Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cutting Britain's livestock industry won't save the planet

A simplistic approach won't help us to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases

Alistair Mackintosh
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 November 2009
The assertion attributed to Lord Stern – that eating meat could become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving because of its "impact on global warming" – is dangerously simplistic and underestimates the results already being achieved by the farming industry in reducing its environmental footprint (Vegetarian diet is better for the planet, says Lord Stern, 27 October).
Lord Stern comments: "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases." He adds that "it puts enormous pressure on the world's resources" and that "a vegetarian diet is better".
I am a livestock farmer, and while I understand that Lord Stern is a respected economist and climate change commentator, I believe his statements do not take account of the complex interactions within the food and farming system. However, I totally agree with his later clarification that "the debate about climate change should not be dumbed down to a single slogan, such as 'Give up meat to save the planet'".
The UK farming sector only accounts for around 1% of the country's total CO2 emissions, and methane emissions from UK agricultural production have fallen by 17% since 1990. I would agree that more needs to be done. As farmers take their responsibilities seriously, actions to reduce emissions from livestock production are already under way. Examples include the Environmental Plan for Dairy Farming and the milk and meat roadmaps, working in partnership with government and others in the supply chain. Practical measures to lower emissions from livestock include changing diets, improving productivity and using anaerobic digestion to produce biogas – a source of green, renewable energy.
However, we must face facts. Much of our agricultural land is unsuitable for arable and vegetable crop production. Moreover much of our livestock production is based on grassland which, let us not forget, stores more carbon than any other land use in England. If the consumption of British red meat falls dramatically there will be a real risk of these most valuable environmental assets being abandoned. Sheep and cattle farming also play a vital role in both the rural and national economy.
Contracting the UK's livestock industry would simply "export" our emissions to other countries. In light of the recent report from the government's chief scientist, John Beddington, about the dire need to increase food production to feed a growing global population, this seems completely counterintuitive.
Perhaps, farming in the Lake District as I do, I am blessed with a biased view of our green and pleasant land. Almost 60% of farming's uplands, which are dominated by livestock, is designated as national park or as an area of natural beauty. Without grazing livestock some of our most beautiful and treasured landscapes would be lost.
Solutions to the environmental and social challenges we all face can only be found by investing in agricultural research and development to satisfy the growing global demand for food – a demand which we have a moral duty to fulfil – while at the same time reducing its environmental impact.