Farmers hit back at ex-DEFRA scientist’s call to cut back on red meat

The farming industry has criticised former DEFRA chief scientist Sir Ian Boyd's claims that the UK should reduce its meat intake and consider switching to more intensive production methods.

Farmers are hitting back at former DEFRA chief scientist Sir Ian Boyd, who said that, to ensure it becomes carbon-neutral by 2050, the UK should reduce consumption of red meat and possibly shift to more intensive production methods.

Sir Ian made several controversial claims in an interview to the BBC, in which he said that intensive livestock farming is more carbon-efficient than pasture grazing because sheep and cattle are slaughtered when they are younger and therefore produce less methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — than grass-fed ones.

Calling the British production system ‘very inefficient’, he told the BBC that ‘if we want to move towards Net Zero in the UK, changing our approach to red meat consumption is an essential part of that.’

However, NFU President Minette Batters has countered that ‘British farmers are already leading the way in producing some of the world’s most climate friendly food, with beef production, for example, having a GHG footprint 2.5 times less than the global average,’ with breeding improvements (such as those pioneered by Scotland’s Rural College) set to further reduce livestock’s emissions. Indeed, more eco-friendly cows and sheep could be used as a kind of mobile fertilisers to replace or limit the use of chemicals in fields.

And experts have pointed out that, although it may result in less methane, intensive farming has many negative effects on animals and the environment, from worsening animal welfare to consuming enormous amounts of water, degrading the land, and reducing biodiversity—among others, conservationists say it’s responsible for the decline in insect and farmland bird populations.

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While research indicates that switching to a plant-based diet would have a significant, beneficial impact on climate, it also confirms Mrs Batters’ statement that British and European livestock has a much lower carbon footprint than, for example, the more intensively produced Latin-American beef.

Speaking to Country Life earlier this year, University of Oxford academic Joseph Poore, who, together with Swiss researcher Thomas Nemecek authored an extensive study on the emissions produced by the global supply chain, explained that British grassland-reared livestock doesn’t require the high-carbon production, processing and transportation of cereal feed.

His data shows that, on average, a little more than two pounds of beef generates more than 156 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalents—but in the UK and Europe, it produces about half that amount (just under 86 pounds). And while these emissions are still a lot higher than beans, peas, and pulses, if global consumers were to reduce their intake of animal products (rather than avoid them altogether) while switching to low-impact producers, this would achieve an overall reduction in greenhouse-gas emission that’s equivalent to 71% of what would happen if no one ever ate an egg, a piece of cheese or a chunk of meat ever again.

‘Climate change is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing society globally, which is why we have set out our ambitious plans for how farming could be to be Net Zero by 2040,’ ten years ahead of the Government’s target, concludes Mrs Batters. ‘This plan needs a concerted effort and support from across our sector, with government and others, and we look forward to a productive and effective working relationship with the new chief scientist Professor Gideon Henderson.’