Should we reject meat in favour of plant-based foods to 'save' the planet?
PUBLISHED: 16:51 11 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:52 11 February 2019
A report suggesting plant-based diets are better for us, and better for the planet, has provoked mixed reactions from East Anglia's food and farming community, with some pointing out the important role livestock plays in creating good farm systems.
The EAT-Lancet Commission report, which brought together 37 leading scientists human health, agriculture, political sciences and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, has come up with some startling conclusions, including the need for “substantial dietary shifts” – with drastic cuts in red meat consumption.
“Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%,” it said as it called for ‘sustainable’ food systems.
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Suffolk pig farmer Alastair Butler of Blythburgh Free Range Pork felt the report was “well-intentioned but incredibly flawed”, and that it was “nonsense” to suggest people should reduce their total red meat consumption to less than half a rasher of bacon a day.
“The idea of demonising meat as being bad for your health is a rather outdated concept with modern nutrition. Meat is a great source of protein, and in some cases fat, both are important macro nutrients that can be part of a healthy diet,” he said.
“If somebody wants to do their bit for the environment, there are far more effective ways, such as reducing their plastic use or reducing their car or air miles, rather than trying to target the livestock farming industry. Responsible farming plays a positive role in the environment and it’s wrong to suggest otherwise.”
Organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling Park Farm, near Bury St Edmunds, used to run an all-arable operation, but decided to introduce sheep recently in order to increase the fertility in his soils. With just two harvests under his belt, he is already reaping the benefits, with yields on the rise.
He hopes the report won’t discourage arable farmers from returning to the ‘mixed farm’ approach, which he sees as beneficial on a number of fronts, including increasing soil fertility through natural means rather than artificial fertilisers, and reducing pesticide use and weed control.
It was a complex issue, he said. A historic trend towards coming out of mixed farming did have an adverse effect on soil health, and a “diverse, mixed farming system” is beneficial overall, he argued.
However, there was no doubt meat consumption had increased hugely from when he was a child. “Possibly we should be looking at our diets to adjust that consumption,” he said. “But meat from complex systems, especially mixed farming systems with high animal welfare standards, should be an important consideration.” The UK should be “incredibly proud” of its high animal welfare standards, he added.
However, fellow organic farmer William Kendall of Maple Farm, Kelsale, Saxmundham, welcomed the report, pointing out that small but growing numbers of farmers, producers and consumers have been following the advice contained in it for years, with ‘smart’ business listening to the public mood.
“It comes with authority; its tone is upbeat, cheerful and advisory. It only tells many millions of people something which they knew and were practising more or less already but with more scientific detail,” he said.
“Parts of the food industry, and agriculture in particular which is most divorced from the consuming public, may see it as a threat. It only is if you fail to see the core message as the huge opportunity it presents. People still need to eat and will increasingly value certain foods produced in a certain way.
“This may be new varieties of legumes or high-quality red meat. For anybody thinking that there is a long term future in farming wastefully, using large quantities of damaging external inputs or in believing that the general public will all ignore the report’s advice and opt for unhealthy, life-shortening diets, then I don’t fancy their chances. Change is not linear.”
Local food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook of Great Glemham, near Saxmundham, whose family farm sheep, described it as “a very important report”, explaining why our eating habits need to change for the sake of the environment – and our own survival.
“It has been pointed out by Christopher Snowdon at the Institute of Economic Affairs that, in order to achieve this, the UK would have to cut meat consumption by 80%. This would be an immense challenge, both to governments and to individuals,” she pointed out.
“The report suggests that this could be achieved through taxation, restricting advertising, reducing choice, banning certain products and other rather draconian measures. In developed countries, however, the influence of the media and campaigners may be more effective.”
Radical change to diet was “a very complex issue” and it was important to differentiate between industrial meat production based on a grain diet and much smaller scale or extensive livestock farming where the animals are mainly fed on grass and arable by-products, she argued.
“Grazing by livestock is a key requirement for both the biodiversity and beauty of much of our most precious landscapes, while the by-product they produce (farmyard manure) is an invaluable contribution to the health of our soils,” she said.
“These animals have to have an additional economic use, which is to provide meat. Eaten in moderation, meat from these animals could be seen as helping maintain the environment rather than destroying it. However, overall, both nationally and internationally this report is a wake-up call both for governments and ourselves.”
Robert Sheasby, who was formerly eastern director of the National Farmers’ Union and is now chief executive of the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), said the report’s recommendations will need to be used wisely to help to address the twin challenges of adequate food consumption and climate change.
“The global debate is an important one, but we would like it to be viewed at a national level considering the land capability, climate and the benefits offered by the UK’s food chain, its farming systems and the nation’s landscape,” he said.
“Meat and livestock products are amongst the UK’s best assets for not only achieving a balanced healthy diet for domestic and overseas needs but also in creating a balanced and healthy farming landscape.
“A dramatic shift from established national guidelines for a balanced diet including high quality red meat and animal protein, as suggested by the EAT-Lancet Commission report, needs to be carefully considered, domestically, if it is to deliver the right outcomes locally and globally for food producers and consumers alike.”
Farmers were striving to reduce emissions, and the AIC was working with the UK Former Foodstuffs Processing Association to retain more than 650,000 tonnes of food products within the circular economy to prevent food waste, he added.
“The challenges rely on everyone consuming in moderation and reducing food waste. In this way, we can achieve national ambitions for sustainability and contribute to international goals,” he said.