Beef farmers in Britain are fighting back against the green lobby by producing meat with a lower carbon footprint.
By Louise Gray and Nick CollinsPublished: 7:00AM BST 09 Apr 2010
Paul McCartney, Lord Stern and a host of high profile environmentalists have been urging the nation to cut back on red meat because the methane produced by cows belching increases global warming. The beef industry has already noticed a dip in consumption over the last year with sales falling more than 2 per cent to just over one million tonnes in 2009.
In Britain farmers have been arguing for some time that free range cattle are good for the environment because grassland stores carbon dioxide in the ground.
And in an effort to fight back against "the vegetarian lobby" 350 beef farmers, supported by Government quango the Carbon Trust and including the suppliers of McDonald's, are working on producing cattle with a low carbon footprint.
The Beef and Lamb Executive has also launched a "Environmental Road Map" that gives farmers advice on how to reduce greenhouse gases.
The beef produced will be marketed as more "environmentally friendly" and is already popular in countries like America where farmers have copied the "mob grazing" of bison to produce beef with a low carbon impact. Other methods of reducing the methane from cattle includes adding fish oil to feed, using breeds that are more efficient by having a greater number of calves, turning the manure into energy and sending the animals to market earlier. Farmers can also use biofuels on the farm, cut down on nitrate fertilisers and cut energy use.
Gas produced by flatulent livestock accounts for 4 per cent of the UK's total carbon emissions. It is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse agent.
The UK Government has committed to reducing emissions by 34 per cent by 2020, including greenhouse gases from farming.
But Alistair Mackintosh, chairman of the NFU’s livestock board and a beef farmer from Cumbria, said cutting emissions does not have to mean taking animals off the hills.
"There is not a day that goes past where we don't have to defend ourselves from opponents," he said. "This is far too important an issue to allow a prejudice to take over. We cannot afford to ignore it, we take it very seriously."
Mr Mackintosh said that about a quarter of Britain's fields – which make up 60 per cent of all land – cannot all be used for fruit and vegetable production, and would produce more greenhouse gases if left to rot and grow wild.
"People need to recognise that grassland is a huge carbon sink and that grassland has to be managed so it keeps delivering on that. The easiest and most economic way of doing that is to graze cattle on it," he said.
Kim Haywood, director of the British Beef Association, said farmers are concerned customers are turning away from meat because of environmental concerns.
She pointed out that British beef is actually good for the environment in comparison to cheap beef from countries like Brazil that is raised on felled rainforest.
"It is a very, very big concern for us because we produce a product that is incredibly healthy and important for the environment. There is very little grassland left on the Earth, cattle grazing on that land not only preserves the environment as a carbon sink and beautiful landscape but provides a nutritious food."
However, Liz O'Neill of the Vegetarian Society, insisted cutting out meat altogether is the best way forward.
"It far more effective and straight forward for an individual to go vegetarian or better still vegan. Yes you can make minor changes in how you produce meat but essentially you are talking about a very inefficient system compared to using the land to grow grains and pulses that humans can use."