Could eating meat and dairy help save the planet?

According to common wisdom, if you’re a food lover who cares about climate change, you need to become vegetarian or vegan.

Is it really that simple, though? We talk to the experts and discovers some good news – learn the facts, shop wisely and there’s a positive story to tell.

Could eating meat and dairy help save the planet?

Climate change. Deforestation. Loss of biodiversity. Water pollution. When it comes to meat and dairy, it’s now easier to list the reasons to avoid them than the reasons to eat them. Whether it’s the greenhouse gases or the razing of species-rich habitats, we can no longer ignore the damage livestock farming is wreaking on planet earth.

Yet ignore it we do – or, rather, we deflect. We prevaricate. I’ll order an oat-milk latte with my BLT. I do Meatless Mondays, saying I’d go vegan if only I didn’t love cheese… And like many others, I feel guilty. Constantly, quietly culpable, my sense of complicity in the world’s destruction is a persistent alarm in my life. Though most of us try our best to eat less meat and dairy and buy better stuff, could we do more?

The path towards a sustainable food system sometimes seems like a game of snakes and ladders, with veganism as the ladder and every other diet a snake of varying length, according to its dependence on meat and dairy. But what if there were a way to indulge in cheese and burgers and not slide down the snake? Is there a way to not just mitigate your ecological footprint but neutralise it – perhaps even to make a positive contribution?

The theory – and the hope

The short answer is, yes there is. The long answer requires a deep understanding of the relationship between food, farming and the future. For this, I spoke to some of the leading thinkers, farmers and researchers in the field of regenerative agriculture: a broad term that refers to farming practices that aim to reverse climate change by restoring biodiversity and rebuilding organic matter in the soil. Soil’s capacity to store carbon is greater than that of any other ecosystem – so the combination of diverse vegetation and healthy soil serves to draw carbon back out of the atmosphere.

“When it comes to avoiding climate catastrophe, agriculture is key. What is part of the problem is part of the solution.”

Patrick Holden is one such farmer, as well as the founder and chair of the Sustainable Food Trust. He tells me that when it comes to avoiding climate catastrophe, agriculture is key: “What is part of the problem is part of the solution. The planet used to be covered in forests and grasslands,” he explains.

Today, around half of all habitable land is agricultural, and of that, a growing proportion is farmed intensively. This means the livestock are fed diets of grain and cereal for rapid growth; and it means monocultures: vast swathes of land planted with the same crop, year in, year out. “Pesticides, herbicides and expensive imported fertilisers are used to try to replenish the soil,” Holden continues. But this is at best a short-term solution: these chemicals damage microbial life, weaken the soil structure and make it more susceptible to erosion.

Today UK farms are largely divided between arable in the east and livestock in the west. In the words of Professor Michael Lee, deputy vice chancellor at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, which specialises in agriculture, “One half of the country is denuded and degraded, dependent on inorganic fertilisers; the other half is swimming in the perfect replacement for those: manure.”

History shows the best way of maintaining healthy soil is through animal waste, says Holden: “The most fertile soils in the world were built by the interaction between grazing ruminants [cattle, sheep and goats] and grasslands. Mixed farming mimics that cycle, in which the soil is depleted by crops, then replenished and restored by grass and grazing animals.” The result? The organic matter in the soil is increased – as is the amount of carbon it can sequester.

Digging deeper

That’s all very well, I hear you say – but what about those who argue the carbon footprint of intensively farmed livestock is lower than that of those reared on pasture? They’re right, says Lee: “Those animals are fed higher quality feed, so they grow faster and/or produce more milk. They emit less carbon and methane per unit of product (ie meat and milk) because they’re either slaughtered younger (because intensive rearing makes them grow rapidly) or milked more intensively. Yet the pasture- fed animal, though it may produce more carbon, has the potential to offset those emissions if the land is managed in a regenerative way.”

As well as the soil and its carbon sink, there’s the network of hedgerows and coppices to consider, which not only absorb carbon themselves but may reduce methane emissions. Recent evidence suggests methane emissions are lower for cows that graze on more diverse pasture.

"With a growing human global population, the only way we can avoid converting more land to agriculture is to use it more efficiently."

With a growing human global population, the only way we can avoid converting more land to agriculture is to use it more efficiently. Livestock grazing on pasture, hedgerows and so on converts vegetation humans can’t eat into meat and milk, which we can. It’s another argument for mixed farming – and, says Lee, it means “land that’s neither forest nor suitable for growing crops should be used for livestock if possible”.

Isabella Tree, writer and conservationist (see What Is Rewilding?), says: “The instinct of the vegan movement is right in its attempts to break down the industrialisation of meat, but we mustn’t lose sight of the vital role animals play in the nutrient, water and carbon cycles. If we take animals out of the system, we’re doing something profoundly unhelpful.”

What is rewilding?

It’s not an agricultural system as such – it’s a nature restoration process that produces meat as a by-product. Isabella Tree’s renowned rewilding project at Knepp Estate, West Sussex (see Read More About It, opposite), uses large herbivores such as fallow deer, English longhorn cattle and wild Tamworth pigs to drive a dynamic habitat. Says Tree: “The disturbance the animals make – not just grazing but trampling, rootling, debarking trees and so on – competes with the vegetation to prevent it becoming close-canopy woodland” – in other words, woodland so dense that few species can flourish within it. The restoration of a healthy, diverse habitat is the priority for the Knepp project, which means controlling the wildlife and keeping a balance – neither too few animals nor too many. In the past, this would have happened naturally through a combination of predators (wolves) and lack of food. But wolves have disappeared and it seems criminal to allow deer, cattle and pigs to starve when they’re such a rich source of nutrients, so the animals are culled, carefully and sustainably.

The expert advice in a nutshell

“Above all, try to be discerning about the meat you go for and where it’s from. Our appetite for chicken needs to shrink because chicken is largely fed cereal, making its carbon footprint higher than you might think. Farmed sustainably, beef is better; venison better still. It’s a prime example of a nutrient-rich meat produced from land that humans can’t utilise.” Professor Lee, Harper Adams University

The practical bit: what you should buy, and the things to look out for when you shop

  • The most important thing you can do is buy local.
  • Don’t buy meat and dairy from animals whose diets have primarily been based on grain: “Ecologically speaking, grain is expensive to produce. The price per tonne doesn’t reflect the true cost of production,” says Holden. All too often grain cultivation means pollution, soil erosion, deforestation. Land that could and should be used for growing crops for humans is being used for animal feed.

Pasture fed meat

  • Look out for these words when checking the sustainability of the products you’re buying: agroecology, rewilding and agroforestry – a sustainable system of food production in which arable crops or livestock are cultivated side by side with fruit or nut-bearing trees.
  • The LEAF Marque: a global labelling system that recognises more sustainably farmed products. It has its limitations – emissions are measured by kilogram rather than nutrient density, for example – but it’s a good start.
  • Organic labels: pastures aren’t treated with pesticides or herbicides, and the animals graze for at least 200 days so the produce isn’t reliant on grain.
  • Pasture for Life label: animals have been raised on 100% pasture.

See our feature on the best home meat delivery services for where to buy meat sustainably online.

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