Stop this foolish war on meat! Eating it could help save the planet!
Stop this foolish war on meat! Eating it could help save the planet, writes TOM PARKER BOWLES
Last night, I ate a steak. Very good it was too. A plump, exquisitely marbled slab of sirloin, beautifully seasoned and cooked blushing pink. It had come from Martin Player, a proper Cardiff butcher, who takes his meat, as well as the animal’s welfare, very seriously indeed. Just like any other decent butcher.
Grass-fed, fully traceable and properly hung, it was a paean to not just fine flavour, but first- class farming practice too. Sensible, sustainable agriculture, where the welfare of the animal is every bit as important as its impact upon the environment.
Yet this magnificent piece of beef is no longer mere dinner. Instead it has become a pawn in the gathering war on meat: a hysterical, ill-informed, one-size-fits-all assault that demonises farmers, butchers and consumers alike. A weapon, if you like, of grass destruction.
Take the decision made by the University of Cambridge catering service to remove beef and lamb from its menus to cut food-related carbon emissions. The head of the service, Nick White, claimed this was because ‘sustainability is extremely important to our students and staff’ and scientists have claimed beef and lamb produce most farm greenhouse gasses.
This magnificent piece of beef is no longer mere dinner. Instead it has become a pawn in the gathering war on meat
A few weeks back, beef was also banned from the cafeteria of Goldsmiths College in London for the same reason, to ‘drastically’ cut its carbon footprint.
But the concerns are not only environmental. I have little time for witless attacks on vegans or vegetarians but there is undoubtedly a creeping spread of anti-meat militancy. This week it emerged the vice-chairman of the RSPCA – a vegan and co-founder of Animal Rebellion, an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion environmental movement – was forced to step down after calling on animal rights protesters to shut down Smithfield meat market in London.
Jane Tredgett, 52, was in charge of training activists in ‘non-violent direct action’, while the group has compared its efforts to the struggles faced by Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes. Seriously.
Each week seems to bring a new threat or outrage, with meat-eaters being turned into social pariahs. Michael Mansfield, QC, a man who should know better, last week suggested that eating meat should be made illegal, with offenders thrown into jail. And he’s not alone in his extreme (and publicity-seeking) views.
Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, declared that meat-eaters should be treated like smokers and be made to sit outside restaurants. Because meat is ‘bad for the planet and our health’.
What next? Could meat become illegal, butchers forced to deal black pudding and chipolatas in back alleys and pub loos? Custodial sentences for eating chops? Life for a leg of lamb? Should we be eating meat at all?
The arguments against meat are so widespread, it’s no wonder they seem overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared that we must drastically cut our meat consumption to save the planet. We must shift towards ‘healthy and sustainable’ diets ‘based on coarse grains, pulses and vegetables, and nuts and seeds’. The EAT-Lancet Commission, set up to look at how the world’s growing population can eat healthy, sustainable food, goes further still. Over three years, 37 scientists came up with the ultimate ‘plant-focused’ diet ‘for planetary health’. They argue this diet, which contains virtually no meat, would ‘transform’ the planet’s future. Under it we’re ‘allowed’ no more than one serving of red meat, a couple of servings of fish and an egg or two. Per week.
It’s an argument that meat is bad, plants are good. But not everything is quite so black and white. Far from it.
Grassland absorbs carbon dioxide, but if we reduce the demand for these animals in the food chain, then this delicate balance is bound to change.
Many of the militants’ reasons for ditching meat are, in fact, completely misleading. Because properly farmed meat is not only entirely sustainable, but good for the environment and economy too. We should be celebrating good farming practice, not condemning it. There’s no doubt that there are some completely legitimate concerns about food production. Not all chickens, for example, are raised equally. On the one hand, you have an old-fashioned free-range chicken, allowed to scratch and peck outside. Slow growing, traditional breeds, bred for flavour. On the other, the wretched intensively farmed bird, which is crammed into vast, stinking sheds, with no more space than an A4 sheet of paper. Profit, not welfare, is its producer’s only concern.
The same goes for intensively farmed pigs, raised in cruelly confined squalor. We should be saving our ire and ammunition to rail against this factory farming. The long-term cost of intensively farmed meat is ruinously expensive, both for our health and for the environment. It follows, then, that the best quality meat will always be more expensive than the cheap, imported stuff. British farming standards are among the highest in the world, yet another reason to buy British meat.
And it’s important to recognise that, despite all the hand-wringing about carbon emissions, livestock production can actually be good for the environment.
Grassland absorbs carbon dioxide, reducing the amount of carbon that is released into the atmosphere. Two-thirds of the UK is still made up of grassland, and it is essential it remains that way to preserve the carbon in the soil. At the moment, traditional grass-fed cattle and sheep, kept at a low density, are helping to maintain that status quo. But if we reduce the demand for these animals in the food chain, then this delicate balance is bound to change.
We’re also reminded frequently about all the methane produced by cows and other ruminants. So doesn’t that damage the environment? There’s an immense difference between the emissions of the grain-fed cattle in American super lots and sustainably farmed, grass-fed British cattle. Patrick Holden, CEO of The Sustainable Food Trust, explains: ‘The methane emissions from those ruminants are offset by the carbon gain in the soil.’
He also points out that, to be useful for agriculture, arable land must go through a ‘fertility building phase’ lasting three or four years which involves it – by necessity – being grazed with animals such as cows and sheep. Lose those animals, the message is, and we lose that ability to keep our farmland versatile and healthy.
Also – and more controversially – does that mean you should eat MORE beef to save the planet?
‘Yes!’ comes the emphatic response from Holden. ‘Traditional grass-fed beef and lamb can help maintain the soil carbon bank.’
For years, I’ve believed the mantra of eat less meat, but eat better. It’s certainly a good starting point. There have already been huge changes to our diets in the past 100 years. At the start of the 20th Century, Holden points out, 80 per cent of our dietary fats came from animal sources, and only 20 per cent from plants. Today, it’s the other way around.
What about intensively farmed pigs, raised in cruelly confined squalor? We should be saving our ire and ammunition to rail against this factory farming.
The surprising – and often overlooked – fact is this: the production of many of those plant fats can be just as environmentally unsound as those vast US intensive farming lots. According to Frédéric Leroy, a professor in food science and biotechnology at the VUB university in Brussels, a shift from animal products to ‘plant-based’ scenarios could make things worse.
They may have vast implications that will generate their own sets of serious concerns, including limiting the land’s ability to grow more than one crop, depleting top soil, using more fertilisers, the potential for nutritional deficiencies and the disturbance of ecosystems,’ Prof Leroy argues.
As far as methane emissions are concerned, he continues, they are real but need to be put in perspective. ‘If a Westerner goes vegetarian or vegan, this leads to only about a two to six per cent drop in their carbon footprint, which is far from being the best thing one can do for the planet.’
There are other, far more effective, ways to reduce carbon emissions – by reducing our reliance on air travel, for example.
Farmer and butcher Peter Hannan agrees. ‘Compared to our appetite for air travel alone, my beef farming pales into insignificance.’
What about the rest of us, then; the responsible meat lovers, caught in the scientific and moral crossfire? Is it really necessary for vegan activists to spray fake blood around McDonald’s? Or harangue and bully butchers and farmers – even Waitrose – in real life and on social media?
Of course not. Whatever happened to decency, common sense, and the ability to listen to both sides of a debate? It is possible to eat meat and have the utmost respect for vegans and vegetarians too. In fact, a couple of meat-free days a week is eminently sensible. So buy British, and the best you can afford. Trust in your butcher. And experiment with more unusual cuts too. Eat good meat and save the planet. Now THAT really is a radical idea.
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