Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Blogs

FCRN commentary on Sustainable Food Trust blog on red meat.

June 23, 2014

Some of you may have noticed a recently posted blog by the Sustainable Food Trust’s policy director, Richard Young.  In it, Richard comments on the growing scientific attention being paid to meat eating, and highlights two of the most recent academic studies concluding that we need to eat less meat, and in particular less red meat if we are to address the many environmental challenges we face.  However, Richard then goes on to say: “Contrary to most other campaign groups, in direct opposition to them in fact, we believe that the consumption of red meat, dairy produce and animal fats needs to be increased, not decreased.”

He then makes a number of points about the health profile and environmental sustainability of red meat.  We at the FCRN would like to offer our own commentary on some of these  statements.

Richard begins by saying that red meat and milk consumption in the UK has fallen.  This is true for the UK (although the decline in milk has been partially offset by the increase in other dairy products).  But our comment here is that at a global level the picture is one of increase.

He then rightly points out that much of the evidence on the health impacts of red meat (and other kinds of meat) is associational and that there are a great many confounding factors that need to be taken in to account (and indeed studies do tend to take them into account) when linking meat or red meat consumption to particular health outcomes.  The pathways linking meat (and red meat and processed meat) consumption to health are certainly complex and indeed the FCRN has explored some of this complexity in our discussion paper, “What is a sustainable healthy diet” here .  Having said that, the blog then goes onto shift the health ‘blame’ onto grain fed pork and to infer an association between chicken consumption and various negative health impacts: “Consumption of (mostly intensively produced) chicken though, the supposedly healthy meat, has almost doubled from about 140 to 270 grams pppw. … Yet during this period obesity, type-2 diabetes and dementia have become major problems, while the underlying rates of heart disease and cancer have barely improved and may even have worsened, if all factors are considered” – an inference that is not born out by evidence.

Richard Young’s preferred approach is that we should all be eating more organic, grass fed beef, and indeed he argues that we are evolved to eat this way – an argument akin to those made by paleo diet advocates.  Leaving aside for a moment what the global environmental implications might be of 9 billion people all eating more grass-fed red meat than your average UK citizen, it is worth noting that the idea we are all evolutionarily ‘meant’ to eat in a certain way is somewhat spurious - see for example a debunking article here.  The great thing about humans is their adaptability to a very wide range of diets. 

Turning now to the environment: Richard Young’s main points are as follows:

a. He suggests methane isn’t really a problem: He writes: “methane breaks down in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide and water after 7-12 years, and the total amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is exactly the same as the amount taken out by the growing grasses that grass-fed animals consume.”  This is not the case.  Averaged over a 100 year period, the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is about 25 (carbon dioxide is 1).  Viewed over a 20 year period it is a much higher 72.  See for example the IPCC on this.  From a policy perspective, one might argue that, given the need reduce GHG concentrations in the atmosphere as fast as possible, addressing methane, which has a very high short term GWP, might be a sensible start.  

b. He argues that the demand for grains to feed poultry (and pigs) has led to the ploughing up of UK grasslands and, overseas, to the ploughing up of land for soy destined for UK markets- leading not just to soil carbon losses but also the loss of indigenous land rights.   He also says that the carbon sequestering potential of grasslands is not currently given consideration and it should be.  

What should we make of these statements?  For a start, the ploughing up of UK grasslands for grain production is indeed a problem.  These grains go to feed not only chickens and pigs but also beef and dairy cattle.  Of course Richard’s point is that grain feeding to livestock is at the root of the problems, whether this feed goes to chickens or to ruminants.  However it is extremely difficult to see how everyone in the UK could eat ‘more’ red meat than they currently do on UK grasslands alone.   At a global level, if all 9 billion of us ate (higher than) UK average quantities of grass fed beef we would be deforesting right left and centre.

As to the problem of soy (which is imported) - this is certainly a problem.  Pigs and chickens are the main consumers of soy, although dairy cows consume considerable quantities too.  The logical conclusion one might draw from this observation though, is that we need to eat less meat, not that we need to eat red meat instead of white meat.  Note an excellent study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change and written by a team at Cranfield University, which modelled various scenarios of meat consumption in the UK and their impacts on land use – it is summarised here:  The study models among other things a switch in UK consumption from red to white meat, and finds that while switch leads to some increase in land requirements overseas (for feed) this is over compensated for by a reduction in UK land requirements.  A reduction meat consumption across all meat types leads to a substantial release of land which in turn could be used for diverse purposes including rewilding, afforestation or other forms of carbon sequestration.

This leads on to the grazing lands sequester carbon issue.  In his blog, Richard highlights ‘recent studies’ that show that grazed grassland continues to take carbon out of the soil.  But in response, it is worth pointing to a recent article in Global Change Biology by Professor Pete Smith, a soil scientist at Aberdeen University, and lead author of the IPCC’s chaper on agricultural mitigation in AR5 (see Chapter 11). The abstract of the article says this (bold emphasis is mine):

“It is increasingly commonly suggested that grasslands are a perpetual sink for carbon, and that just maintaining grasslands will yield a net carbon sink. I examine the evidence for this from repeated soil surveys, long term grassland experiments and simple mass balance calculations. I conclude that it is untenable that grasslands act as a perpetual carbon sink, and the most likely explanation for observed grassland carbon sinks over short periods is legacy effects of land use and land management prior to the beginning of flux measurement periods. Simply having grassland does not result is a carbon sink, but judicious management or previously poorly managed grasslands can increase the sink capacity. Given that grasslands are a large store of carbon, and that it is easier and faster for soils to lose carbon that it is for them to gain carbon, it is an important management target ton maintain these stocks.”  The full citation for this is Smith P (2014). Do grasslands act as a perpetual sink for carbon? Glob Chang Biol. 2014 Mar 7. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12561. [Epub ahead of print]

In short, while there are important reasons for maintaining existing grasslands (as carbon stores and for their role in maintining biodiversity) grasslands do not constitute a get-out-of-jail free card for carbon sequestion.

Richard’s final point in the blog is that synthetic nitrogen is the cause of all our troubles and should be replaced by grasslands containing clovers.  Synthetic nitrogen use and overuse has indeed cause a vast number of problems, including GHG emissions, eutrophication, ammonia emissions and more.  But Richard does not address the land-requirement implications of a switch over to synthetic nitrogen free organic agriculture (although others have – a great deal more land would be required to feed us at current consumption levels – see for example articles here , here and here – although things would be easier if we ate less meat, including red meat (something Richard doesn’t want us to do).   

This has been a long commentary which perhaps pays more attention to the SFT blog than it deserves.  The two main points to note are these:

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. 

2. 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.


Geoff Beacon's picture
Submitted by Geoff Beacon (not verified) on

Cut Methane emissions and the effects are almost immediate. Methane lasts in the atmosphere for about a decade. But methane has greater political problems because much of it is produced by livestock. Dissing beefburgers is politically difficult but crossing the farming lobby is political suicide. We must find ways of educating the public and buying off the farmers.

Cooling and Supercooling

The paper by Shindell et al., “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions“, (Science 30 October 2009) argues that methane is more potent than previously realised. This is due to the interaction with black carbon. The paper gives a revised Global Warming Potential for methane measured over 100 years as 33. This is an increase of over 30% compared to the value of 21 given in the IPCC Second Assessment Report used for the Kyoto Protocol.
Some commentators feel the impact of methane is better assessed by a GWP measured over 20 years.  (See Livestock and Climate Change,  Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang) Shindell et al. calculate this GWP to be 105. If this measure were used the climate impact of methane would be 5 times the value agreed at Kyoto.

Soot makes methane even worse

Chris Smaje's picture
Submitted by Chris Smaje (not verified) on

It's hard to disagree with your conclusions as stated, but I think they somewhat miss the point of Young's post, and there are quite a lot of questionable assertions in your commentary leading up to them. For example, the 'debunking article' about palaeo diets is a blog post that largely misses the point and does little more than knock down a series of straw wo/men. Why not refer to more nuanced peer-reviewed work, such as that by Kuipers et al? And your 'land sparing' take on organic agriculture misses the opportunity to adopt a more subtle agroecological position on farm scale, market orientation, labour inputs and the consumer-producer power nexus which would call into question a simplistic equation between biotic nitrogen and greater land take. Young certainly overstates and oversimplifies his case, but I think you do too - on balance, I find the way he's reaching for a different narrative about food, farming and consumption more thought-provoking than your 'business-as-usual-but-with-less-meat' approach. Your first conclusion is over the top - is Young arguing that everyone in the world should eat 50% more beef & lamb than current UK levels? I don't think so. The approach I'd infer from his analysis is one of substantial UK food autarky, no grains or soya fed to livestock,  mostly biotic nitrogen and much greater horticultural production, with labour input modelled as an outcome of those assumptions. If anyone's done that kind of analysis, I'd be interested to see it.

Tara Garnett's picture
Submitted by Tara Garnett on

Dear Chris

Thanks for these helpful comments. You're right -I may have overstated and simplified my case, perhaps in response to Richard's article which also simplified the issues. Thanks for pointing this out.  I'd like to make four points:

a. I am certainly no fan of intensive, grain-dependent pig and poultry production and indeed see an important role for grazing livestock in making use of uplands and residues - I've made this point elsewhere (see Garnett T (2009) Livestock related greenhouse gas emissions: impacts and options for policy makers. Environmental Science and Policy 12, 491-503. My position here is not so dissimilar for Richard's.  However my main point that I would like to emphasise again is that it is not that some types of livestock production are 'better' or 'less bad' than others but rather that the value of the type of livestock systems that Richard advocates only obtains in the context of considerably lower levels of meat consumption.  More red meat -or any other kind of meat - is never going to constitute a solution.

b. I also recognise and accept your point about over-dominant power structures and the need to consider a range of agricultural approches depending on context, including a greater role for biotic nitrogen and the application of agro-ecological principles (as well as other approaches) .  I absolutely do NOT see my position as one of 'business as usual but with less meat' as you suggest.  But I do see a shift to less meat (not no meat) as an essential pillar of a non-business-as usual way forward.

c. On the point you make about the UK versus the global situation.  Maybe Richard was not suggesting this at a global level (and Richard will be responding to my commentary in due course - I am very keen to promote more discussion on these issues) but if one is to make the nutritional case for red meat (as Richard does) then from an equity point of view that case needs to be made for everyone. Why should only people in wealthy countries be able to enjoy an 'optimal' diet, however that is defined?  It may be that 'good enough' is all that we will be able to afford, environmentally speaking. 

d. I agree with you that there is interesting work to be done to model more imaginative food futures for the UK - and elsewhere.  However when considering what this might mean for ruminant livestock production in the UK, a) a totally grain-free livestock system is not likely to yield 'more' red meat than we consume today.  And b) if we are to be really imaginative we may need to also explore a range of alternative landscapes for the UK - different uses for uplands, rewilding and so forth.  I am  not suggesting that a hypothetical option A is going to be better than option B or C but rather that that conversation needs to be had.

Best wishes




Chris Smaje's picture
Submitted by Chris Smaje (not verified) on

Thanks for responding, Tara. Your comments make a lot of sense, and I agree that to argue for more meat consumption does over-egg (over-meat?) the argument somewhat. Your point (c) raises some interesting issues. As a paid up member of Via Campesina & the food sovereignty movement, I'm committed to broadly local food solutions, which in much of the UK might produce a diet of bread, porridge, veg, red meat and not too much pork and poultry. Other places would be different. Certainly there are global equity issues, but in my opinion these are generally exacerbated by global trade - I'm not in favour of efforts to equalise red meat availability globally through the market, particularly since the result of that would surely be to increase its availability to the wealthy in poor countries and not to the poor. However, if we were to pursue a strategy of food self-reliance in the UK, we'd undoubtedly have to eat less meat, or else spend a lot more time and effort engaged in farming. We'd also have to end the absurd ban on pig swill, which would be one positive outcome...   

Philip Richardson's picture
Submitted by Philip Richardson (not verified) on

I am afraid I must take issue with Chris Smale when he refers to 'ending the absurd ban on pig swill' (24th June posting). While it makes sense in principle to maximise the utilisation of waste products in feeding pigs, there is a huge commercial risk in allowing the use of swill from households and some commercial and catering outlets. The last outbreak of foot and mouth in the UK in 2001 was in all likelihood caused by innappropriate use of swill feeding. That cost more than £10billion to clear up and a great deal of heartache to those involved. The majority of UK pigs are currently fed on liquid co-product diets, which are safe and traceable products from some food processing operations, which might otherwise be thrown away. The swill issue is one of those issues where well meaning people without practical knowledge of the industry can actually lobby for the wrong solution. That is why a forum such as this must try to represent all sides of the highly complex questions which currently challenge us.

Philip Richardson

Chris Smaje's picture
Submitted by Chris Smaje (not verified) on

I agree that it's good to represent all sides of the question, so I'm glad to see Phillip Richardson's response to my perhaps somewhat provocative aside about the swill ban. However, I don't agree that opposing the swill ban necessarily comes from well meaning ignorance or is the 'wrong solution' - as in the original FCRN/SFT debate, in determining the 'right solution' much depends on what kind of food and farming system one wishes to see. From a food sovereignty/smallholder perspective, the response to the 2001 F&M outbreak and the resultant costs and heartache could be seen as a hugely mistaken overreaction, and likewise the subsequent swill ban. So while there may well be a 'huge commercial risk' in allowing swill feeding under the present agricultural regimen, the risks to animal health and food security could nevertheless be quite small. Maybe Phillip or someone else with more practical knowledge of the industry than a small-scale pig keeper like me can tell me how much UK pig feed currently comes from waste or co-product and how much from cereals and soya grown on land that could otherwise have produced human food - another dimension of the sparing/sharing argument which is rarely highlighted. Or if any plausible cost-benefit analyses were done to demonstrate that the risks of swill feeding outweigh the costs of growing feed & disposing of food waste? I found Simon Fairlie's article 'Swill, swine fever and slaughter' in The Land 15 2013/14 pp.21-25 quite plausible on all this, but I'd be interested in others' perspectives.

Geoff Beacon's picture
Submitted by Geoff Beacon (not verified) on

In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other top officials, Drew Shindell of Duke University, Michael Mann of Penn State University, Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute, Robert Howarth of Cornell University and 17 other leading climate scientists also called for aggressive reductions of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, the agricultural sector and other sources, because methane leaves the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide and therefore provides an important opportunity to make significant near-term cuts in greenhouse gas pollution.

... and of course the scary video Last Hours.  Comments on that are welcome.

Add new comment

Member input

Plain text

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.