Guy’s Newsletter: ruminating on ruminants

Last week’s newsletter questioning the sustainability of eating meat has stimulated a lively and thoughtful debate on our blog and Facebook page. Interestingly, our meat attitude survey suggests that for the general public, 27% have reduced meat consumption compared to a year ago, largely for health or financial reasons. Among our own customers the picture is markedly different, with 47% eating less meat due to animal welfare or environmental issues, suggesting you are more thoughtful and altruistic; but then I always knew that.

Climate change is not the only measure of the impact of the meat we eat; I for one put pressure on land and consequent deforestation, land grabs and loss of wildlife almost as high. The mass of contradicting data is driving me nuts, but here’s our best estimate for now in terms of kg CO₂ produced per kg of meat: beef (20); lamb (15); butter (12); hard cheese (9); pork (5); chicken (5); eggs (4.5); soft cheese (2); cows’ milk (1.2). However these figures are broad averages from many studies; a true figure for the meat on your plate will depend on production systems and exactly what’s being measured. Yet to me this order is counter intuitive; how can a sheep or cow at pasture be so bad? The answer is because the bacteria in their rumen that enable them to digest fibrous food also generate methane and N₂O; both massively more potent greenhouse gases than CO₂. Yet it could be argued that under some circumstances ruminants can reduce pressure on land by grazing low grade pasture unsuitable for crops or less damaging pigs or chickens. Sadly most dairy and to some extent beef animals get much of their protein from grain and soya; it’s cheaper that way and economics, not ecology, welfare or nutrition shapes our food systems.

Confused? I hope to be more authoritative as our research progresses; it seems the only clear thing is that we should eat less meat and ensure that ruminants eat mostly grass, as ours do. Pigs would do well if they ate mostly waste, as they once did, but that is for another newsletter. In the meantime, there is a lot more detail and data references on our website to guide the assiduously inquisitive.

Guy Watson