it's not the cow it's the how

It’s not the cow, it’s the how: Why we need to tackle mixed messages about meat and climate change

19 Aug 2021 3 minutes Read

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Picture by Osian Hedd Harries

Catherine Smith, Chair of Hybu Cig Cymru

In a recent article on Nation.Cymru, Keith Darlington puts forward the view that government-induced dietary change is a way to tackle our climate emergency.

His diagnosis of the problem, however, rests on a flawed interpretation of the role of methane and livestock agriculture.

To start on where we agree. Climate change is an urgent problem for humanity, and the recent IPCC report is a stark warning of the consequences of inaction to curb man-made emissions. All sectors and all countries need to play their part.

Methane is an important climate gas. However, in pointing the finger at agriculture Keith Darlington’s article makes assertions which are wide of the mark.

The statement that methane “is mainly produced from animal farming” is incorrect. Of the human-induced sources of methane, the data generally places livestock agriculture at around a quarter of emissions.

Bousquet’s analysis estimates that livestock farming produces 27% of anthropogenic methane. The fossil fuel sector is responsible for 33%, gases from landfill 16% and – importantly from the point of view of debates about diet – rice production accounts for 9% of the total. Figures from the International Energy Agency tell a similar story.

The IPCC report is clear – methane is important, but we have to be more careful and accurate in how we measure it.

Carbon dioxide takes centuries to degrade in the atmosphere, so burning fossil fuels adds to the stock of the gas. Methane however is a flow gas which degrades quickly and, if in proper balance, is part of a naturally-occurring cycle.

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Informed

It’s also vital to consider the vast differences between systems of livestock production across the world.

Intensive agriculture with increasing livestock numbers as practiced in some countries is indeed a serious methane problem.

But this is not the Welsh way of farming. Here, our numerically-stable flocks and herds produce high-quality protein efficiently from land which is unsuitable for other types of food production, using what we have in abundance – grass and rainwater. We do not use intensive units or make heavy use of imported feeds which may contribute to deforestation.

Recent work by Cambridge biologist Donald Broom comparing beef production systems around the world concluded that the most sustainable systems look very much like the Welsh one.

Yes, it’s important to do more where we can, and the ‘Welsh Way’ vision offers a roadmap to do that. But farmers here already make a positive contribution through sequestering carbon in soils and hedgerows, and cutting emissions further through projects such as the Red Meat Development Programme.

Given this, a public campaign to demonise one food group makes little sense, and risks letting the biggest industrial carbon emitters off the hook. Our average red meat consumption is in line with government health guidelines; a blanket message to reduce it could add to health problems that we see in some groups in society who consume too little iron, zinc and other essential minerals.

Instead, consumers can be encouraged to make more informed choices about how and where their food is produced.

As the saying goes, “it’s not the cow, it’s the how”.

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