Top farmers defend red meat production as vegan trend gains momentum

Cows and grass are part of the solution to climate change, given that carbon intake by grass is rap

Cows and grass are part of the solution to climate change, given that carbon intake by grass is rapid when it is kept in a growing state, claims Brian Barker Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

East Anglian farmers have spoken up in defence of extensively-farmed red meat production after reports suggesting we should move towards a plant-based diet to save the planet.

Suffolk organic farmer John Pawsey who now has 1,000 breeding ewes on his farm, helping the soil Pi

Suffolk organic farmer John Pawsey who now has 1,000 breeding ewes on his farm, helping the soil Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

A major scientific report in August 2019 for the United Nation's (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) became the latest to suggest we should cut our meat consumption. The reports have prompted a growing cultural shift towards vegan and vegetarian diets.

But large-scale Suffolk organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling, near Bury St Edmunds, who is chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) organic forum, Agricultural Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) Strategic Farmer Brian Barker of Westhorpe, Stowmarket - who provides a forward-thinking farming template for others to follow - and NFU deputy president Guy Smith, who farms at St Osyth, near Clacton, have all argued that extensively farmed animals which are sustainably produced can be helpful to the environment, and their benefits should not be dismissed.

MORE - Dairy farmer counts cost as extreme weather puts £60k-sized hole in his financesMr Pawsey, who adopted a flock of sheep five years ago, turning his wholly arable operation into a mixed one, said there were a number of benefits to a mixed system. He believes that the loss of grazing animals from UK farmland has affected soil fertility.

"Grazing animals have been the backbone of arable rotations for millennia in building soil organic matter through the use of leys. They produce manure that allows us to transfer fertility from one part of the rotation to another, they clean our stubbles to keep subsequent crops free of weeds and they add another enterprise to our businesses to spread financial risk," he said.

Clacton MP Giles Watling visits National Farmers' Union (NFU) deputy president Guy Smith, centre. Gu

Clacton MP Giles Watling visits National Farmers' Union (NFU) deputy president Guy Smith, centre. Guy Smith argues for a more balanced debate about meat eating Picture: GUY SMITH - Credit: Archant

"Although animals in some farming systems can be contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, extensively grazed animals offset the need to bring in fertiliser, as well as deal with many of the weed, pest and disease problems we see in our crops through increasing soil health."


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Mr Smith has criticised "selective and distorting" media stories about turning to vegetable-based diets because of climate change, and has instead argued in favour of local, sustainably-produced meat.

"What the media ought to be doing is encouraging consumers concerned about their carbon footprint to source their meat locally and sustainably from farms where beef animals mainly graze," he said.

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Mr Barker said vegan diets would not solve climate change, arguing instead that cows, and other herbivores were "part of the solution", given that carbon intake by grass is rapid when grass is kept in a growing state by grazing.

AHDB Strategic Farmer Brian Barker, who thinks grazing animals are helpful overall in combating cli

AHDB Strategic Farmer Brian Barker, who thinks grazing animals are helpful overall in combating climate change Picture: GREGG BROWN

"Herbivores are giant pruners and recyclers: they graze grass, which stimulates more green leaf. The plant needs to regenerate by energy absorption and photosynthesis and in so doing, it absorbs more carbon dioxide.

"In turn, that recycling gives us high-quality sustainable meat and fresh compostable organic matter (dung) that the soil bacteria can feed on, which fuels the plant growth," he said.

"We all need to look at our food habits and change to more a local, seasonal, sustainable food supply."

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