The last two weeks has seen significant TV and radio coverage of issues relating to meat, not all of it well balanced. Sustainable Food Trust Policy Director Richard Young gives his analysis.

Meat: A Threat To Our Planet?, a prime time BBC One documentary looked at intensive beef and pork production in the US and the growing number of cattle being ranched on former rainforest land in South America. It’s difficult not to go along with the documentary’s theme on this. US consumers eat more meat, on average, than anywhere else on the planet and the programme wallowed in the over-sized portions and other excesses, including a steakhouse in Texas advertising that consumers eat free if they can finish a 72 ounce (2 kg) steak in one hour. This was almost enough to turn an organic, 100% grass-fed beef and sheep farmer like me into a vegan. Almost – but not quite, because with one minor exception the programme entirely failed to add any balance or feature producers doing things very differently.

The programme received glowing reviews in many publications, including The Times, The Guardian and Daily Mirror, with journalists largely shirking their journalistic responsibilities and reporting it all as fact, without any attempt to identify the programme’s shortcomings. UK Farmers and farming organisations, including the NFU, National Beef Association and AHDB were less inhibited. According to Farmers Guardian, Jonathan Foot from the AHDB said the BBC had, “missed a massive opportunity to present a solution to people who wanted to enjoy meat but were concerned about the environment.”

Evidence of possible programme bias has come in the form of an email reply to one correspondent, from the programme’s executive producer, Tom Watt-Smith, who acknowledged they had discussed soil carbon sequestration and “filmed with a fascinating US farmer/scientist called Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm,” but that, “Sadly, this didn’t make the final documentary.”

Radio 4’s Costing the Earth on the other hand made a good attempt to take a more balanced look at the issues by considering what the UK would be like in a vegan world. An informative discussion pitched organic farmer and NFU Vice President, Stuart Roberts against Tim Thorpe, the Campaigns and Policy Officer at the Vegan Society. Tim set out the well-known case against meat, citing some of the recent reports, and in response Stuart asked why would we want to stop producing meat on the UK’s productive grasslands and risk importing more from regions where ruminants are either less productive or the cause of huge environmental harm, such as in South America? Iain Tolhurst, one of the very few organic vegetable growers able to manage without livestock or livestock manure, was also interviewed, but this didn’t dig deep into the issue of how much of his land has to be out of production at any one time for this to be possible. There was also an informed discussion with Dr Mariecia Fraser, an agro-ecologist from Aberystwyth University, about the damage over-grazing can do, and in contrast, the invaluable contribution of mixed cattle and sheep grazing to many wildlife species and wild flowers.

Most balanced and informative of all, however, were two editions of The Food Programme on ‘Eating Animals’, Part 1: The Future of Meat and Part Two: A Meat Q&A. Part 1 provided a fairly comprehensive overview of the issues, both for and against meat eating, and tried to dispel a few false claims that have become common currency. Starting with the real and urgent problem of global warming, where we have already exceeded 1 degree of the 1.5 degrees of warming believed to be a point of no return for climate change, they asked whether the excessive focus on meat as the cause could be doing more harm than good?

Vegetarian author, Johnathan Safran Foer, broadened the argument somewhat by claiming, “There are four acts which matter significantly more than all others, these are flying less, going car free, having less children and adopting a plant-based diet.” An interview with Morten Toft Bech, founder of the Meatless Farm which makes plant-based alternatives to beef, built on the case against red meat, while interviews with Professor Frederic Leroy and Simon Fairlie challenged widely held assumptions and showed how meat can be part of the solution instead of the problem.

In Part 2, the SFT’s Patrick Holden debated the issues with Dr Tara Garnett, leader of the Food Climate Research Network, and well-known Guardian columnist and now outright vegan campaigner, George Monbiot. Patrick explained why it is essential to make maximum use of our grasslands to produce food and why we need to return to mixed farming with grazed grass re-introduced into all arable rotations in order to regenerate our degraded soils and provide the diversity on which wildlife flourish. But at the same time, he argued, we must cut down dramatically on our consumption of grain-fed meat, be it chicken, pork or beef. Both Tara and George are pinning their hopes on the development of lab-grown meat as a replacement for the most intensively-produced meat, something which will not be without its own issues, but Tara did give perhaps her fullest endorsement so far to the concept of eating less but better meat. For George, the main reason for getting rid of cattle and sheep from our grasslands is that by planting them with trees we will capture and store even more atmospheric carbon. That’s hard to dispute and we certainly need to take carbon out of the air, but our use of fossil fuels is still adding carbon at an ever-faster rate, and what George wasn’t asked to explain was how much more rainforest will have to be felled to feed us all on soya in the way he believes should happen?

The programme also included an interview with Dr Michelle Cain from Oxford University, one of the authors of the study which finds that once the short lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is taken into account, a stable population of ruminants does not add to global warming, while a falling population actually helps with global cooling. Patrick pointed out that while ruminant numbers are still rising globally, in the UK cattle and sheep numbers have already fallen by a quarter since the 1980s, meaning that, strange as it may seem, rather than contributing to global warming, they are in fact contributing to global cooling.

This issue has been nicely illustrated in an animation, The role of ruminants on climate change mitigation: The good and the bad, launched at COP25 in Madrid this week.

The debate on all of these important issues will continue at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on 9th January, when George Monbiot will be joining us for our session on Linking Sustainable and Healthy Diets with Farming Outputs. They will also form the basis of a two-day conference the SFT is organising in Bristol in October 2020.

Main photo: hcabral

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