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What should we eat to save the planet?

Posted by on September 10, 2014

Barbara Knowles is senior science policy adviser at the Society of Biology, and loves the landscapes, food and natural treasures created by traditional farming.pigs

Hardly a week goes by without another academic paper telling us to eat less meat, and to intensify agriculture sustainably to feed the growing population, protect biodiversity or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost invariably, these calls to save the planet irritate me because not all meat production systems harm the planet, some are an essential part of sustainable mixed farming systems. (I don’t single out this paper for criticism – it’s just the one that came to my attention this week.)

When I read that we should eat less red meat, I want the author to explain the environmental, social, economic, health, welfare and ethical differences between different meat production systems.

Yes, it’s complicated. But it isn’t helpful to over simplify this message.

The issue of whether or not to eat less red meat was debated in detail recently by Tara Garnett and Richard Young. This debate aired many of the issues, although neither author convinced the other to change their opinion.

My own opinion is that some methods of producing red meat are actually good for the planet, others not.  I would definitely not knowingly eat beef produced on an intensive unit and eating soya and grain that could have been eaten by people, even if told that intensively reared cows produce significantly less methane than traditionally raised cows grazing outside and eating grass and hay.

Livestock farming does indeed produce greenhouse gases, and some of it is bad for the environment in other ways too. But extensively grazed cattle and their farmers are responsible for creating and managing some of the most beautiful and biodiverse farmed landscapes in Europe: the wooded pastures of Spain, the green water meadows of England, the mountain hay meadows of Romania, the Alps of Switzerland and Austria. Traditional cattle farming, as practised for centuries across Europe, is not only good for biodiversity and ecosystem services. It also brings social and economic benefits to rural communities, is demonstrably sustainable over hundreds of years, and the meat, cheese and milk from grass-fed cattle are prized for their quality and flavour – achieving premium prices in the Austrian market, for example

What is the point of ‘saving the planet’ if we destroy the precious remnants of our agri culture and farmland biodiversity in the process? European agriculture is already too intensive.

By all means exhort us to stop feeding animals on soya and wheat, and look for alternatives to unsustainably intensive meat production. But let’s treasure, eat and celebrate the products of traditional farming too.

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