Meat is on the agenda at the Glasgow Climate Conference. Meat and its climate impact is now at the forefront of public debate about how we the people can do our bit to Stop Climate Chaos. Naturally everybody is claiming that their answer is the right one. The Sheep lobby is putting up a stout defence for lamb – claiming it’s the most climate friendly food. The Beef and Dairy industry are doing the same, in the teeth of claims from the vegetarian and vegan lobby that meat is climate enemy Number One.
Claims and counterclaims fly around like the flies that land on your nose, but are too fast to be swatted. Spoiler alert: I am not going to be able to resolve all of these contradictory standpoints and claims, in 800 words today. As someone who has been immersed in conservation, grazing, agricultural policy, their effect on wildlife and the climate for over 30 years, I do not claim to have any answers. All I can offer are a few thoughts.
Most of the meat that we consume in this country is not produced sustainably and yes it does have an impact on the climate. Agriculture in the UK contributes about 10% of our overall climate impact (depending on how you define both). The fact that around 60% of the food we consume (and 75% of indigenous foods is produced in the UK, means that 40% is produced elsewhere, and we are importing a climate footprint from somewhere else with that food. For meat, most of what we consume is produced domestically – and the more intensively it’s produced, the larger the footprint, based on things like the amount of artificial fertiliser used to produce the feed, that constitutes a large part of the food used at the intensive end of the meat industry. Surprisingly therefore Chickens and Pigs, which are mainly fed concentrates, produced from arable fields here – and elsewhere in the world, have a significant climate footprint, even though they are not belching out Methane. Methane, the incredibly powerful but short-lived climate forcing gas – produced by ruminants like cattle and sheep.
In case you weren’t aware, there’s an almighty row going on over Methane, and in particular Methane that’s produced from natural sources (biogenic Methane) as opposed to fossil Methane, which for some unknown reason we still call “Natural Gas”. Researchers have concluded that Methane from biogenic sources – specifically ruminants, should be treated differently from fossil methane. This is because of the fact that Methane breaks down quickly in the atmosphere, so effectively the Methane produced from one cow only replaces the Methane produced from its grandmother – so there is no net additional climate forcing, as long as the herd stays at the same size. Inevitably the industry has leapt on these findings and championed them as supporting their claims that Beef and Dairy are the most climate-friendly foods.
Given how quickly Methane breaks down – the counter argument is that if we reduce our ruminant meat intake, we can have a significant and quick impact on the climate – much quicker than, say, watching trees grow for 50 years. Other factors come into play, such as how much carbon is locked up in grazing pastures – if we stopped eating Beef and cheese, or drinking milk what would happen to all those pastures? Would they get ploughed up – releasing all their carbon? Would they become intensive conifer plantations, perhaps storing a tiny bit of carbon? Would they be rewarded, covered in pheasants, or new houses? These questions are unanswerable.
Leaving climate to one side for a moment, how would our decisions on what we eat affect wild nature. Many, arguably most, of our wildlife depends on some kind of grazing to maintain the ecosystems we value, cherish and love. What would happen to them if all the grazing animals disappeared. Almost all of the formerly common habitats of wildlife-rich grassland, heathland and wood pasture have already gone from the UK. Together they add up to perhaps a few percent of the country. They depend on grazing animals to exist. Some are also incredibly important carbon stores – mires and wet heaths with their peaty soils, long-established grasslands with mineral soils storing over 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
Eating meat from animals that roam across these cherished habitats is perhaps the best approach if you want to help nature and the climate. At the moment farmers offering this are few and far between – often only available direct from the farm. If we all started asking our butchers, or even supermarkets, to stock wildlife-friendly meat, we could create the market to encourage other producers to join in. Much less would be available nationally and that means we all eat much less meat. But that would be no bad thing, as much for our health as for the planet.
Realistically of course, shifting our diet to one with much less meat, and only from truly sustainable sources, is only going to make a small difference to our overall climate impact. Far and away the most important thing we can all do, is continue to press our politicians to take the really big decisions.
(A slightly edited version of this blog appeared on the Green Alliance website )
PS Here’s the first blog I wrote about meat and wildlife, from October 2010