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Where’s the beef?

Irish beef sells itself on its green and natural credentials. Does it live up to the hype and what part can it play in a sustainable diet? Footprint’s Amy Fetzer investigates.

It’s a funny few days to be finding out more about Irish beef and the Irish Food Board’s sustainability programme, Origin Green. Checking the news ahead of my flight to Ireland last Monday, the headlines are dominated by the IPCC report’s urgent conclusion that we must limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. And that we have a 12-year time frame in which to do it. Food and agriculture is responsible for between 20-30% of global emissions, and meat, and beef in particular, is in the firing line as a big emitter. So it is understandable why the IPCC report led to renewed calls for a 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.

The report’s conclusions mean I arrive in Ireland feeling shell-shocked and slightly sick with the seriousness and urgency of the situation. My biggest question for Origin Green and Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) is “what part can Irish beef play in helping to reduce food-related emissions?”

It’s a question foodservice should be taking seriously. Irish beef is a common feature of operator menus – McDonald’s, for example, heavily markets the fact it serves only Irish and British meat.

Leading brand operators have clearly defined sustainability policies – even if they can sometimes be hidden away on the corporate section of their website. And within these, emission reduction targets are common. The question is this: are these emission reduction targets enough? Are they aligned with realising the reduction targets science is telling us we need to achieve to prevent the catastrophic climate change the IPCC report says will accompany a 2ºC temperature rise? (A few of the dire predictions include 50% more of the world’s population experiencing water stress than at 1.5ºC, the loss of virtually all coral reefs, worse extreme weather events.)

So is foodservice taking into account one of the most impactful parts of its operations: the food on the plate?

With the rise of flexitarian, vegetarian and veganism, there has been a proliferation of meat-light and plant-focussed options. But my beef is this: operators remain wedded to the idea that for the majority of their offering, meat must be a major component of the meal.

When the WWF calculated how diets needed to change to eat to keep emissions within 2 degrees, they found that adult meat consumption needed to go from around 110g per day today to 33g by 2030. This includes an allowance of 4g of beef per day. And this was to stay within a 2 degree, not 1.5 degree, temperature rise.

Whenever I raise the question about reducing meat portion sizes with operators – high street and contract – insiders always tell me the same kind of thing. It goes something like this: “Our customers see meat as part of the value proposition. We can’t reduce it unless our competitors agree to reduce their meat portions too (which we’ll never get everyone to do). So if we do it, we’re the outlier and our customers will take their business elsewhere.”

I don’t doubt that these concerns are valid – these guys know their markets – but the industry needs to do more to address the cow (or lamb or chicken etc. etc.) in the room.

Perhaps, I wonder, this is where the Irish beef could help to play a part? Origin Green’s focus is on improving the sustainability of food production, aiming to align itself and its members to the UN Sustainable Development Goals over time.

My trip to Ireland to find out more first-hand has a very meaty itinerary. It’s not surprising for an isle with a population of 6.7 million bovine compared to 4.6 million people. There are detailed presentations on Irish beef farming, visits to a beef farmer, butchers and an illuminating trip to Dawn Meats – a major Irish meat processor.

As any food industry sustainability insider knows, one of the issues in assessing the impacts of the ingredients on the plate is that all foodstuffs are not created equal. Even the simple UK tomato can have a dramatically different environmental footprint depending on whether it has been grown outside in a field or in a fossil fuel-heated greenhouse. Beef is no different.

Irish dairy has the joint lowest emissions in Europe. Irish beef comes fifth with 19kg CO2-equivilant per kilo of beef. This is around 25% lower than France, Europe’s biggest bovine meat producer in 2016.

According to Bord Bia, the grass-based system is a large part of Irish beef’s sustainability story. Grass makes up over 80% of the diet of Irish beef cattle and this grassland could not easily be converted to crops because it is not suitable for arable farming.

Relatively few inputs are needed to provide feed because the grass only needs minimal fertiliser. Winter feed is usually silage grown in the farmer’s own fields. Though this coming winter, the hangover from the Beast from the East and the hot summer which decimated the grass means that many farmers may need to source some feed from elsewhere. This grass-based system means there is not the conflict that exists with grain-fed beef where crops that could be eaten by humans are grown for feed, with all the poor calorie conversion rates and impacts that involves.

Keeping the land as grass land also allows it to remain a carbon store (though what value this carbon sequestration has is yet to be calculated, I am told). Water – and beef is notoriously thirsty – is plentiful here (after all, it is Ireland) so herds do not cause issues of water scarcity. There are also health impacts. Grass-based beef has higher levels of vitamin A, carotene, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and v­itamin D, with the vitamin D in a form that is highly available for absorption.

However, the “grass is greener argument” has a flaw when it comes to enteric fermentation – or how much the cow farts. This is because research has shown that grass-fed cattle produce substantially more methane than grain-fed cattle.

Bord Bia argues that they are working on reducing emissions. Whilst agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of Irish greenhouse gas production, “agricultural emissions are in steady decline and are 9% lower than the 1990.” Ireland is “committed to reduce GHG emissions by 20% by 2020.”

The Origin Green programme works closely with farmers to help them identify ways in which they can reduce their impacts and save money. This includes farm audits which include inputting individual farm details into a carbon navigator and providing a help line to support individual farmers in implementing suggestions.

So far, Bord Bia has undertaken over 195,000 Carbon Trust accredited carbon footprint assessments. Suggestions include looking at ways to keep animals out in pasture for longer. Bord Bia estimate that for every 10 day increase in outdoor grazing there is a 1.7% reduction in GHGs and profit is increased by €25 per cow. Improving the calving rate by 0.1% accounts for a 8.3% GHG reduction.

There is also a beef genomics program aimed at reducing the emissions per cow by 5-10% each year through having a smaller cow which eats less, is more fertile and has more milk output per cow. But the programme still does not seem to be particularly addressing the issue of grass-fed cows farting more.

The programme also focusses on assurance and animal welfare. Grass-based farming has strong welfare credentials and Bord Bia assurance standards are some of the highest in the world, with good animal welfare standards. Most animals spend the majority of their lives outdoor grazing. Short travel distances – typically no more than 50km – to Irish-based slaughter houses, such as those operated by Dawn Meats, also help to reduce animal stress levels.

As an aside, I was also intrigued to learn from John McDonnell, an external meat consultant for Bord Bia, how this also has a massive impact on meat quality as animals stressed by slaughter yield tough meat. Apparently, the adrenaline released by stressed animals zaps blood sugar levels, hampering the release the lactic acid which is so vital for the maturation process. Having witnessed Dawn Meats slaughter first hand, the process certainly appears calm, quick and humane.

There are also farmers discussion groups which get farmers together to swap tips and talk shop – a key factor when many farmers spend all day alone on the farm. The audits also highlight ways to improve diversity and support eco systems – such as widening hedgerows and devoting land to wildlife.

But, do farmers actually take up these measures? Do they see economic benefits and what motivates them to give up potential grazing land to support eco systems? 64-year-old farmer James Grace was adamant that Origin Green was helping him “with the challenge of keeping the family farm alive over the next few years”. The program helps because it “organises you” and “keeps you on your toes”. For example, the support provided by the Teagasc, that State’s farm advisory service, had helped him to ensure he could accurately monitor his soil to ensure he only used the exact amount fertilizer required, reducing impacts and costs. He was also passionate about setting aside land for wildlife, seeing it as his duty to invest in ecosystems to help avoid more extreme weather such as that seen earlier this year.

The scheme also tackles waste and health, and has also expanded to incorporate packaging and plastics.

Bord Bia has done much with Origin Green that should be applauded. As the first national agency of its kind, it is valuable to have a food board putting sustainability at its heart, and taking on some of the tough issues of our time.

There is a lot more work to be done. Farmers need to be persuaded to adopt science-based targets, more energy must be invested in tackling cow farts, and better data is needed to be able to demonstrate the emission and impacts of Irish beef compared with other international sources. Bord Bia must also stay cognisant of its part in helping consumers – especially those in emerging markets – eat responsible volumes of beef and other animal proteins. 19kg of CO2/e per kilo of beef is still high compared to the emissions associated with most plant-based protein.

Bord Bia and Origin Green might not have all the answers. But when most sustainable diets are based on a maxim of “less but better meat”, supporting a segment of the beef industry that is working to get its house in order seems to make sense when beef is going to be on the menu. But it is also up to foodservice operators to work harder at making sure that when beef appears on the menu, it does so in more planet-friendly guises and portion sizes.

Amy Fetzer is Footprint’s Head of Research and Analysis