As climate change fears ramp up, consumers are being urged to reduce or eliminate meat from their diets, with veganism being presented as a way to help save the planet. Vegan alternatives are more readily available in shops and restaurants than ever before and we are told with increasing regularity that eating meat is bad for the environment.
Mainstream media reports have tended to focus on research highlighting the global impacts of farming on the planet, with less attention given to the efforts of UK farmers to reduce their environmental footprint. Recent days have seen tensions between vegan, environmental and farming communities spill over following the release of Tesco’s advert for meat-free sausages.
Part of the retailer’s Food Love Stories, the advert shows a father cooking his daughter a meat-free casserole after she tells him: “Daddy I don’t want to eat animals anymore”. It has been the subject of a furious debate on social media since it aired on 10th October, with a backlash from farmers who felt let down by its stance. Meanwhile others responded to the backlash by arguing that meat and vegan diets should be represented equally in advertising.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) criticised the advert for causing “significant distress” to farmers and “demonising meat as a food group”. It argues that food and nutrition should be looked at as a whole rather than targeting specific food groups in isolation, pointing out that meat is naturally rich in protein, as well as being a good source of iron, zinc and essential vitamins.
Staffordshire dairy farmer Noreen Wainwright described it as “another kick” to farmers whose livelihoods are already at risk, in a column for the Daily Telegraph. She added that farmers face “victimisation… by the increasingly extreme environmental movement” and are being used as “scapegoats for society’s ills”, while the efforts of small farmers to reduce their environmental impact go largely unnoticed by extreme activists.
Tesco responded to the furore by stressing that it supports all diets. A spokesperson said: “Our Food Love Stories celebrate recipes both with meat and without. For those customers who tell us they are looking to eat a little less meat, our Plant Chef range offers a delicious, affordable alternative. Our aim is always to offer choice. We remain absolutely committed to working in partnership with all our UK farmers, and we value the vital role they play in providing food for our customers.”
Stirring up ongoing arguments about the industry’s impact on climate change and animal welfare, the controversy demonstrates the increasing scrutiny farmers face. But going behind the headlines, what does the evidence say? Is veganism really the answer to climate change? A report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August suggested richer countries should reduce their meat consumption to free up land and reduce global CO2 emissions. Scientists stressed that they were not telling people what to eat, but that reducing meat intake would be beneficial for climate change. It is worth noting here that beef production in Western Europe is 2.5 times more carbon efficient than the global average and 65 per cent of UK farmland is only suitable to graze cattle, according to NFU.
Farmer and Countryside columnist Charlie Beaty argues that 60 per cent of the UK’s carbon stores are beneath grassland, which covers about a third of the UK’s surface. If the UK population became vegan tomorrow, she says much of grassland would be lost to planting new crops, resulting in a large decrease in carbon stocks as they are leaked back into the atmosphere. There would be no call for stock to graze the land and that which could not be converted into cropping land would become overgrown and unproductive, losing its ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
In the midst of the recent debate, a number of farmers have called on consumers to shop for local produce rather than going meat free. Many people have also taken to social media to point out that the need to import more plant-based foods comes with a cost to the environment in the form of food miles – adding weight to the argument that we should prioritise the sourcing of local food, rather than removing particular food groups.
With such intensity of emotion on all sides, coupled with some sensationalist media reporting and social media backlash, it would be easy to get a demoralising sense of the public’s relationship with farming. But it is important to also note that many on social media spoke out in defence of farmers, including non-meat-eaters who pointed out that farmers feed the popularity in its entirety – including vegans and vegetarians. With this in mind, it could be that a rise in plant-based diets brings opportunities as well as threats to the industry. Suffolk arable farmer Alastair Sharp said: “There will be new opportunities created as the growth of vegetarianism continues. Vegetarians don’t eat less, only differently, so a new evolving market is there to be filled.”
Echoing this, Will Jackson, AHDB’s beef & lamb strategy director, said: “Farmers are at the forefront of climate change, facing its challenges daily – from diverse weather to depleting soils. Mixed farming is one of the answers to providing a sustainable diet for our growing population. Livestock up-cycle inedible food waste such as brewers grain into nutrient dense quality protein. Their muck enriches the soil, building structure and storing carbon. It isn’t simply about plant-based vs meat, producing one relies on the other.”
With the focus in recent days on the negative perceptions of meat consumption, it has never been more important to champion farmers, who feed an-ever growing population while making strides in reducing their environmental impact, despite the increasing challenges they face.
To borrow a quote from Noreen Wainwright’s recent column, Cicero said: “There is nothing better than farming, nothing more fruitful, nothing more delightful, nothing more worthy of a free man.”