Cutting through the January meat myths
Gwyn Howells, Chief Executive of Hybu Cig Cymru
In recent years January, along with furniture sales and failed resolutions, has been a month where we seem to be challenged about our dietary choices, and their impact on our planet.
Meat in particular comes in for fierce scrutiny, and the debate on social media has become increasingly shrill in tone. The vegan lifestyle seems to attract more attention than its number of adherents (currently 1.16% of the UK population) warrants.
This article argues that we don’t need to feel guilty about enjoying steak or lamb cawl so long as we know where the meat came from, and that making sustainable dietary choices could be good news for Welsh farming. But to do so, we first need to address some of the more pernicious January myths.
Myth 1. Livestock farming emits lots of CO2
Counting all emissions, agriculture ranks well behind sectors such as transport and energy generation. Beef and sheep farming are responsible for around 4% of the UK’s GHG emissions.
Farming’s main greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not CO2, but methane and nitrous oxide. A growing body of evidence suggests that methane, though a potent GHG, is less damaging than previously thought, as it lasts around a decade in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 can last over a century.
Farming in Wales is already taking steps to reduce emissions of both nitrous oxide (by reducing fertiliser use) and methane – including pioneering work at Aberystwyth University.
Myth 2. Cutting down on meat is unquestionably good for your health.
Sure, many people could benefit from eating a balanced diet that includes more vegetables. But meat too has its place in healthy diets. Worryingly, there is ample evidence that some groups in society increasingly suffer from deficiencies of minerals such as iron and zinc, which are found in abundance in red meat.
Most people do not eat more than the Government’s recommended intake of 500g (cooked weight) of red meat per week.
Myth 3. To make your diet more sustainable you have to cut down on red meat
Despite the existence of some ‘calculators’ that claim a simple equation between your diet and your carbon footprint, there is a vast difference between farming systems in different regions.
In Wales, the landscape is ideally suited to raising sheep and cattle outdoors using natural grass, a type of farming which is a world away from intensive systems in other parts of the globe.
Oft-cited ‘global’ figures, for instance that it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef, can be misleading. In the most sustainable farming systems the figure is closer to 200 litres.
Recent international studies such as the IPCC report, while critical of poor environmental practices in some countries, see sustainable types of livestock and dairy farming as part of the solution to climate change and global food security, and reject responses such as ‘rewilding’ or a wholesale switch to meat-free diets.
The choice facing consumers
The lack of distinction between environmentally-damaging systems overseas and the largely grass-fed, free-range types of farming which are the norm closer to home was at the heart of the fierce criticism of the BBC’s Meat: a Threat to Our Planet documentary last year.
This programme risked giving British consumers a misleading picture by highlighting damaging practices in countries such as Brazil and the USA while ignoring how meat is produced here.
It concluded with presenter Liz Bonnin saying that she’d taken the personal decision to cut red meat from her diet due to concerns over global factory food production, which makes little sense when one considers that most of the beef and lamb on sale in Britain comes from non-intensive farming, a claim which cannot be made for several other types of protein on our supermarket shelves.
The opportunity for Welsh farming
PGI Welsh Lamb and PGI Welsh Beef have sustainability credentials which should resonate with today’s consumer, backed up by farm-to-fork traceability.
It won’t be easy to cut through the current media narrative, fed by a food industry which has a vested interest in using an overly-simplistic green message to sell us expensive, out-of-season, highly-processed meat-free products.
But Hybu Cig Cymru is investing £250,000 in a campaign over the next few weeks to make the positive case for lamb and beef from Wales, and is working with partner organisations across Britain on a broader promotional programme on health and sustainability.
A focus on the real challenge
All parts of our society need to play their part in mitigating the climate crisis we face. But we must recognise that the lamb and beef sector in Europe, and in Wales in particular, has a sound record in terms of its sustainability. It is also distinctive in the positive contribution it can make in terms of capturing carbon and regenerating our soil.
Arguing that one type of food is bad and another good, regardless of its origin and production methods, is not a rational response, and risks deflecting attention from the difficult choices needed to tackle climate change.
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Excellent sensible argument. Our real fear is low quality imported meat e.g. from North America. The distinction between high quality local meat and veg and imported foods needs to be continually highlighted. Including environmental impact of transporting goods from afar.
I would not worry about imported meat. Just don’t buy it, whatever its quality. Spending money is like voting. More powerful than voting actually. How you spend your money has a direct effect on how well your economy and community develops over time. If we stopped spending our money in supermarkets and only patronised local businesses and local products, our economy and communities would thrive.
Honeyed leg of Welsh lamb……………mmm!
The issues are complex to be sure, However on ‘Myth 2’ you refer to ‘ample evidence’ of iron and zinc deficiencies in some groups. Could you cite some evidence please?
There is a well referenced article on https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-nutrients-you-cant-get-from-plants#4
I’m not much of a beef eater, but I do enjoy lamb. And I only buy Welsh lamb. If more people consciously chose to source most of their food from Wales we’d have a much healthier economy. Just make sure it’s not “Halal meat”. Animal torture has no place in Wales. Since it was mentioned, CO2 is plant food. If it dips too low life on our planet dies. Recent analysis of ice cores have shown that CO2 does not cause temperature rise. It’s the other way around. Temperature rise causes increased CO2. Of course the MSM, ever faithful to… Read more »
Animal torture has no place in wales, but slaughter’s okay? Selective empathy.
I make that three conspiracy theories for the price of one. Good work.
Very good article and very informative. I didn’t know vegans were such a tiny proportion of the population. The way the BBC goes on you would think they were the majority.
The number of vegans and vegetarians in Europe seems to be proportionate to the quality of a country’s food culture.
Interesting that there is no ‘Hybu Llysiau a Ffrwythau Cymru’ isn’t it, set up to promote Welsh vegetables and fruits? The farming industry in Wales is obsessed with meat, and have completely forgotten their role in producing vegetables and fruits too. Seems stupid having this argument if the people of Wales can’t source locally produced veg as well, and the focus is only on where the meat comes from – what about the rest of the plate (assuming you do eat veg as well and are not on course for bowel cancer from such a high meat diet)? It’s just… Read more »
which sector of the farming industry do you work in? (assuming since your quite strong on your opinion that you know what you’re talking about !) You do know that 80% of our country is classed LFA, and that grazing is more suitable than arable production for the vast majority of land.
Really?! So how did our ancestors survive before all this meat entered their diet?
Stick a fork in it the argument is overdone!
Very poor quality root vegetables.
Grazing is only viable cos the trees have all been cut down
Most vegetables I eat come from Wales. Pembrokeshire and the Vale of Glamorgan being the largest producers, at least in south Wales.
I live in Cwm Garw. Old-timers have told me that around the middle of the 20th century most households here had a garden or an allotment and grew much of their own food. Now only a couple of the allotments are still being used.
I’m currently starting a 2 acre orchard of rare Welsh fruit varieties. Apples, cherries, plums and pairs. Maybe local fresh food will catch on again?
Good for you. Locally grown fruit and veg is the way to go despite seasonal limitations, although those can be mitigated to some extent by using polytunnels and similar rigs for selected plants.
Well done Simon yet another person who’ll survive when the supermarkets crumble!
Keep producing and keep healthy!
The best of our arable land is disappearing under concrete and tarmac; housing estates, the product of LDP’s forced upon us by the London government, regardless of ‘local’ demand, and which both Labour and Plaid Cymru have singularly and shamefully failed to oppose.
A constructive and interesting article and a refreshing change from whittering on about the Welsh language.
Although the article is factual and well reasoned, it does skip over the real concerns by localising the subject. My village is peaceful and a happy place. That doesn’t mean I will not be affected or concerned by a world outside that is at war. The issues around meat production and consumption must also be considered in global context or the article should explain how we are immune from the repercussions of global environmental harm, caused by industrial farming methods. Wales having a high standard of farming doesn’t mitigate the damage done by the big brands that are all over… Read more »
The Welsh agriculture sector are not bothered about the global element it’s all about the “me” in meat in Wales!.. I am all for eat local and buy local and eating less meat. But if Welsh farmers are not innovative enough and take seriousl the quesion of sustainability and do not change their ways of farming and selling they are stuffed by globalism, eating trends, brexit and climate change
Only 5-8% of Welsh meat is actually consumed in Wales. Of the 20% of land suitable for arable use in Wales, we use only 0.05%. We import 97% of our fruit and 93% of our vegetables. Unless we can consume our own, locally produced food, arguing about whether we should eating meat or not is missing the point somewhat, since transporting food and animal feed across the globe adds significantly to its carbon footprint.
Why is New Zealand lamb cheaper than Welsh lamb? Genuine question. Given the number of sheep in Wales and their proximity to consumers one would expect it to be the other way around.
I’ve wondered about that for years too, and never come across an answer ..
I thought it was down to the sheer size (no pun intended) of sheep farms down under. 30 million sheep in NZ, 10 million in Wales. New Zealand 7 sheep to 1 person. Wales 3 to 1 giving a certain economy of scale re production costs. Though I think that since 2016 the price hasn’t been that different. I certainly remember last year seeing Welsh lamb chops at £10/Kg while the NZ chops were almost £12. And the pound exchange rate post Brexit has also narrowed the price difference. I have long made a point of buying Welsh lamb over… Read more »
I would hazard to guess that excessive bureaucracy and tax is the reason lamb from half way around the world can compete with lamb from next door for price. Now that we are leaving the EU we could apply tariffs to NZ lamb and solve the problem pronto.
It’s because new Zealand has the volume to export. The New Zealand government has invested for many decades in its meat industry. So has greater infrastructure to freeze and keep an all year round industry, meeting the seasonal nature of lamb in the UK. Who knows what tariffs could do but it is more likely we will see more imported meat when our trade deals unfold.
Probably economies of scale.
black beef – mmmmmmmmm. We had a delicious round of fillet steaks yesterday and we’ve got Roman pan fried lamb comming up. All lovely grass fed Welsh meat. Let me know if your a lamb fan I’ll post the recipe!
The fact is this: if Wales were to buy into whatever eco-correctness or food fad is trending, the impact on a global scale would be negligible. Welsh hill farming is part of Wales’ cultural heritage: not to be preserved by subsidy, but by reintegrating Welsh agriculture into the economic and cultural mainstream of Wales. Welsh products have to be made more price competitive by innovations from farm to fork. The people of Wales have got to rediscover their food heritage. (What’s the ratio of cawl to kebab shops?) . Wales is and will be what it eats!
Whilst I have considerable sympathy with the cultural, economic and culinary content of both the article and subsequent comments I am struggling to see how “debunking Myth 1 – livestock farming emits a lot of CO2” by offering the explanation provided really helps get livestock farming off the greenhouse gas naughty step. Methane (MH4) has 28-36 times more global warming potential (GWP) the CO2 and Nitrous Oxide has a massive 265-298 time more GWP -see the website below.
Correction- methane is CH4 (not MH4).
All animals are sentient beings just like us, but to say this lamb, cow, fowl etc had a nice life before it was slaughtered is a poor excuse especially as the excess of livestock is already causing problems right across the planet. Being a part of the farming community I know the problems farmers have. Their self imposed isolation in so many cases inhibits their ability to adapt or even attempt to, god forbid change. Marrying within the farming community used to mean continuity now, things like young farmers tends to be more about elitism than anything else. To continue… Read more »
Lamb, dairy, or fruit ‘n veg, my family always go for Welsh produce first. It helps our economy and it’s a guarantee of quality.
Having said that, and bearing in mind that much of Wales could never go arable because of the geography, I think that Welsh meat farmers could and should do more in the way of sustainability, and if this challenge needs money thrown at it, so be it. I can think of a number of recipients of wasted money in Wales whose handouts could be diverted to helping with this problem; I’m looking at you, Third Sector!
It is good to hear someone making the case for other side of the argument. However hill and lowland farmers could still do more for the environment and need more support to do so. A) land is over grazed because stock numbers have to be high to earn a living B) there is a lot of visible environmental decline: soil erosion, gappy or almost disappeared hedges, decreasing tree cover, overuse of sprays and chemical fertilizers and run off C) Litter – I dont mean from walkers but silage wraps, piles of barbed wire, oil drums etc. D) Modern farming practice… Read more »