October 25, 2021, by Lexi Earl

Giving up meat and eating plants instead: Is it really that simple?

The complexities of nutrition and the misrepresentation of the livestock industry are creating a simplistic view of much more complex systems, say Andy Salter and Phil Garnsworthy

A Guardian commentary piece last week suggested that British meat-eating habits were rather out of control, and would need to be reduced by at least 20% (a statistic that in some extremes rises to 89% of beef, pork and lamb intakes, depending on which data you are reading), if we are to meet the 2050 climate targets. Increased prices for meat products, and encouragement to switch to more plant-based protein sources were posited as solutions. Things are rarely this straightforward, and while we agree that reducing meat consumption and increasing plant consumption is potentially good for health, we wonder at the simplicity and accuracy of such arguments.

The contribution of GHG emissions from British livestock is often exaggerated in such articles through the use of global averages. The UK livestock industry is one of the most efficient in the world, and the global warming potential of home-produced animal products is half the global average per kilogram of product. Agriculture as a whole contributes 10% of the UK National GHG Inventory. Within this, livestock production contributes 7.5%. Thus, a reduction of 20% in red meat consumption would reduce total UK emissions by 1.1%. This is a worthy reduction, but there is more scope to reduce the 90% of UK GHG emissions that come from non-agricultural sectors.

The health and environmental footprint of those eating large amounts of red and/or processed meat would be improved from a reduction in consumption. However, there are others – those most economically deprived, older members of aging societies, children – for whom these foods represent affordable sources of high-quality protein and micronutrients that are easily absorbed by the body. Moreover, switching to plant-based sources of protein is often not a 1:1 substitution. More information is still needed on many plant-based alternatives and their nutritional value. There is significant risk that they will have a poorer nutritional profile, with reduced micronutrient content, and/or poor digestibility and absorption due to the presence of antinutritional factors. Food from livestock is not just about protein, although that has increasingly been the narrow point of focus, but tends to offer a combination of essential nutrients that are readily absorbed and beneficial.

The criticism of livestock for greater land and water use is also drawn from global averages. 60% of agricultural land in the UK can only be used for growing grass and so grazing livestock is the sensible farming choice. Grassland brings benefits through carbon sequestration (pulling CO2 from the atmosphere) and shapes the landscape. Water in livestock production comes from rainfall, as opposed to plant-based solutions that require irrigation.

This is not to say that livestock production could not be made more sustainable. Novel feed ingredients, including insects, single cell organisms, and food waste have the potential to reduce a reliance on food crops that could be used elsewhere in the system. Biotechnological advances also offer potentials.

The most important factor to remember in these debates is the need to provide adequate and safe sources of nutrition to maintain health across all sections of our population, while also reducing environmental impacts of food production and consumption.  To do this, we need to not only reduce excessive consumption of red and processed meat, but also maximize the nutritional value of plant-based alternatives and reduce the impact of the remaining livestock production on the environment.

Follow Andy on Twitter: @andymsalter

Posted in COP26