UK meat bosses hit back at beef and environment critique

UK meat leaders have expressed disappointment over the reporting of a US-based study which claimed that beef production was 10 times more damaging to the environment than other livestock.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), claimed that by applying a uniform methodology to data from the US Departments of Agriculture, the Interior and Energy, it revealed that beef was far ahead of other proteins when it came to environmental impact.

A summary of the study said: “The authors found that impacts of dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs were mutually comparable within a factor of two. Beef, however, required 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, five times more greenhouse gas emissions, and six times more reactive nitrogen fertiliser than the respective average burdens of the other four livestock categories.”

Plant-based production, however, including potato, wheat and rice, on average needed “two to six times fewer resources per calorie consumed than non-beef livestock”, it added.

The news has been widely reported across mainstream media, but UK meat bosses have hit back at the coverage, which they said failed to recognise that US production differed considerably from UK grass-fed production.

Nick Allen, sector director for red meat levy body Eblex, said: “Our rain-fed pasture system means we have one of the most efficient and sustainable livestock production systems in the world. In the UK, cattle and sheep primarily convert grass, which cannot be used to feed people, into nutritious food for our growing population. We have very little reliance on irrigation; in fact it takes just 67 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.

“There are also additional environmental benefits of grazing ruminants, not least in terms of landscape management and maintaining biodiversity, yet livestock production still comes in for undue criticism.”

One of the authors of the report Professor Gidon Eshel, speaking to The Guardian newspaper, acknowledged that US grain-fed production systems exacerbated the issues surrounding feed inefficiency, but he said that even grass-fed cattle had greater environmental footprints than other animal products.

He said the aim of the study was to change the consumer mind-set: “While my work in recent years has clearly demonstrated that plant-based diets exact lower environmental costs than animal-based ones, in the new paper we recognise that this and related work by others have changed little in US diets; people still eat animal-based products with an ever-increasing gusto.

“Our study has a number of implications. First, it can help environmentally minded individuals make environmentally better dietary choices. Perhaps more importantly, the paper can also help inform US agricultural policy.”

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