With a record number of people signing up for this year’s ‘Veganuary’ and vegan lifestyles becoming increasingly popular, we’re often asked what our stance on supporting meat and dairy farmers is. While we consider the reduction of meat and dairy consumption as vital to conserving our planet, we continue to see lending to organic, biodynamic and sustainable livestock farmers as key to our role as an ethical bank.

Much of the bank’s lending policy is aligned with the vision of the Sustainable Food Trust. Here, the charity’s policy director, Richard Young, looks beyond the headlines and into the complex relationship between livestock farming and the planet.

Grazing animals have shaped the quintessentially pastoral British countryside for thousands of years and play a vital role in sustainable food systems. However, over the last decade or so we’ve been told by a succession of high-profile reports that we have to make drastic cuts in our consumption of meat in order to help limit global warming, biodiversity loss and other agriculture-related problems. This has left many people confused about what they should eat to be healthy and have a sustainable lifestyle.

The authors of these reports, such as the recent EAT-Lancet report, all correctly highlight the problems for humanity caused by a rapidly growing global population, high meat consumption in developed countries and an increasing appetite – or in some cases nutritional need – for meat in many developing countries. However, the focus is always put on cutting red meat, rather than poultry, and no distinction is made in the way the meat is produced.

The basic reason for this is that all cattle, sheep and other ruminants emit the greenhouse gas methane, while chickens do not. They also convert grain to protein less efficiently than poultry or pigs.

It is predicted that by 2050 another billion tonnes of grain will be needed every year to produce enough meat to feed the global population, something which is clearly unsustainable, since continuous grain production is one of the biggest causes of soil degradation and loss. Indeed, globally, cropland soils continue to degrade as carbon is lost to the atmosphere – 24 billion tonnes of soil is lost annually, over three tonnes for every person on the planet.

However, what the researchers invariably overlook is that this is only an issue in relation to grain-fed cattle, such as those in US feedlots, whose rations consist of maize, soya meal and chopped straw.

In contrast, two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass, in most cases because the land is not suitable for growing crops. The only practical way to get food from this land without causing an environmental disaster is to graze it with livestock. Almost all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly fed on grass, grazed in the fields during summer and fed as hay or silage over winter – and the UK has one of the best climates in the world for growing grass. Some of these animals do also get grain, but in many cases this is waste grain, like Brewer’s grain (what’s left after beer making), which humans cannot eat.

Tragically, a high proportion of the UK’s most species-rich grasslands have in the past been ploughed for cropping or resown with ryegrass monocultures. However, all organic and most pasture-fed meat producers include legumes, multiple grass species and herbs in their grazing mixtures. Even many intensive farmers have now been persuaded by agri-environment schemes to restore grassland diversity, with wild flowers and delicate species getting a chance to recover once the use of synthetic fertilisers ceases. This in turn helps to revive the intricate web of life, which begins with microbes, soil spiders and other insects, embraces farmland birds and small mammals, and ultimately sustains us humans.

While over-grazing was encouraged by farm subsidies prior to the early 1990s, some grassland is now under-grazed due to falling demand for lamb. This is a problem because many bird and butterfly species have evolved in tandem with grazing livestock. In fact, both the RSPB and Natural England recognise that grazing animals are essential for sustaining healthy wildlife populations.

But what about methane? The high methane levels in the atmosphere are a significant cause of global warming, yet ruminants are responsible for only 5% of UK anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon – grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out by photosynthesis. In fact, fossil fuels are not only the main source of carbon dioxide emissions, they are also responsible for a third more methane than ruminants and all the methane from fossil fuels contains additional, ‘fossil’ carbon.

So what meat should we choose to help sustain the planet? It’s not a red versus white issue. The simple answer is that we should eat far less grain-fed meat, be it beef, pork or chicken, instead we should actively seek grass-fed meat and meat from animals supplemented with only small amounts of otherwise waste grain.

While few people yet realise it, we actually need to encourage increased production of grass-fed meat, since the most effective way to restore our degraded arable soils and wild pollinators is to re-introduce grass and grazing animals into cropland rotations.

Response from The Vegan Society

Pasture-fed meat isn’t green

Here, The Vegan Society takes the opportunity to reply. For its fuller response, see here.

The logic of climate change

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) claims that the emissions of ruminants are not significant, as they represent 5% of the UK’s emissions. We’re not sure about this figure, and no citation is provided. But the broader trouble with this approach is that, if you slice the economy into segments and sub-segments, of course you end up with a pie divided into lots of small slices. Ruminants are one part of the livestock sector, which is one part of the food sector. Dividing up transport, we find that aeroplanes account for roughly 5.9% of our emissions, and shipping for 2.1%1. Does that mean we can ignore their emissions? The UN’s recent report places the urgency of climate change in fresh perspective. We cannot afford for a small part of our diets to take up 5% of our entire country’s emissions.

We agree about the problem caused by fossil fuels. However, the fact that one sector is a big emitter does not mean other sectors avoid the need for serious emission reductions. The SFT’s either-or approach to climate change is contradicted by the United Nations, which has stressed that we must see “deep emissions reductions” in each and every sector, including agriculture2.

Emissions and omissions

The SFT thinks ruminants’ emissions are even less significant as “grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out”. The carbon sequestration debate features some unclarity and we don’t think this statement helps.

Oxford University’s FCRN has concluded that the “grazing management, however good, makes little difference”3. Their evidence suggests that livestock’s carbon sequestration is very limited in its significance, and cannot offset, under any circumstances, the methane they emit. This carbon recycling, then, is not all that relevant.

The SFT does not show that pasture-fed meat is green. We continue the debate here.

1Committee on Climate Change, “Factsheet: Aviation”, 2013.

2IPCC, Global warming of 1.5 degrees C, Summary for policymakers, 2018.p. 17.

3FCRN, Grazed and Confused, 2017. p. 67

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Click here to find out more about the vision paper.

About Richard Young

Richard is policy director at the Sustinable Food Trust

He played a leading role in the development of organic farming in the UK, chairing the Soil Association's Symbol Committee, which first drew up detailed organic food and farming standards in the 1980s. An organic, 100% grass-fed cattle and sheep farmer, Richard and his sister Rosamund manage their 390 acres in the Cotswolds with a high emphasis on animal contentment and nature conservation.

The Sustainable Food Trust is a registered charity that was founded by Patrick Holden in 2011 in response to the worsening human and environmental crises that are associated with the vast majority of today’s food and farming systems.