Pasture-fed meat isn’t green

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"Pasture-fed 'livestock' consumption is to be actively encouraged: an exception to the rule that we need drastic reductions in the consumption of meat." That is the key claim the Sustainable Food Trust makes.

They cite biodiversity as a key reason, and do not think ruminants’ greenhouse gas contribution is all that significant.

We take issue with the Trust’s handling of climate change. We make two main points: 1) if ruminants account for 5 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gases, this is very significant; 2) the carbon sequestration pasture-fed 'livestock' can sometimes encourage is not enough to make pasture-fed 'livestock' the kind of practice we should be encouraging.

The logic of climate change

1) The SFT implies that the contribution of ruminants (cows, lambs, etc.) to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions is not significant, because it stands at 5 percent. We’re not sure about this figure, or where it comes from, as no citation is provided. But the broader trouble with this approach is that, if you slice the economy into enough segments, of course you end up with a pie divided into lots of small slices. Ruminants are only one part of the 'livestock' sector, which is in turn only one part of the food sector. Most big polluters only take up a few percent when we slice them up. Dividing up transport, we find that aeroplanes account for 5.9 percent of our emissions, and shipping for 2.1 percent [1].  Does that mean we can ignore their contribution? That such a small part [2] of our diets is taking up 5 percent of our entire country’s emissions is not consistent with tackling climate change; it is easy to forget the urgency of that task, but the UN’s recent report places it in a fresh perspective.

The SFT says that the fossil fuel industry is a bigger polluter. We are in full agreement about the scale of change needed in that industry. However, the fact that one sector is a big emitter does not mean other sectors avoid the need for serious emission reductions. The SFT’s either-or approach to climate change is contradicted by the United Nations, which has stressed that we must see “deep emissions reductions” in each and every sector, including agriculture [3].  If we want to secure the future of the planet for our grandchildren, this is what we are to do.

Carbon sequestration

2) The SFT claims that the emissions of ruminants look even less significant when we consider that “all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon – grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out”. There have been a lot of false claims about the carbon sequestration of 'livestock', and this phrasing strikes us as liable to confuse. 

Some think the fact that ruminants can sequester carbon makes them green. But that position looks untenable. Oxford University’s Food Climate Research Network has concluded that the “grazing management, however good, makes little difference” and that “the contribution it could make to the overall scale of the mitigation challenge looks tiny” [4].

'Livestock’ carbon sequestration is very limited in its significance, and cannot offset, under any circumstances, the methane these animals emit.

As such, the SFT’s claim that the carbon is recycled is not all that relevant, and could accidentally obscure the fact that methane, a gas with great warming potential, is the key factor here.

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Biodiversity

The SFT cites biodiversity as a reason for having grazing animals despite their climate impact. But biodiversity initiatives come in many flavours, and it is wise to pick those which do not hamper other environmental efforts. Climate change is a key driver of biodiversity loss, and we would do well to pick the very best environmental moves, such as growing legumes for direct human consumption.

Land and uplands

The SFT says pasture-fed 'livestock' represent the only way to get food from much of the UK’s land without environmental damage. But we have seen that there is environmental damage. Also, we question the assumption that close to all land must be used for food production. A more plant-based approach uses less land, as all the crops would be grown for humans directly. With no farm animals involved, a great source of inefficiency is removed [5].

White meat

Finally, we are pleased to be in agreement with the Trust on the point that the red versus white distinction is overblown. White meat is very resource inefficient; and the rise of chicken meat is worrying, hampering food security across the globe, generating unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, and leading to a renewed resurgence of factory farming in this country: a fact we must face up to.

In summary, the SFT does not show that pasture-fed meat is green. We need to look at what production systems the planet can really bear. Along with the Sustainable Food Trust, we look forward to what the future of farming in the UK will bring.

The Vegan Society
March 2019

Footnotes

  1. Committee on Climate Change, “Factsheet: Aviation”, 2013.
  2. Grazing systems may only contribute 1 gram out of the 80g of the protein we eat each day.  While this only refers to grazing ruminants, and not intensively reared ruminants, it offers a flavour of the size of the contribution.
  3. IPCC, Global warming of 1.5 degrees C, Summary for policymakers, 2018. p. 17.
  4. FCRN, Grazed and Confused, 2017. p. 67.
  5. Cassidy, E. S., West, P.C., Gerber, J.S. & Foley, J.A. “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”. Environmental Research Letters, 8: 034015, 2013.

This blog is reply to an article from the Sustainable Food Trust

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