This post is by Miles King at People Need Nature.
Meat is on the agenda at the Glasgow climate conference. Meat and its climate impact is now at the forefront of public debate about how we can all do our bit to stop climate chaos. Naturally, everybody is claiming that their answer is the right one. The sheep lobby is putting up a stout defence for lamb, claiming it is a climate-friendly food. The beef and dairy industries are doing the same, in the teeth of claims from the vegetarian and vegan lobbies that meat is climate enemy number one.
Claims and counterclaims fly around like the flies that land on your nose but are too fast to be swatted. Spoiler alert: I am not going to be able to resolve these contradictory standpoints and claims in 800 words here. As someone who has been immersed in conservation, grazing, agricultural policy and their effect on wildlife and the climate for over 30 years, I do not claim to have the answers. All I can offer are a few thoughts.
There is a row about methane
Most of the meat we consume in this country is not produced sustainably and does have an impact on the climate. The majority is produced domestically, and the more intensively it’s produced, the larger the footprint, based on things like the amount of artificial fertiliser used to produce feed. Surprisingly, chickens and pigs, which are mainly fed on concentrates, produced here and elsewhere in the world, have a significant carbon footprint, even though they are not belching out methane, the incredibly powerful but short-lived climate-forcing gas, produced by ruminants like cattle and sheep.
In case you weren’t aware, there’s an almighty row going on over methane and, in particular, methane produced from natural sources (biogenic methane) as opposed to fossil gas which, for some unknown reason, we still call ‘natural gas’. Researchers have concluded that methane from biogenic sources, and specifically ruminants, should be treated differently from fossil methane. This is because methane is a short-lived, climate-forcing gas. What one cow produces only replaces the methane produced by its grandmother, so there is no net additional climate-forcing, as long as the herd stays at the same size. Inevitably, industry has leapt on these findings and championed them as support for their claims that beef and dairy are climate-friendly foods.
Given how quickly methane breaks down, the counter argument is that, if we reduce our ruminant meat intake, we can have a significant and quick impact on the climate, much quicker than, say, watching trees grow for 50 years. Other factors come into play, such as how much carbon is locked up in grazing pastures; if we stopped eating beef and cheese, or drinking milk, what would happen to all those pastures? Would they get ploughed up, releasing all their carbon? Would they become intensive conifer plantations, perhaps only storing a tiny bit of carbon? Would they be rewilded, covered in pheasants or new houses? These questions are unanswerable.
A lot of wildlife depends on grassland
Leaving climate to one side for a moment, how do the decisions about what we eat affect wild nature? A lot of our wildlife depends on some kind of grazing to maintain the ecosystems we value, cherish and love. What would happen to that if all the grazing animals disappeared? Almost all the formerly common habitats of wildlife-rich grassland, heathland and wood pasture have already gone from the UK. The small amount left depends on grazing animals to exist. Some are also incredibly important carbon stores: mires and wet heaths with their peaty soils, long established grasslands with mineral soils, storing over 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
For individuals, eating less meat is one of the most material actions we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting our diets to eat much less meat, from truly sustainable, wildlife-friendly sources, could make a real difference to nature.
For the small amount of meat we do still eat, switching to buying meat from animals that roam across these cherished habitats is perhaps the best approach if you want to help nature and the climate. Farmers offering this are few and far between, often only selling direct from the farm. If we started asking our butchers, or even supermarkets, to stock local wildlife-friendly meat, we could encourage other producers to join.
Ultimately, far and away the most important thing we can all do for the climate is continue to press our politicians to take the really big systemic decisions.
[Image: Longhorn Cattle with calves at Knepp Wildland, courtesy of tomline43, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons]