It’s time to meat in the middle

By Laurence Hamdan, Sustainability Consultant, Sustainable Restaurant Association

There is a cloud above us called meat, and that cloud has a bounty on its head. If you follow the data, animal-sourced foods account for 66% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and at the same time eat up 78% of global farming land. The need to reduce meat consumption is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged.  

The Sustain Summit brought together policy makers, environmentalists, journalists, chefs and farmers to facilitate open, factual discussion around the matter. As with everything, communication is key, but the importance of this was highlighted by the heated debates that flared up throughout the summit – and with good reason.  

Doing our part for the planet is the goal, but what does this mean for farmers and their livelihoods? What will their place be in a landscape with less meat? “We shouldn’t focus on the word ‘less’,” said one farmer, “we should focus more on ‘balanced’”. “The data disproportionately focuses on livestock and not enough on supply chains and transport,” said another farmer.  

Clearly, the language we use is important. However, as Henry Mance, author of How to Love Animals, said during a bout of verbal sparring, “no single study has shown that you can have carbon neutral beef,” and this is an important thing to remember: farming, just like any other high GHG-producing industry, must reduce its emissions. A Damascene conversion amongst farmers seems unlikely when small-scale producers, caring about animal welfare and throwing themselves into soil carbon sequestration, are already meeting the matter with their own solutions. And it isn’t that livestock don’t have their place in our manmade ecosystem: they provide the natural fertiliser for the organic vegetables we seek, and a healthy soil begets a healthy human gut biome.  

Pleasingly, there was consensus on industrial farming: it has to stop. Government-level input is lacking here. Getting people to eat less meat isn’t the same game as getting people to stop smoking when almost 90% of the British population regularly include meat in their diets. The National Food Strategy has recommended that Britons reduce their meat consumption by 30% over the next decade.  

Does that cloud above our heads gleam with alacrity, or with a malevolent glint? Will farmers become the lamb, and “we” the knife? Clearly, there is no Procrustean bed for what the future of meat will look like. All voices must be listened to, and together we must decide the machinations for our satisfactory future.  

Whilst ruminating on that, this humbling statistic may instil a healthy level of poignancy: 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals. Perhaps it’s time to change that. 

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