How much meat?

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has emphasised the urgency to collectively change our diet before it is too late.

At Riverford, we’ve always made vegetables the star of the dish, with a little bit of good (organic) meat as a treat; less and better is our guide. But when scientists claim this warning is the ‘final call to save the world’, it prompts us to question: should we all turn vegetarian or vegan? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward.

Pigs, poultry and intensively-produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

For forage-eating ruminants (grass-fed cows, sheep, goats) the argument is much more complex for several reasons:

They can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none. With a growing population to feed, this is important to consider.

By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.

Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20%) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to around 13% for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. Furthermore it also seems to be true that extensive, grass-fed animals (such as we like to promote, for reasons of health, animal welfare and flavour) cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though we think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.

The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question. We certainly do not feel qualified to give a definitive answer but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating significantly fewer animal products. If we’re going to eat meat and dairy, let it be better quality, eaten less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully. And above all, let the veg be the star of the show.

16 responses to “How much meat?

  1. YES! Wonderful piece with points well made!!

  2. I am pleased to hear such a balanced discussion on the pro’s and con’s of eating meat. The respect and welfare of any animal should always be taken into account if we want to limit the knock-on effect to the rest of the world at large including human health. I also try to give plant life the same respect!

  3. I agree that meat eaters should eat less and healthier meat BUT as a lifelong vegetarian and now turned Vegan I don’t actually agree with eating fish and meat! I have turned 60 and am still healthy and fit, enjoying the countryside and the Gym and have not missed or suffered from such a diet. I love your fruit and veg straight from the ground and not neat and packaged like the supermarkets, thanks for all your great work.

  4. I enjoy reading your well-balanced articles. It’s important to have a balanced and impartial discussion. It’s refreshing, because almost always the discussions about this subject are written from either the butchers’ or the vegetarian viewpoint with no balance. I tried giving up meat but found that after three days I started craving it. I then wanted meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think that our bodies are accustomed to the diets we grow up with and it’s important not to change them too drastically. It’s a good idea to gradually decrease meat consumption, but I still believe it is due to our ancestors eating meat, in order to survive the Ice Age that our brains have grown as big as they are. Carnivores need bigger brains to outsmart their prey. Getting the balance right is the important thing for us and for the environment.

    • Dawn -I read just recently that the reason our brains grew bigger was to do with living in communities rather than diet related. Bigger brains allowed the communities to flourish ,evolve better and develop stronger. Not sure if this is true but its a theory!

    • We are not Carnivores. We have grinding teeth to eat nuts seeds and vegetable matter and our jaws move sideways. We also have long intestines to process fibre. A Carnivore rips raw meat from the bone and swallows it whole. Their jaws do not move sideways, and they have short intestines to process the meat before it rots.
      I believe our diet may have been like Chimps. They eat mostly vegetable matter, nuts and seeds, but apparently go hunting other ape species about once a month.

    • Did you see the David Attenborough programme about Apes. Apparently an Ape brain can be examined for the size of group the Ape lives in, even though if it is unknown which species of Ape it is. Geladas live on the plains of Ethiopia in huge groups eating grass. The diet is poor so they have to spend all their time eating. Because they don’t have time to socialise and groom each other, they actually chatter to each other. they are even thought to be able to understand other monkeys, making them bilingual!

  5. At our recent Transition group meeting one of us suggested we hold a ‘Vegan Festival’ at the local Sainsbury’s; he has even discussed this with the manager who is happy to promote their vegan ready meals (I’ve never tried any ready meal). I have been vegetarian for 30 years, vegan for a few weeks, and I feel vegan should mean growing vegan-organically and cooking a wide variety of plant foods all the year round, in the garden or as locally as possible. I know that’s hard for most people but let’s be clearer what we mean by vegan, and progress perhaps a vegan day at a time, not via vegan ready meals. (In future I’d like to see us allow wild herds of cattle – lovely animals!)

  6. The real answer is none.

  7. We also need to plant more trees!

  8. I read that if animals are fed on diets natural to animal species they don’t produce methane. Adding linseed to cow feed reduces the production of gas.

  9. I have been a vegan and it was bad for my health. I need some good organic meat for strength that is why I buy it from Riverford.
    We need kind to animals meat not chemical laden meat. Cruelty to animals is not justifiable for the sake of cheap food.
    people need to understand that good food does cost more but it saves suffering, is good for the planet and is good for health. A three in one bargain really.

  10. No one will admit to the plague of humans….that is the real problem.

  11. Jacqui, I believe the collective noun for humans is a ‘capitalism’ of humans, or at least it is now. However, the collective noun for Riverford customers is a ‘future’ of humans 🙂

    What I really wanted to say before being distracted is that the answer to the complexity of our current crisis is called the framework of national personal tradeable carbon credits with global contraction and convergence. I was in favour with BRIC countries in the 2000’s as a potential UN climate treaty and fitted perfectly on the spectrum between left-wing dogmatic command and control approaches and right-wing free-market capitalism.

    The idea is in short is that every single product or service that is bought and sold would also then be bought or sold with a carbon credit cost too. Any primary producer or service provider who generate CO2 would be obliged to provide the HMRC the equivalent in carbon credits at the end of the year.

    So the Watsons’ agricultural activities would be audited and where appropriate taxed in carbon credit units, which Riverford would have to hand over at the end of the tax year, or if they had been dumb enough not to charge their customers appropriately for them at point of sale, they would have to buy them on the open market for cash.

    This would make it obvious to everyone over the course of time exactly how bad bananas are, or cows, or mange-tout from Kenya.

    And of course there would be huge surprises.

  12. I am pleased to read this and would like to add that biodiversity is another fundamental, issue to the survival of the planet. We have lost 60% of species since the 1970s. 60%. That is because of habitat loss and the growing human population and the use of herbicides and pesticides. Human population growth urgently needs to reverse, and rather than take another acre of land for food production we should use the land wisely and give back. Eating local pasture fed meat means hedges and woodlands are maintained for the other species and the soil structure is nurtured by natural fertilisers from livestock and the invertebrates and other species that live there. Fields of crops extending as far as the eye can see also kill essential biodiversity and specifically soil organisms. Invertebrate life is collapsing because of the chemicals used to ‘protect’ crops. Intensive meat production is a major cause of excessive land use for crops, but extensive livestock that supports the infrastructure of the landscape is valuable to the planet.

  13. I buy my fruit and vegetables from Riverford and I’m a healthy vegan. My dogs thrive on a vegan diet also. I feel the future is vegan and it is part of human evolution. It is more than just a dietary choice, it is a social justice movement and these don’t just go away as a trend would. I trust that Riverford will be at the leading edge and the right side of history.

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