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.