What’s the problem?
According to latest figures from the United Nations, animal farming globally causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, lorries and planes in the world put together, and the effect is increasing. The reasons for this are complicated, but are associated with several factors:
- Large amounts of animal feed need to be produced to make relatively small amounts of meat or milk – around 7kg of grain for 1kg of beef; 4kg of grain for 1kg of pork; 2kg of grain for 1kg of poultry.
- Nitrogen fertilisers are used to produce animal feed, resulting in energy use and emissions of, for example, the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
- Livestock (particularly ruminants such as cows and sheep) emit high levels of methane from their digestive systems.
- Natural ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests, that can absorb carbon dioxide, are destroyed to make way for animal grazing, or crops for animal feed, so removing trees and disturbing or destroying soil.
- Animals, their feed and the resulting animal products are usually transported, often over large distances, and usually in energy-intensive refrigerated conditions.
- The demand for meat and dairy products is increasing, especially in booming Eastern economies, shifting from traditional diets to a more Western pattern of consumption.
Much of the meat on sale in the UK is produced intensively, with little or no regard for animal welfare. According to Compassion in World Farming:
“The explosion in meat consumption is paralleled by the global expansion of industrial ‘factory farming’ of animals, a system which by its very nature compromises basic welfare standards. In factory farms, the animals suffer from confinement, isolation or overcrowding and the frustration of their natural behaviour.”
The most frequent forms of poor practice include:
- Overstocking, which can encourage disease to develop and spread. Antibiotics are frequently used to counter this problem, which leads to their overuse as bacteria become resistant to them. Rearing animals in smaller groups would be a more sustainable way to avoid the problem in the first place. Overstocking prevents some animals from getting access to enough food, which can lead to bullying, fighting and injuries. Overstocking can also result in animals not having enough space to move around or exhibit natural behaviour.
- ‘Corner cutting’ techniques that benefit the farmer but can harm the animal, e.g. dehorning animals, which causes them discomfort, weaning animals too young, and routinely using electric prods.
Meat and health
Although we do not need meat in our diets, eating small amounts is not a health problem, and many people enjoy it. However, there is growing evidence of a link between consumption of red and processed meats and certain types of cancer, hence the long-standing recommendation from the Department of Health that that “lower consumption of red and processed meat would probably reduce the risk of colorectal cancer” and that “individuals’ consumption of red and processed meat should not rise…from around 90g/day cooked weight”. A recent report published by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) is even more stringent, reducing the recommended daily amount of red meat to around 70g a day, or less than 500g per week, and also noting that very little, if any, processed meat should be eaten.
Meat and some dairy products, and particularly meat products like sausages, pies and breaded products, also tend to be high in fat and saturated fat and are often high in salt. High fat consumption is linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease and strokes. Even popular white meats such as poultry, often chosen for their apparent health benefits, have been found to be fattier than in the past due to methods of production and processing.
On a more positive note, there is plenty of scientific evidence that eating a greater proportion of foods of plant origin (fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods) can reduce the risks of serious diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. Foods of plant origin tend to be naturally low in fat and salt and also contain high levels of other useful nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.
What can we do about it?
Eat less meat
The conclusion is that we should all eat less meat (especially red meat and processed meat) and fewer products of animal origin, both to reduce significantly our effects on the environment, and to improve our health. While the number of vegetarians in the UK has remained relatively stable over recent years, evidence suggests that more and more people are trying to eat less meat – indeed some market research suggests that ‘meat reducers’ account for 45% of the population.
To reduce the environmental impact of the food you eat you can, for example:
- Reduce the amount of red and processed meat you use overall. Prepare food that uses smaller amounts of flavoursome meat to good effect, with the bulk of the meal being made of foods of plant origin.
- Try out more vegetarian options with higher levels of fruit, vegetable and wholegrain ingredients, and reduced amounts of fat and animal products (i.e. not simply replacing a meat component with cheese). Why not start with a meat-free day, and build up to more veggie meals from there?
Buy the best
Recent research shows 67% of consumers already think animal welfare is an important issue, and over 50% of the population is currently making at least one or two purchase decisions as a result of their attitude to animal welfare standards. Use the money you saved from cutting back on the amount of meat you use to buy local or British meat produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards. Ask for British meat produced to the standards of a recognised assurance scheme, such as:
Certified organic – as well as upholding environmental standards, organic certification tends to require higher standards of animal welfare than the other schemes listed here. For more information on organic standards and certifying bodies, see the ‘Farming for the planet’ section in this document.
Free range – the description ‘free range’ is defined in European law, but only for poultry. Free range poultry farming systems must allow poultry to have access to open-air runs that are mainly covered with vegetation, and have rules governing the amount of space that the birds have and the type of shelter provided. Other animals such as pigs are often described as ‘free range’ or ‘outdoor reared,’ but these terms are not legally defined.
RSPCA Freedom Foods – this scheme aims to improve farm animal welfare; it does not include environmental standards. The RSPCA’s Farm Animal Department sets the standards for each species, controlling rearing, handling, transportation and slaughter. Member farms are assessed and monitored by an independent body, and can use the Freedom Foods logo on their products. A product that carries the Freedom Foods logo does not necessarily come from a free range animal.
Assured Food Standards – this is an umbrella body representing a number of different assurance schemes, and is represented by the ‘Red Tractor’ logo. Standards require farmers to meet legal requirements for food safety, environmental protection and animal welfare as a minimum. However, AFS schemes do not require that animals or birds have outdoor access, and have been criticised for being insufficiently stringent, in terms of both the environment and animal welfare.
See footnotes for links to more information on these schemes.
You may also like to consider buying ‘rare breed’ meat from native British breeds of livestock. Over centuries these indigenous animals have, through selective breeding and natural evolution, adapted to become as efficient as possible in their local environment, making the most of the type, quantity and quality of the food available and the climate. In return, the livestock benefit their native environment. Many people say that these breeds also provide a tastier product.
For further information
For background reading, take a look at the following websites which give more information about this important subject:
- For more information about farm animal welfare, see the Compassion in World Farming website: http://www.ciwf.org/.
- For more reasons to reduce meat consumption, see the website of the Compassion in World Farming’s Eat Less Meat campaign: http://www.eatlessmeat.org/.
- To see details of the United Nations research into meat production and its effects on the environment, visit: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html.
- For detailed scientific and background information on the climate change effects of animal feed production, see the following paper by the Food Climate Research Network: http://www.fcrn.org.uk/frcnresearch/publications/PDFs/TG%20society%20animal%20feed%20paper%2029-1-07.pdf.
- A major new report from the Food Climate Research Network explores the livestock sector’s contribution to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and assesses what less greenhouse gas intensive systems of production and consumption might look like. See: http://www.fcrn.org.uk/frcnresearch/publications/PDFs/TG%20FCRN%20livestock%20final%206%20Nov%20.pdf
 To see details of the United Nations research into meat and the environment, visit: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html. See also Steinfeld, H et al. (2006) Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome. http://www.virtualcentre.org/en/library/key_pub/longshad/A0701E00.htm
 Compassion in World Farming was established by a dairy farmer who had become concerned about factory farming methods, to campaign for improved standards of animal welfare in the farming industry. See http://www.ciwf.org/.
 Compassion in World Farming Trust (2004) Reducing Meat Consumption: The case for urgent reform. See: http://www.ciwf.org/publications/reports/Global_benefits_summary.pdf
Also see the Compassion in World Farming Eat Less Meat campaign at: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/campaigns/primary_campaigns/eat_less_meat.html
 Department of Health (1998), "Nutritional aspects of the development of cancer", Report of the Working Group on Diet and Cancer, Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), Report on Health and Social Subjects No. 48, HMSO, London
 World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF, 2007). Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington DC.
 The WCRF report (2007) defines processed meat as meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives, including that contained in processed food.
 Wang Y Q, Thomas B, Ghebremeskel K and Crawford M A (2004) Changes in Protein and Fat Balance of Some Primary Foods: Implications for Obesity? Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, London Metropolitan University
 Data on market trends in consumers choosing to eat less meat are collected regularly by the TNS Family Food Panel (http://www.tns-global.com/), and reported by the food industry's Food and Drink Federation on its dedicated Meat Free website: http://www.meat-free.org.uk/mf_market_trends.aspx
 Ethical Consumerism (2006) Institute of Grocery Distribution, Consumer Unit
 Consumer Attitudes to Animal Welfare (2007) Institute of Grocery Distribution
 For more information on the benefits of choosing local produce, see the ‘Eat the seasons!’ section in this document.
12] See the Freedom Food website: http://www.rspca.org.uk/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RSPCA/RSPCARedirect&pg=FreedomFoodHomepage
 See here for information on the Red Tractor logo: http://www.redtractor.org.uk/site/rt_home.php
 Compassion in World Farming, “Farm Assurance Schemes & Animal Welfare - Can We Trust Them?” 2002 – see here for full report: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/littleredtractor/Images/Farm%20Assurance%20Report.pdf or here for a summary: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/littleredtractor/index.htm
 For more information about rare breeds see the website of the Rare Breed Survival Trust: http://www.rbst.org.uk/.