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Eating meat: good or bad for the environment?

To meat or not to meat?

We need more of the best meat, but less meat overall – for climate, for nature and for health.

There’s overwhelming agreement we need to change diets if we’re serious about tackling climate change. Both the EAT-Lancet and UK Climate Change Committee reports called for a shift towards less but better meat. 

But which meat should we eat less of, and what is meant by better meat? This is where the Soil Association position differs from EAT-Lancet and the Climate Change Committee.

The Soil Association believes that we urgently need to join the dots between the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse and the dietary health crisis to answer this question. We’ve long advocated for less, but better meat. We know grass-fed livestock, like organic, can have benefits for climate and nature whereas intensively produced grain-fed poultry and pork can have the opposite effect.

Our diets have to change

Our farming future must work for the climate, for nature and for health. The 2019 report from French research institute IDDRi – Ten Years of Agroecology in Europe – found a wholesale transition to agroecological systems like organic can feed a growing population a healthy diet, whilst halving greenhouse gases and restoring biodiversity and soil health, but this will mean eating in the region of 40% less meat overall – with the greatest reductions in grain-fed meat. The report concludes we will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, maximise carbon sequestration, and eliminate 'food-feed competition', such as the 58% of wheat and 68% of oilseed crops that currently go to feeding livestock instead of people.

There will still be a crucial role for grass-fed ruminants (sheep and cattle). Grazing livestock – as long as they are not overstocked – play a key role in returning carbon to the soil and supporting wildlife.

To grow crops, farmers need to build soil fertility to provide nutrients, especially nitrogen. But synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is energy intensive to make and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion - indeed the UK's arable soils have lost 40-60% of their soil carbon already.

Instead, organic farmers avoid synthetic nitrogen by rotating their cereal crop fields over several years with grasslands containing leguminous plants like clover - which naturally pull nitrogen from atmosphere into the soil.

When farming in this nature-friendly way, it makes economic and environmental sense to allow animals to graze these crops, building organic matter along the way.

Soil holds three times more carbon than the atmosphere, but intensive farming results in soil leaking carbon, whereas organic and pasture-fed livestock systems store and sequester carbon. 

The overwhelming priority for reducing meat should be phasing out intensive farming of pigs and poultry, which is driving antibiotic resistance and - as they are fed on grain & imported soya - diverts half of cropland to produce livestock feed and drives rainforest clearance, with devastating implications for climate and biodiversity loss. We urgently need to find ways to overcome the barriers to feeding food waste to pigs and poultry and help farmers transition to higher welfare systems.

Livestock farmers have been facing many challenges of late; it is not an easy time. But there are also opportunities. Organic and nature-friendly farmers everywhere are pioneers in showing that farming presents the solution to the many challenges we face, including climate change.

We need to produce more of the better meat

The ‘better meat and dairy’ we must stand up for – in the context of less meat overall - includes pasture-fed beef, lamb and dairy and higher welfare chicken and pork, where possible from nature-friendly systems such as organic, which ensure that feed is not driving deforestation.

Organic is just 3.3% of current UK livestock production and pasture-fed livestock farmers generally are facing competition from more intensive cereal and soya-fed systems at home and abroad, particularly US intensive cattle feed-lots. The amount of high welfare organic and pasture-fed meat produced in the UK will actually need to increase significantly to ensure we can eat ‘better’ meat.

There’s plenty of space for going vegetarian (or even entirely vegan), but as agroecological systems often depend on grazing animals, meat consumption following a ‘less but better approach’ will have a crucial role to play.

Eating ‘less’ is a vital part of the equation in making ‘better’ possible.

Eating less meat overall is also a vital part of the equation in making ‘better meat’ more widely affordable. Through the Soil Association’s Food for Life Served Here scheme well over a million children, many of them in more deprived areas of the country, eat from a school menu each day that includes organic ingredients and higher welfare meat. These schools are putting ‘less but better’ into action, offering plant proteins one day a week, using the cost saving to ‘trade up’ to better meat for the rest of the week.

Meat is nutritious – it forms part of a healthy diet – but we do not need to eat it every day. Now is the time to speak up, and not to shy away from difficult conversations. The mood music has changed so rapidly over the last couple of months. With the Parliamentary declaration of ‘an environment and climate emergency’ and climate change protests, what we now need to see is urgent action. It is the Soil Association’s job to provide practical solutions so that the right actions are taken. This sometimes means grappling with difficult messages.

Find out more by exploring the recent 'Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe' report from IDDRI showing organic can sustainably feed a growing population a healthy diet. It delves into the future for agriculture with less but better meat being a crucial part of this vision.