Lamb versus lentils

THE CONCEPT of cutting meat consumption to save the planet is a difficult one to swallow – especially for a nation that prides itself on livestock farming and craves roast beef on a Sunday. Indeed, it’s an idea that environmentalists love, politicians hate, food companies (often) ignore and consumers don’t really understand.


However, everyone seems to have an opinion.


The trouble is, this is a complex issue that has long been over-simplified by polarising the debate to “meat-eaters versus vegetarians” (or “lamb versus lentils”). Look at what happened when Lord Stern (famous for his ground-breaking review of the economics of climate change) tried to offer some advice on the subject: “climate chief says go veggie to save the planet” screamed the headlines.


In fact, that isn’t what Lord Stern had said, as he asserted in a letter to the offending paper the next day: “I was not demanding people become vegetarians, but instead suggested that they should be aware that the more meat that they eat, the higher the emissions of greenhouse gases.” As he also pointed out: “It’s a fact that the production of meat can be relatively carbon-intensive because of the energy used to rear and feed the animals, and the methane emitted by livestock.”


Animal-based foods generally have large impacts on the environment due to the inefficiencies of converting feed into meat or milk. The conversion efficiency of plant into animal matter is around 10%. Thus, as WWF-UK’s One Planet Food team advocates, there is a prima facie case that more people could besupported from the same amount of land if they were vegetarians. However, the argument that all meat (and dairy) consumption is bad is, unlike your average dairy cow, far from black and white.


And so we turn to this week’s report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Beef and Lamb. Following months of discussions with farmers, food companies (including McDonald’s) and environmentalists, the group has concluded that the “eat less meat to save the planet” message is too simple. Neil Parish, MP, and his team could have come to a similar in a couple of hours spent reading some of the work carried out by the Food Ethics Council and WWF-UK over the past three years. “We appreciate that this is a complex area, and feelings run high […] an ‘eat less red meat to save the planet’ message is too simplistic,” said WWF-UK’s Duncan Williamson.


However, the AAPG also claims there is no clear evidence of the environmental impact of livestock production. Parish, the chair, said: “Currently, we are not fully able to quantify the carbon footprint of red meat or the foodstuffs that some would seek to replace meat with. […]until more sufficient scientific data is available […] policymakers simply cannot work within a framework needed to respond to the issue of sustainable food production.”


There is plenty of research to suggest otherwise, including that from the United Nations, the government and WWF. The government’s Green Food Project has even investigated the potential for the reformulation of meals using less meat – so it must be confident with the evidence. (Some hospitality and foodservice companies are also looking seriously at higher-veg and lower meat menus).


This group of MPs, on the other hand, is not. And nor is Parish (though I’m not surprised given his previous comments in response to Lord Stern’s views). According to WWF-UK, food consumption accounts for 30% of the UK’s carbon footprint, with livestock a “hotspot”. However, it seems that the creation of sustainable diets – and the move to “less, but better” meat consumption proposed by environmental groups and Lord Stern – remains a hot potato. In the aftermath of the horse meat scandal, isn’t this the ideal time to promote such a message(?). It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s raised at this week’s BPEX conference – “Sustaining the health of the nation: What role for red meat?”. Let the debate continue.