers should, I believe, be encouraged, if not required, to plant trees in fields to provide shade for sheep and cattle in hot or wet weather, as was often done in the past. The carbon sequestered by those hedgerows and trees should be added to that sequestered by grass and legumes to provide a true account of the potential of grazed fields.

  1. Given the increasing demand for meat globally, the evidence is clear for the need for countries with relatively high consumption levels (including the UK) and high consuming individuals to reduce their consumption of meat of all kinds.

I really don’t feel it is accurate to describe the average weekly per person consumption of beef of 104 grams and sheep meat of 36 grams as ‘high’. I’d like to see an end to all intensive beef production, including US feedlots, as well as big reductions in pork and poultry consumption. My concern though remains, that while Tara, I am sure, genuinely wants to see a reduction in intensive pig and poultry consumption as well as beef and lamb, I strongly suspect that prioritising a reduction in beef and lamb consumption, will only push up the consumption of chicken yet again, since most people don‘t wish to give up eating meat.

But there’s an even more important reason why I want to see the re-introduction of grazing animals and grass on all arable farms. Since the 1970s, in the UK, oilseed rape has increasingly been grown in crop rotations instead of grass. It allows arable farmers to grow two crops of wheat in three years and food campaigners like it because it’s a vegetable oil that is rich in omega-3 fatty acid.

But oilseed rape is a leaky crop. It needs very high applications of nitrogen fertiliser, much of which leaches into watercourses and the atmosphere. The farming systems it supports also have major problems controlling slugs due to the loss of habitat for natural controls. As a result the enormous quantities of chemicals used in an attempt to control infestations are causing levels in drinking water well above official limits, and there is no known way to remove this as there is with some pesticides.

More seriously still, it is indirectly the main reason for the decline of honeybees and many other pollinating insects and there are two reasons for that. First, it attracts large numbers of insects, but is exceptionally prone to damage from them, so it has a very high need for insecticide seed dressings and sprays, which have been shown with a high degree of certainty to be a factor in the loss of navigational ability in bees, and we may assume also that of other pollinators. UK oilseed rape growers are currently lobbying hard to get the temporary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides lifted, saying that if this doesn’t happen they will be forced to use older and even more dangerous insecticides, because they can’t grow the crop successfully without them. Secondly, while it provides a significant source of food for insects in the early spring, it provides nothing for them at all later in the season. And since it makes possible these very limited, but profitable wheat and oilseed rape rotations, it creates huge monocultures where there can be little, if anything, for the pollinators to return to once the rape has flowered. In contrast, the introduction of grass and clover leys, on some of the fields would provide a wonderful source of food for pollinators at a critical time of year, and if grown in longer rotations with rape and wheat, would reduce the need for nitrogen fertiliser and the need for the most harmful pesticides.

All these issues are immensely complex, as Tara knows well. I’m acutely aware of the limitations of my knowledge and the need to learn far more. I realise my strong views may be upsetting to some people and I can only apologise for that, but this is a key area that will affect us all. As such it does need to be debated with vigour, and as before, I hope that others will join that debate.

Feature image by Steph French

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