Seen to be green

14 May, 2010
MTJ's exclusive survey shows the UK meat industry is keen to be proactive on environmental issues, but would like government help

The emissions debate on livestock has been hijacked by vegetarians and interest groups, according to leaders within the National Farmers' Union (NFU), and three-quarters of the UK meat industry would appear to agree. However, the sector must not dismiss the issues surrounding the environment, others have warned.

Eblex sector director Nick Allen pointed out that whether the industry believes in climate change or not, it will continue to work to reduce the emissions from meat production. "Phase one of our environmental roadmap, Change in the Air, was a start down the road to tackling the issues, benchmarking where we are and what enterprises can do to cut emissions while improving their returns. We are now working on phase two, which will take the issue further and look at other ways of improving, in areas like land use and water consumption."

Mark Driscoll, head of the WWF-UK's One Plant Food Programme, said the industry cannot afford to deny its impact on the environment: "Animal-based foods generally have large impacts on the environment because of the inefficiencies of converting feed into meat or milk: the conversion efficiency of plant into animal matter is around 10%. Thus, there's a prima facie case that more people could be supported from the same amount of land if they were vegetarians.

"However, the argument that 'all meat consumption is bad' is far from black and white. Yes, livestock consumption is a hotspot in terms of the UK's food consumption footprint, so we cannot continue to consume the current levels of livestock products. Yet that doesn't mean that everyone needs to 'go vegetarian' or 'go vegan'."

The contradictions within the survey do point to a level of confusion, or lack of clarity on environmental issues, said some leaders and the high level of publicity runs the risk of industry developing a siege mentality around the subject. John Mercer, NFU chief livestock advisor, said: "There are those who feel the debate has been somewhat hijacked by other interest groups, I think the frustrations arise from the headlines and often one-sided debate or reporting carried out on the subject."

Many in the industry will point to campaigns such as Sir Paul McCartney's Meat Free Monday, which continues to quote figures that have been declared unreliable and are under review. However, despite feeling victimised, 74% of the industry is taking the issue seriously and 89% claim to have taken some measures to improve their business' environmental impact news that is welcomed by Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors' Association: "The results of the survey show that industry is taking the environmental issue seriously and it's encouraging to see that the great majority of respondents indicated they were taking measures to reduce their own impact on the enviroment."

Mercer agrees that the issue, from the farming end, is not being ignored: "Industry has not buried its head in the sand on this, but rather recognised it has a role to play and acted proactively."

And it certainly seems keen to retain control of the situation, with 83% saying it is down to industry to tackle the problem, not government. However, industry commentators do not want to let government off the hook. Driscoll said: "Government support will be vital. While the food industry must be applauded in its drive to take the bull by the horns on environmental issues, it needs to be encouraged by the government."

Mercer added: "We need to see government helping out in terms of research and development and it also has a responsibility to shape future policy, based on scientific evidence."

When it comes to the debate on eating less meat, the industry remains resolute 80% are not prepared to accept lower consumption, even if prices rose to compensate.

Despite this, Driscoll and the WWF team remain committed to the concept: "With the help of the Food Ethics Council, we are exploring how to reduce consumption, and in turn emissions, without penalising producers, harming diets or causing more problems than are solved. We are actively talking to a number of UK producer organisations about the findings of our research. Changing consumer buying habits takes time look at how long semi-skimmed milk took to be accepted, and then become more popular than full fat. Or where we were 10 years ago with recycling?"





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