Meat is dead, long live meat: Can beef and dairy contribute to a climate fix?

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Obradovic
Image: Getty/Obradovic

Related tags: Meat, Dairy, regenerative agriculture

Agricultural production needs a fundamental re-think, but beef and dairy can be the answer to the world’s challenges rather than the demons.

Another week, another row about meat and its impact on the environment. Critics accused the UK government of a lack of urgency, for example, after recommendations that the public cut meat consumption were reportedly deleted from its much-anticipated Net Zero Strategy which sets out how to reach net zero emissions by 2050.  

But the current discussion that pits animal production against plant-based production lacks nuance, FoodNavigator’s recent Climate Smart Food​ event heard.

“The idea that we can take meat out of our diets represents a much-oversimplified understanding of the highly complex nature of the global food system,”​ said Peer Ederer, Program & Science Director at Global Food & Agribusiness Network.

Taking away meat from our diets would be a disaster for human health, he claimed, as the young, the old, the mothering and the weak depend on “these protein- and nutrient-dense foods for their well-being​” -- a fact he claimed is well acknowledged by the recent UN Nutrition Report​.

'Reduce the impacts of animal production, not the animals themselves'

Going vegetarian or vegan might be an option for healthy adults in the 20% of the world that is rich, suggested Ederer. But for the other 80% it is usually unaffordable, as animal sourced foods are the most affordable ways of providing protein-rich and nutrient-rich foods. “By the time we complete these maths,” ​he said, “the amount of meat reduction that is feasible without adverse consequences on the health of the vast majority of the global population is so negligible as to not move the needle anymore on any dimension.”​ 

The answer, he therefore contended, must be to reduce impacts of animal production, not the animals themselves.

Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director of Sustainable Nutrition at Forum for the Future, a non-profit that works with businesses and governments to accelerate the shift toward a sustainable future, agreed there’s a need to talk about the positive role of ruminants.

“Very clearly we have demonised beef and cattle production profoundly,”​ she said. “It’s a very simple message to send to the public: beef is bad; don’t eat beef then everything will be solved. But it’s not as simple as that.”

Both Ederer and Mitchell lauded regenerative agriculture: farming practices they believe could contribute to reversing climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring soil biodiversity.

The goals of the current food system are too focussed on maximizing shareholder return for short-term gain and ignore principles around sustainability and regeneration, lamented Mitchell. “But what I think we’re coming to now very rapidly is a reckoning that the food and agriculture systems need to shift those goals towards a regenerative approach that does look at drawing down carbon, and animals have a key role to play within that.”

The potential benefits of regenerative agriculture

One of the most exciting developments Mitchell sees is the re-thinking of farming’s potential to both sequester and drawdown carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a large scale​. But she added that solutions that don’t work across dimensions, for climate, biodiversity, human wellbeing and livelihoods (and in the case of farm animals, animal welfare) are simply not solutions at all.

Feed is clearly a massive issue as it drives land use change and diverts resources from human nutrition with inefficient protein conversion. But there are ways to make feed more efficient so it’s no longer associated with soybeans from Latin America causing deforestation; air miles; monocropping and pesticides; and reduced biodiversity.

For example, Ederer suggested there is a growing business case for making feed from waste valorization, or the process of reusing, recycling or composting waste materials.

"There’s an enormous flow of byproduct which aren’t currently utilised sufficiently which if we feed to monograstoic animals of poultry and pork we can unlock new sources of feed," ​he explained. "One of my favourite examples is for large mega cities in developing counties who really have very little chance of building up proper canalisation systems for human excrement. So there are commercial business cases available today where you collect human excrement in a sanitary way; you have soldier flies feed on this excrement and feed those soldier flies to animals to produce food.”

Indeed, insects fed from industrial side-stream waste and then directly consumed as food have the ‘greatest potential to reduce the carbon footprints of European consumers’​, a study recently claimed.

But there’s a need to look at consumption patterns as well as production. Eating less but better meat equals better quality and taste, as well being better for the environment, biodiversity and animal welfare, said Mitchell. “We should think about meat as the luxury it should and used to be, and coming from systems that are both carbon friendly and going to meet those wider goals that we want from our food system.”

The EAT Lancet report was no ‘vegan propaganda’ piece

Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist at WWF Global Science, agreed. Prior to WWF, Loken was co-author of the infamous EAT-Lancet report, unfairly accused in some quarters as pushing an anti-meat narrative.  

“People tend to co-opt it depending on what their agenda is,”​ explained Loken. “We never said meat and dairy is something people should get rid of. In some cases, people need to increase their consumption of meat especially in those countries where they’re under consuming it and they’re fighting undernutrition.”

It’s the overconsumption of meat and dairy in certain countries that we need to start curbing, he argued. “We need to rebalance the global consumption of meat and dairy to get to a level that the earth can tolerate,”​ he said. “The latest IPCC report made it clear that methane is the dark horse, and reducing these emissions will really buy us some time to be able to decarbonise other sectors. And that comes directly back to red meat consumption.​”

Talking about consumption is often toxic, however. “Everyone wants to talk about food, but nobody really wants to talk about food,”​ he said, illustrating the challenge of attempting to suggest people cut their meat and dairy intake. “There is a place for meat and dairy, nobody is arguing against that​,” he stressed. “But at the end of the day we have to also wrap our heads around the fact that we’re going to put another two billion people on this planet and we’re going to have to feed everybody. And we’re going to have to feed everybody with less impact than what we’re having today and if we don’t figure out how to solve that by addressing difficult things like consumption then we’re not going to be able to meet the Paris goals.”

What’s the key to cutting consumption? The industry is currently hurrying to embrace alternatives to meat protein. Will this pay off? “We have a huge shortage of bioavailable protein and nutrients on the global human plates, and the shortage is only growing by the day​,” said Ederer. “Every approach that can help close the gap, should be welcomed. This should not be a debate about animals versus alternatives, we should think about all possible ways to generate protein- and nutrient-dense foods with environmentally compatible production systems, and derive maximum synergy from them, in order to close the gap.”

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