Is beef off the menu?
A lot of Brits today are choosing to adopt a more plant-based vegan diet, worried about the impact eating meat has on the environment and animal welfare. Concerns relating to meat consumption have become topical in the last few years leading to a rapid increase in the number of Brits opting for plant based lifestyles. Since 2016 it is estimated that the number of vegans has quadrupled in the UK. However, is this shift more sustainable? What are the implications for human health with a diet devoid of the nutrients and minerals supplied by beef? How will it alter our rural landscape and economy and what issues does it present for our food security if beef farmers chose to leave the land?
Headlines such as ‘eat less meat’ and campaigns such as ‘veganuary’ have all had an impact in popularising this growing trend. Aware of this growing popular trend, I too began to adopt my food choices to fit in with ‘sustainable’ lifestyle. However, now I have started to question whether there is more meat to this argument and whether meat is in fact important to a sustainable lifestyle?
Does the ‘cut out meat’ argument need to be beefed up?
What is at Steak?
Between December 2017 and December 2018 there has been a 1.8% decline in the number of cattle in the UK. Images like this could soon become a thing of the past with our rural landscapes changing forever. Instead of green fields with cattle, cultivated fields and solar farms could soon dominate the farm scape. Such changes are being encouraged by environmentalists however this shift could have devastating consequences for ecosystems and biodiversity.
Those who propose a complete shift in land use ultimately threaten fundamental processes. If this is the case why have we started a witch-hunt on beef. The media has had a role in promoting the assumption, that beef farming is bad for the environment, I too have been guilty of saying goodbye to beef under this pretence. This is why it is fundamental that we increase awareness about the ecosystem services cattle grazing provides.
The process of cattle grazing helps restore soils and biodiversity. Credit: Rebecca Clay
We cannot ignore the harmful effects of intensive farming on the climate, being centred on quantity not quality. Nevertheless, we must stop ignoring alternative methods of cattle farming, such as grazing which play an important role in maintaining species diversity. Well managed cattle farms are in fact key to healthier soils and act as a carbon sink. It is these processes which show that we must stop this witch-hunt on beef and encourage sustainable cattle grazing.
The Beef Economy
A fourth generation beef producer. Is he part of a dying breed?
“It is a challenging time for beef farmers in the UK particularly small scale producers”
– Richard Prout: A local Beef farmer at Rowston farm
Whilst many environmentalists frown upon beef farming altogether it is a vital part of our economy and therefore we must ensure that sustainable cattle grazing is protected rather than shunned. Beef production is currently worth £2.8 billion to the UK economy and provides jobs for an estimated 440,000 people in England alone. Therefore, we must consider what a shift to a purely plant-based lifestyle will have on farmers. A reduction in demand for beef production will have a catastrophic consequence on the livelihoods of many in the supply chain. If we continue to cut out beef from out diets, 20% of those employed in this sector could be at risk of facing unemployment. This foolish war of beef is simply not sustainable, we must start to consider what could be at steak to our food security if we continue?
In order to try and expose some of the misconceptions related to beef farming, I interviewed a local farmer who discussed what could be threatened if this war on beef continues.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the production of beef in the UK. Much of our beef is sourced using organic or extensive methods. At Rowston we have always farmed it extensively with the cattle grazing on grass and eating cereals. Animal welfare is a priority. There are constant checks and the public should be confident with what they eat because all cattle are traceable.”
– Richard Prout
Our understanding of beef farming is largely categorised as ‘one size fits all’, however this is largely not the case. As highlighted above grass-fed pasture based farming practice has positive benefits on the UK. Surely we should stop demonising beef farmers who in fact produce beef sustainably and with the environment and animal welfare in mind. Some sections of society demand that we ‘cut out beef’ however the sustainable solution is that we ‘choose better’.
“My concern is that it is currently more difficult to make a living and if small scale farmers are forced out, the alternative could be more large scale intensive producers of beef instead”
– Richard Prout
The University of Cambridge decided to remove beef from menu’s as a way to cut food related carbon emissions. However, the concept of ‘cutting out beef’ fails to distinguish between sustainable local farmers and intensive farm systems. Radical shifts in diet like this are not sustainable and could have adverse effects. Here in the UK we love red meat and whilst it is valid to suggest consumption should be reduced, it is unlikely that it will be possible to completely remove this from our society. Therefore, we must stop this relentless war on beef for the sake of small scale farmers who are being consequently put out of business. If 80% of emissions happen on 30% of farms then surely we should stop our indiscriminate assault on beef farming and instead incentivise and support local farming processes as they could be the key to attaining food security.
The future of beef: should beef be off the menu?
Should we say goodbye to beef or is seaweed our solution?
Feeding cattle seaweed could be the solution to reducing methane gas emissions. Credit: Jean-Pascal
Recent research suggests that methane emissions can be dramatically reduced if sea-weed in incorporated into cattle diets. Ermias Kebread from the University of California suggests that a species of red algae, asparagopsis taxiformis, has the potential to reduce methane production from beef cattle by up to 99% when added to grass. From his research he argues that this is a ‘promising’ solution to reducing agriculture related GHG emissions. In reaction to these promising results we should encourage famers to adopt this change to cattle diets. Experimenting with alternative solutions could help reduce agriculture emissions and help us reach our goal in a sustainable way. The current alternative of cutting out beef is simply not sustainable and poses many threats to our food security.
No Beef: A healthier choice?
” Beef productions form part of a good balanced diet providing essential vitamins and minerals”
Plant-based food is undoubtedly important and is vital to our diet in order to maintain a healthy weight. It is important that we encourage this within diets because these foods provide important fibre, vitamins and minerals. However, we also need to consider beef and other meat as part of a well formed, sustainable, balanced diet. Beef and other red meat in moderation can provide the body with essential vitamins such as Iron, Zinc and B-12. Beef should not be our enemy, of course people are entitled to opting against meat within their diets, however this choice should be well informed.
Steak VS. Soya
Worried about the impact meat has on our bodies and the planets, it is only natural to search for ‘healthier’ alternatives. The Soybean has become a popular non-meat, low saturated fat alternative to diets in the UK. However, this widely used food is not as ‘sustainable’ as we thought. Whilst intensive cattle ranches have played a role in deforestation in the Amazon, the soybean industry has been just as devastating. Between 2000 and 2005 around 50,000 square miles of the Brazilian Wilderness was lost, largely due to soy. The environmental issues associated with soya have prompted people to buy products made outside Brazil rather than completely disregard it. Likewise, it is understood that intensive farming has detrimental issues on the climate, if this is the case surely the solution is to ‘cut out’ bad beef rather than all beef and encouraging consumption from local sources. We should focus on supporting local farmers who can have a role in improving food security. Cutting out beef is simply not sustainable, especially when non-meat replacements come with similar issues. Therefore, it is important that we form cooperative policies which principally aim to cut out bad systems of production.
“We are now only 60% self-sufficient in relation to food production in the UK”
– Richard Prout
It is becoming increasingly evident that sustaining beef production within the UK is vital for our food security. With the UK population set to pass 70 million by 2031 supporting sustainable beef farming is essential. Based on my investigation beef is back on the menu in my kitchen.