Guy’s Newsletter: ruminating on ruminants

Last week’s newsletter questioning the sustainability of eating meat has stimulated a lively and thoughtful debate on our blog and Facebook page. Interestingly, our meat attitude survey suggests that for the general public, 27% have reduced meat consumption compared to a year ago, largely for health or financial reasons. Among our own customers the picture is markedly different, with 47% eating less meat due to animal welfare or environmental issues, suggesting you are more thoughtful and altruistic; but then I always knew that.

Climate change is not the only measure of the impact of the meat we eat; I for one put pressure on land and consequent deforestation, land grabs and loss of wildlife almost as high. The mass of contradicting data is driving me nuts, but here’s our best estimate for now in terms of kg CO₂ produced per kg of meat: beef (20); lamb (15); butter (12); hard cheese (9); pork (5); chicken (5); eggs (4.5); soft cheese (2); cows’ milk (1.2). However these figures are broad averages from many studies; a true figure for the meat on your plate will depend on production systems and exactly what’s being measured. Yet to me this order is counter intuitive; how can a sheep or cow at pasture be so bad? The answer is because the bacteria in their rumen that enable them to digest fibrous food also generate methane and N₂O; both massively more potent greenhouse gases than CO₂. Yet it could be argued that under some circumstances ruminants can reduce pressure on land by grazing low grade pasture unsuitable for crops or less damaging pigs or chickens. Sadly most dairy and to some extent beef animals get much of their protein from grain and soya; it’s cheaper that way and economics, not ecology, welfare or nutrition shapes our food systems.

Confused? I hope to be more authoritative as our research progresses; it seems the only clear thing is that we should eat less meat and ensure that ruminants eat mostly grass, as ours do. Pigs would do well if they ate mostly waste, as they once did, but that is for another newsletter. In the meantime, there is a lot more detail and data references on our website to guide the assiduously inquisitive.

Guy Watson

Find out more at www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat.

3 responses to “Guy’s Newsletter: ruminating on ruminants

  1. I applaud your efforts Guy, re:the meat issue! I am a veggie of 1 year, my last meat meal was Christmas dinner 2014. Never was a great meat eater so it wasn’t difficult! I am from the quality versus quantity camp, if you must eat meat go for quality rather than quantity, I do not shove my beliefs down others throats but am glad more people are thinking of the farming of animals and their impact on the planet. Look forward to reading more!

  2. I was overjoyed to read this week’s newsletter, as I was about to email you on the exact topic of CO2 emissions due to different foods! My friend Anna Marie Byrne has had a simple but amazingly powerful idea arising from the targets agreed at the Paris talks – if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change we must stay within 2 degrees warming, and should do our damnedest to get to 1.5 degrees. The idea is to work out what lifetime emissions each of us can spend and have a good chance of achieving a given warming, and then help people to produce a plan for how to stay within their budget. It’s all on http://personalcarbonbudget.weebly.com/ including a video describing the idea and a prototype spreadsheet http://personalcarbonbudget.weebly.com/design-your-descent.html that we hope later to turn into a flashy app. We’re gradually realising the responsibility we’re taking on – if we oversimplify or get the numbers badly wrong, we could inadvertently prompt people to increase their emissions! Or almost as bad, spend resources not reducing them as much as they could. So I was going to email Riverford about your research on food emissions and ask what level of detail is available – and now here it is! Now I’ve got your attention, I hope some of you will download the spreadsheet and give it a go – we’d welcome your feedback and suggestions as to how to make it better. Comments to peland@pml.ac.uk please.

  3. Tristan Hammond

    I think this meat/no meat debate is an interesting one. I was a vegetarian in the past for 7 years, but now I am eating meat again, (organic), well have been for some years now. What is interesting though, is that production of CO2 is aimed at animals mostly, but in fact humans emit it too – like me! There are roughly 9 billion humans on the planet at the moment. If half of those or even a quarter of those produce CO2, it is undoubtedly rather a lot! I am sure vegetarians produce CO2 as well as meat eaters! So if we are considering giving up meat, partly because of CO2 emissions from animals, then we also need to consider a sustainable diet for humans, that doesn’t produce either CO2 or methane. I am not sure whether just being a vegetarian would stop either of those two. In any event, CO2 is needed for plants to give off oxygen. And apparently, “Approximately 99.72% of the “greenhouse effect” is due to natural causes — mostly water vapor and traces of other gases, which we can do nothing at all about. Eliminating human activity altogether would have little impact on climate change.” (Geocraft.com). As long as animal welfare is at the top of one’s considerations when choosing to eat meat, then I see no harm in that choice. But please, do not ‘just’ blame animal husbandry for emissions.

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