Is meat farming an eco threat – or can it ‘actively benefit the planet’?

Farming leaders have leapt to the defence of pasture-fed UK beef in response to a BBC documentary criticising the environmental impact of intensive meat production. Picture: Chris Hill

Farming leaders have leapt to the defence of pasture-fed UK beef in response to a BBC documentary criticising the environmental impact of intensive meat production. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

This week’s BBC documentary exploring the impact of global meat production on greenhouse gas emissions and the environment could be used as a platform to promote the benefits of pasture-fed UK meat says GEORGE DUNN, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers AssociationGeorge Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association

Having watched the BBC documentary "Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?" fronted by Liz Bonnin, we in the farming community have a choice.

We can use our time, energy and resource to lambast the BBC for yet another piece of slanted reporting, using international examples of production techniques that would be illegal in the UK and ignoring the good practice of domestic producers.

Alternatively, we can use the programme as a platform to promote all that is good about how we rear and produce meat in the UK. Arguably, both responses have justification, but the latter is, I suggest, the more productive route.

In fact the programme has provided the perfect advert for why we should be proud of our home-bred meat production and why consumers should be at peace that in consuming domestically produced meat they are actively benefiting the planet.

Consumers both at home and abroad should be assured that red and white meat production from UK farms is produced to the highest global standards of animal welfare and environmental management. Animal health and welfare is central to the way animals are reared, managed and slaughtered in the UK and this is unrivalled in any other country.

As to the vexed issue of greenhouse gas emissions, the starting point is to stress that the whole of UK agriculture is responsible for only 10pc of domestic carbon emissions against the often misused figure of 25pc which relates to the contribution of global agriculture to global emissions.

With agriculture covering 70pc of the domestic landmass, on average, every acre of land in agriculture is already less polluting by a factor of 20 in comparison to every acre of land in other sectors. In addition, and uniquely in the way in which agriculture does its business, it also sequesters and stores carbon.

Unlike in Latin America, we have long established grassland systems which have formed part of the mosaic of our landscape for centuries. Amounting to some 10 million hectares, this grassland harvests approaching 2.5Mt of carbon from the atmosphere on an annual basis and is responsible for storing around one third of the UK's below-ground carbon stock.

Consumers should have no qualms whatsoever from consuming meat and dairy produced from UK farms.

Rather, we should see our consumption of domestically produced meat as part of our global responsibility to be replacing protein from meat produced to questionable standards abroad and shipped over here to be sold cheaply in competition with our high-quality product.

Of course, we can always be doing more to ensure that we are improving performance both in terms of productivity and environmental gain. UK producers are at the forefront of championing that drive. Through the work that our farmers do, day in and day out, not only do they provide nutritious, sustainable and tasty food they are also providing landscape, biodiversity, access, renewable energy, management of water resources, stewardship of soils and carbon storage and management services.

Our domestic livestock and dairy farmers deserve our support and more importantly our unapologetic custom.

We also need to be hearing more from our politicians about how they will protect UK consumers and our planet from meat produced to lower standards imported from abroad. Turning the abundance of grass we have in this country into high quality, digestible protein is the very basis of sustainability. Allowing a race to the bottom in standards by leaving our borders open to all comers would be a major abrogation of responsibility both to our consumers and to our global environment.

It is a shame that the general election manifestos of the main political parties say little about this important issue.

The takeaway message from Liz Bonnin's programme is if you want to benefit the planet, eat meat with confidence but only when you choose British.

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