MPs have reported that if Britons ate less meat, it would ease inflation and help the developing world. Jay Rayner and Charles Sercombe debate the issue
Jay Rayner, Observer restaurant critic and broadcaster
Let’s not pretend: I don’t have much of a fan base among vegans. I respect their views, but not their menus. I love eating meat; it’s a part of who I am. And that makes the next sentence all the harder, but it has to be said. We need to reduce the amount of it that we are eating. The way we produce meat, and the amount we produce, is simply unsustainable and in the 21st century sustainability in food production is paramount. The evidence for the prosecution is pretty unanswerable. Globally, livestock stands accused of producing 37% of the world’s methane (which has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2). More than 55% of the agriculture sector’s emissions come from rearing livestock alone. The meat and dairy sector uses 70% of agricultural land.
There is a place in an integrated agriculture system for meat production. Livestock can be a great way for using up biomass that might otherwise be wasted. They help maintain the landscape. But with an exploding global population we cannot go on feeding seven kilos of grain, that could feed people, to cattle just to get one kilo of beef. We need to reduce our meat consumption substantially, probably by half. Meat-free Mondays have arrived in the Rayner household. Sometimes we have meat-free Tuesdays and Wednesdays too. Meat-free days need to arrive in your house too.
Charles Sercombe, National Farmers Union livestock board chairman and sheep farmer
I share your love of eating meat but it must always be considered as part of a balanced diet. It’s clear that some people do eat more meat than they should, but it’s equally clear that some parts of society could benefit from increased consumption. We have 30% of female teenagers and 16% of adult women with low iron stores. Meat is a valuable source of iron and so it can play an important role here.
Whatever level people choose to eat meat, as a farmer, it’s important to me that I’m producing that meat as efficiently as possible. This means getting the maximum amount of production from rain-fed grassland, one of our most abundant natural resources in the UK. Despite the stats around the grain that is used, most of the energy needs of beef cattle and sheep raised in the UK are actually met by grazing and conserving forage – around 95% for sheep and 85% for beef cattle – so the demand for additional foods to be grown to feed these animals is minimal.
The grain that is used for livestock feed is not of milling quality and so would not be used for human consumption. Doubtless, we could grow some more milling-quality wheat, but there will always be a large proportion of arable land in the UK that could only be realistically used for growing livestock feed. UK livestock production has improved its environmental credentials in the last few years, producing lower emissions and using less fertiliser. If we can produce meat more efficiently than other countries in a global marketplace, there may actually be an argument to increase production to offset the environmental impact.
JR: I understand that you have the interests of the NFU’s members at heart here, but I do think you’re pushing it a little. Over the winter the NFU complained endlessly that the cost of animal feed was crippling livestock farmers, because the price of grains had shot up on the global markets. I know because I reported it. Now you claim they don’t really need them anyway? We both know that a lot of the British meat trade utilises imports of soya. It’s true that might not be useful for human consumption but if we didn’t need to grow it for the livestock trade, we really could grow crops that we could feed to people. The last thing we need is to actually increase production. And just because there are some people with a poor diet doesn’t mean we need to produce more meat. The issue there is poor eating options, not a lack of access to animal proteins. As much as it pains my cholesterol-drenched heart to say it, a diet lighter in meat would be better for all of us.
CS: The weather over the last 12 months meant that many farms produced less forage than they would normally do and the forage that they managed to grow was poor quality. The late spring has meant that farmers have had to stretch these forage stocks even further and this year has placed greater reliance on purchased feed. The price of grain on global markets actually has the biggest impact on the pig and poultry industries. Although concentrate feeds are useful at certain parts of the year for sheep, it is possible to farm entirely without them and I have developed a flock of sheep that produce lambs using spring grass and no concentrates at all. Indeed, lamb is the ultimate free-range meat.
We all operate in a global marketplace where demand for meat is rising across the world. If we produce less meat in the UK, it will be produced elsewhere, in some cases with an even greater reliance on grain and soya in production systems that we have no control over. I believe we would be far better to invest in our home production to improve our efficiency per kilo of beef, lamb, chicken, pork or grain.
JR: You are right that some lamb is already produced without concentrates; other kinds of livestock, not so much. As to the point about the slack being taken up by other parts of the world, you are also right. It would be pointless if this was something that happened only in Britain. This reduction is something that needs to happen globally. Livestock are a necessary part of the farming model. We just need to reconfigure how we do it. The launch last week by waste guru Tristram Stuart and chef Thomasina Miers of the Pig Idea campaign (thepigidea.org) to get a change in the law so that waste food deemed safe for animal consumption could go back into the pig food chain, is one way of doing it. That would reduce food waste and the carbon footprint of pork at a stroke. Likewise we need to look at utilising breeds of cattle that can be finished without the use of concentrates. Huge swaths of upland Britain are suitable only for the rearing of livestock. In short, we do need a system of meat production, just not the one we’ve got.
CS: I’m not in farming to stand still. I’m constantly striving to improve my business, introduce efficiencies and produce what the market requires. I know this is the case for the vast majority of my fellow farmers. The changes you suggest would benefit the environment and our businesses, but it’s one of a number of areas where legislation actually holds back efficient production. I look forward to working with you in the future on how we can produce for the global market as efficiently as possible.