Is there an eco-friendly way to keep eating meat?

Part of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

Veganuary has sparked debates about meat-free diets and the role of cattle in the farming landscape - Credit: Chris Hill

Arguments against eating meat are increasingly focused on the environmental impact of doing so. But, with 'Veganuary' in full swing, CHRIS HILL asks if there are ways to keep it in our diets while doing our bit to save the planet

We're often told that giving up meat is the single biggest contribution we can make to saving the planet.

And we're told it a lot during January, or 'Veganuary' as it is now branded by marketeers keen to persuade people to switch to a plant-based diet for the month - and hopefully longer.

The argument is based on the carbon footprint of livestock farming, and has grown louder and louder in recent years.

While ethical concerns about eating meat are still cited, the rights and wrongs of doing so have increasingly focused on the environmental impact in recent years.

And rightly so.

According to the UN, total emissions from global livestock represent 14.5pc of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

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Some claim that figure is much higher, with the Vegan Society citing a 2021 report by Dr Sailesh Rao, published in the Journal of Ecological Society, which found animal agriculture is responsible for at least 87pc of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

And if we all went vegan, food-related emissions could be cut by 70pc, according to a 2016 Oxford University study.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says cutting meat and switching to plant-based diets is a major opportunity for mitigating climate change, and this stance has been backed by countless campaigners and celebrities.

They include Sir David Attenborough who, in his documentary A Life On Our Planet, said: “We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters. If we had a mostly plant-based diet we could increase the yield of the land."

It is a subject that is often a source of emotive and polarised debates. 

But while some are calling for a complete end to animal agriculture, it seems unrealistic to expect die-hard meat eaters to go cold turkey on their burgers, bacon sarnies and kebabs.

Meat for sale at Old Hall Farm shop in Woodton, near Bungay

Meat for sale at Old Hall Farm shop in Woodton, near Bungay - Credit: Sonya Duncan

So, amid all this month's promotional campaigns for meat-free meal options, Norfolk farmers are making the case that not all livestock production is the same - and there are choices available to reduce our meat intake by only buying from the most sustainable sources.

In this country, government figures show farms are responsible for around 10pc of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with more than half of agriculture's contribution being methane from cattle and sheep. 

That's much lower than the global average, but still a huge quantity. So, not surprisingly, the farming industry is keen to defend its sustainability credentials, and its efforts to reach its target of 'net zero' emissions by 2040.

A report published last year by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) says Britain's extensive, grass-based, grazing systems produce "some of the most sustainable beef in the world".

It adds: "The question is not whether to eat meat or not. The key consideration must be where the livestock was farmed and the environmental and welfare standards of where it was produced. And this is where British beef has a great story to tell."

Around 65pc of UK farmland is reckoned to be best suited to growing grass rather than other crops - so if there were no animals grazing on it, it would be difficult to produce food from it.

These pastures also absorb and store carbon, and can provide a valuable habitat for native wildlife species that need open grassland to forage, such as hedgehogs and lapwings, says the NFU.

Cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

Veganuary has sparked debates about meat-free diets and the role of cattle in the farming landscape - Credit: Archant

And as 87pc of the nation's beef is predominantly fed on forage-based diets, with "only a very small amount" of imported soya, it is not driving the devastating deforestation caused by soya production in places like the US, Brazil and Argentina - which together produce about 80pc of the world’s soya.

Those countries are also home to many of the intensive beef 'feedlots' - large-scale livestock operations - which East Anglian farmers are keen to distance themselves from in climate debates.

Grazing livestock can also play a key role in boosting soil fertility - improving the prospects for growing plant-based crops.

There are a growing number of Norfolk examples of "regenerative farming" systems where lush grass and clover leys are being planted to bring livestock into arable rotations - enhancing the soil with natural fertilisers, rather than synthetic chemicals.

Among them is David Cross, of Glovers Farm in Sedgeford, near Heacham, where sheep graze on legume-based leys, recycling nutrients into the ground.

He recently told the EDP: "The [environmental] argument against meat is ridiculously simplistic. You can say it in a sentence - stop eating meat. But the counter argument is incredibly complicated."

Another part of that conundrum is the large proportion of cropped land used to grow animal feed which, in the absence of animals, could either be converted to produce more plants for human food, or "re-wilded" to meet the nation's biodiversity ambitions.

But even in rewilded areas, large grazing animals have a purpose. At Fritton Lake, on the Somerleyton Estate, Highland cattle and Large Black pigs are roaming free as part of a 1,000-acre project to recreate natural ecosystems.

And at Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk, currently hosting the BBC's Winterwatch programme, Red Poll cattle and Tamworth pigs are grazing, browsing and rooting to nurture the natural biodiversity.

There is also a point to be made here that many rare native breeds of farm animals could quickly become extinct without a viable commercial purpose.

So, it is perhaps more of a complicated subject than some of the black-and-white arguments suggest.

If we accept that we, as a species, need to eat less meat to save our planet, we should certainly consider closely which parts of our diet we want to ditch.

Maybe that means cutting out intensively-farmed foreign imports and choosing to eat lower quantities of higher-quality, locally-grown, pasture-fed meat.

And maybe it means exploring new plant-based or lab-grown options which some experts believe have the potential to dramatically slash the environmental footprint of food.

Clean meat is made up of animal cells grown in a laboratory rather than as part of an animal.

It sounds futuristic, but that possibility might not be as far away as it seems. Last year, Singapore gave regulatory approval for the world's first “clean meat” which does not come from slaughtered animals, paving the way for the sale of lab-grown chicken meat.

Bill Gates calls it the "food of the future", and some experts predict that almost all 'meat' will be plant-based or 'cultivated' by 2050.

According to Barclays analysts, the market for meat alternatives could be worth more than £100bn within the next decade, or about 10pc of the global meat industry.

So, change is coming - and it may mean our farmed landscapes will need to evolve as well as our diets.