Ben’s Newsletter – How much meat?

ben-watsonEating no, or less, meat is all very well but it needs to be looked at within the bigger picture. The most depressing bit is that a lot of us are eating less but it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the 75% of the UK population who aren’t, or the vast numbers globally. I’ve always been a great believer that, given the information, people will make the right decisions. With most food related issues it seems that interest will precipitate a series of simple questions and consequent decisions. If only things were as simple with farming and greenhouse gases. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but all we can do is give you the information and a few hints in as unbiased a way as possible. Guy’s doing that and I thought last week’s newsletter got it about right. Eating meat isn’t just about one issue – but nothing I’ve heard to date has come close to changing my opinion that organic is the best option for the taste buds, heart (in its emotional sense), body and the environment.

Unfortunately what we thought were the most natural of meats, beef and lamb, have been shown to be, in GHG terms, the worst. Enteric fermentation, resulting in methane emission through flatulence, has made ruminants the bad kids on the block, but would they be saying the same about the tens of millions of bison that roamed the North American prairies if we hadn’t wiped them out and substituted them with beef in feed lots? In the States about 22% of beef is grass fed – I would assume it’s a bit higher over here. Organic beef is almost always, by nature of being free range, grass fed. Permanent pasture or long term grass leys and their root systems obviously don’t sequestrate anywhere near as much carbon as rainforests but they’re a lot better than a field of, dare I say it, vegetables. Grass fed also means no nitrogen and energy heavy arable feed crops, or rainforest destruction. It’s also largely local and doesn’t get frozen and shipped around the world. I rest my case m’Lud and I hope you’ll take the similar cases of lamb and venison into account as well.


Pigs might not belch and fart in the bovine manner (as Guy wrote last week, in GHG terms, they’re far better than cattle and sheep) but as with beef, the more we eat, the worse it gets. The William Cobbett inspired picture of eating every bit of pigs but the squeal, fed on waste from the kitchen, is about as likely as pigs with wings. Since Foot and Mouth in 2001, feeding swill has been banned, so grain, supplemented by soya protein, has become the norm. More animal feed means more fertile land needed for cultivation and we all know where they find that. Pollution, antibiotic use and appalling animal welfare all go hand in hand with large scale pig farming. Organic is the only system and label that provides any worthwhile guarantees. Free range still has no legal meaning – they could be free to range around a 2m x 2m pen. Outdoor reared means they’ve had access to the outdoors (could be a small concrete yard) for half their lives and outdoor bred means just that – absolutely nothing from day one onwards. If the FSA pulled their fingers out and helped find a safe way of using food waste we could all eat a bit of ‘low impact’ pork without being told we’re putting the planet in jeopardy. Of all the meats, it’s pork that falls most readily into a, ‘meat as seasoning’ diet. In fact, it is the best use for organic pork. It’s full of flavour, a great meat for processing, curing etc, but it’s a different beast to fast growing intensively reared pork and needs to be treated as such.

For the most part, chickens fall into the same basket as pork. They’re naturally omnivorous and great scavengers, and until the second half of the last century, an affordable roasting chicken was unheard of. Chickens produce 300 eggs a year and this, coupled with intensive rearing, selective breeding and a good feed conversion ratio, meant cheap meat for the masses. Cheap chicken has come to define the modern food industry, and it tastes of virtually nothing. However, we all want it so the organic sector has had to come up with an acceptable alternative. The differences are enormous; double the age, flock sizes of 500 (rather than tens of thousands), constant access to pasture etc etc. I could go on but I don’t want to be accused of my own version of enteric fermentation so in a nutshell, if we’re going to eat less meat and, for the most part, treat it as a seasoning, I hope you’ll agree that organic fits the bill far better. It’s a bit like killing two birds with one stone, but we should only eat one.

Ben Watson

9 responses to “Ben’s Newsletter – How much meat?

  1. Nicely done Ben! Very difficult to deal with such a broad issue in short blog, but worth remembering that if it wasn’t for us eating meat (granted good quality outdoor reared meat) the countryside would not look anything like it does today. Moors and hills would be a waste land, far less grassy fields, far more chemicals and artifical fertilizer which must do far more damage than a cows fart! Dairy products, the first alternative for protein, by the same argument would be gone. I believe, as you hinted, best approach should be to eat far lkess meat and to eat good quality organic meat, life and existence requires a delicate balance. Cheers. Jerry

  2. Contrary to what many people think, I believe the countryside would look BETTER without livestock farming. The erstwhile pasture land would be analysed to see what crops would grow. I am a great believer that even the most disagreeable soil could yield something with a bit of mulching. And to be fair, there is probably very little land in the UK that is so uncultivatable. The way forward is to plant as much protein crops on the suitable soils and grow what you can on the rest.

  3. I have cut back on meat I eat 1 meat meal and 1 fish meal a week and the rest veg. And i see meat as a treat I will not go vegan as i think there 2 bigger problems.
    One. They are to many humans on this planet and as time go on there will be more and more people and less room
    Two. I blame alot to the big company like KFC .Buger king and the list go on and on as it well and good some people go vegan and maybe i will one day but the company are throwing away tens of millions meat products a year . They are the one who need to changes . Not even say the poor anamals how the are raise .

  4. I would also like to say a big thanks for everything you do you are one in a milloin its so nice that you care . i will be loyal customer years to come

  5. I’d like to weigh in on this post. I decided to enjoy a plant-based, wholefood diet a couple of years ago and I would not now look back. Also, I accept that true, honest organic farming means that the animals raised for human consumption are treated in the best way possible during their lives; although to me dairy is scary these days, organic or not.
    What I take issue with in this post is the assertion of how methane emmissions today equate to times gone by when herds of wild ruminants, in this case bison, roamed freely. What we know of methane as a greenhouse gas is that it is vastly more potent than carbon dioxide, and while I also accept that said methane breaks down in the atmosphere after a decade or so compared to CO2, which takes far longer to process away, the impact of methane in terms of global warming is more dangerous today than in previous ages because of the carbon footprint, and that of other greenhouse gases combined – from man-made activity since the Industrial Revolution. The combined effect is greater, therefore, and it is credible that if left unchecked it will be the end of us. This is a fact that can not be wished away for any reason, to my mind.
    I applaud the “Drop-A Day” initiative that Riverford has embarked on. In addition, I hope that one day I will be able to purchase from a greater range of savoury, plant-based convenience items on the web site. Thanks.

  6. Oh really bad, i love meat more than any things.
    “It’s a bit like killing two birds with one stone, but we should only eat one.” so sad.

  7. Reading that pigs (and chickens?) are fed soya protein is a little alarming! Is this feed also organic and guaranteed to be g m free?

    Soya that is unfermented has such a bad press and is not considered healthy for gut digestion. I gave it up some time ago and am therefore surprised to find that I’m eating it again through a rather circuitous route!

    Isn’t there a UK grown feed that doesn’t need to be transported from across the globe?

  8. We have given up eating French pork, as 95% is intensively reared. Aldi and Lidl sell kangaroo, wild boar (sanglier), ostrich and venison steaks in their gourmet sections. When we want meat we buy those. The wild boar is nothing like the pale pink pork that comes from indoor reared animals.

  9. Caroline Beresford

    I believe that eating less meat commands respect for the priveledge of doing so that is sadly long lost. Talk to the older generations and they will tell you how often meat was on the table.Whatever happened to cold cuts and bubble and squeak? When people actually cared about the food they ate and wasting it was disgusting,nothing like the gannet like consumption we are dealing with today. Supply and demand.We need to demand less and get back to the basic wholesome food that once graced our plates.Greedy people that think they can just keep strolling down the supermarket isles filling the trolley to the brim(and probably throwing most of it away because there eyes are bigger than there bellies) and buying chickens two and three times a week or more.The finger of blame is pointing directly at them and they should educate themselves and their children on the ethics of food.

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