Cattle in a field. Photo credit: Pixabay

Sustain Sustainable Food

The problem

Meat, dairy and ill-health

As hundreds of millions of the world’s vegetarians and vegans show every day, we do not need meat and dairy products in our diets. While eating small amounts of good quality meat and dairy products is not a health problem, and many people enjoy them, there is increasing evidence of links between consuming red and processed meats and saturated fat from full fat dairy products and various diseases.

As much as 15 years ago the Department of Health linked eating red and processed meat to certain types of cancer. A more recent report published by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends reducing the daily amount of cooked red meat eaten to around 70g a day. This is less than one ‘quarter pound’ burger per day, a portion roughly the size of a pack of playing cards. The report also recommends that we should eat very little, if any, processed meat. The NHS now advises people to cut down to 70g a day of red and processed meat. Most of us, of course, eat far more than this recommended amount, even though evidence continues to grow linking red and processed meat to a range of other diseases too, such as coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Some dairy products, like cheese, and meat products like sausages, pies and breadcrumbed products, tend to be high in fat and are often very salty too. High fat and salt consumption has long been linked to increased risk of 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 changed methods of farming and processing.

Contributing to climate change

According to 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. It is also the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions caused by the food system, which itself is responsible for just under a third (up to 30%) of all global emissions. There are many inter-linked reasons for this, including the following:

  • 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 (unless the animals are pasture-fed – see box below); 4kg of grain for 1kg of pork (unless they are fed on waste – see The Pig Idea campaign in Aiming to be Waste Free); 2kg of grain for 1kg of poultry.
  • Animal feed is usually produced using nitrogen fertilisers, which are energy intensive to create and result in emissions of, for example, the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
  • Livestock (particularly ruminants such as cows and sheep) emit high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from their digestive systems.
  • Natural ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests, that absorb greenhouse gases, are destroyed to make way for animal grazing, or crops for animal feed. Removing trees often also destroys the soil and the habitats of birds and other wildlife.
  • Animals, their feed and the resulting animal products are usually transported, often over large distances, and in energy-intensive refrigerated conditions.
  • The demand for meat and dairy products is increasing, especially in rapidly industrialising Eastern economies, shifting from traditional diets to a more Western pattern of consumption.

It is also worth noting that intensive livestock farming consumes huge amounts of fresh water. This is likely to become a more serious problem because, as our world’s climate gets hotter, extreme weather such as droughts and flooding become more frequent and more severe, putting even greater pressure on precious water supplies.

Undermining animal welfare

Research over many years by Compassion in World Farming shows that most of the meat and dairy products on sale in the UK is produced intensively in factory farms where animals suffer from confinement and isolation, or overcrowding, so animals cannot move around or behave naturally. The most frequent forms of poor practice include:

  • Overcrowding, which can encourage diseases to develop and spread. Antibiotics are frequently used, and sometimes misused, to try to counter this problem, and antibiotic resistance poses a serious risk to human health, as well as to animal welfare. Overstocking also prevents some animals from getting access to enough food, which can lead to fighting and injuries. Rearing animals in smaller groups would be a more sustainable way to avoid these problems in the first place.
  • ‘Corner cutting’ techniques which boost productivity but can harm the animal, for example removing or cutting tails, horns, teeth or beaks, which causes them discomfort, and weaning animals too young (which can cause distress as well as disease).
  • Breeding animals to boost productivity which can also harm them. For example, some chickens are bred to grow so fast, they suffer heart failure, and cows are often bred to produce so much milk they suffer painful lameness and udder infections.

What we can do

Buy better, and less meat and dairy produce

Scientific evidence continues to accumulate showing that eating a greater proportion of foods of plant origin - vegetables, fruit, pulses (such as beans), nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods - can reduce the risks of serious physical diseases such as heart disease and some cancers, and some mental health problems. Plant-based diets tend to be naturally low in fat, salt and sugar, and also contain high levels of dietary fibre alongside a variety of important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This helps to explain why vegetarians:

  • are less likely to be overweight or obese;
  • have lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels and around a third (32%) lower risk of getting heart disease; and
  • have around 10-12% lower risk of getting cancer.

To make room for more plants we should all eat less meat (especially red meat and processed meat) and fewer products of animal origin – like dairy products and eggs - both to improve our health and reduce the damage we are doing to our environment. A growing number of us are already taking action and research shows that the market for "meat-free" foods has grown by a fifth (20%) from 2007 to 2012. Some 15% of British people say they are avoiding red meat for health reasons, an even larger 38% have bought meat-free products, and the UK’s annual celebration of vegetarianism continues to grow in popularity.

When we do buy meat, more and more of us are choosing higher welfare products. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) survey in 2011 found that three-quarters (75%) of UK households said that the animal welfare standards for eggs and chicken are an "important issue". The survey also found that 65% of households "actively seek" higher welfare eggs when shopping and 50% look for higher welfare chicken. In recent years, the rising sales of pork certified as higher welfare by RSPCA Freedom Food also show that a growing number of people consider pig welfare to be an important issue.

The money we save from reducing the amount of meat and dairy we buy can be spent on improving the quality, including higher standards of animal welfare and systems that are good for wildlife. Choose the standards of a recognised assurance scheme, such as:

  • Organic – as well as upholding high environmental standards, organic certification is reported to have the best standards of animal welfare. For more information on organic standards and certifying bodies see Buying local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food.
  • Free range – the description ‘free range’ is defined in European law, but only for poultry. Free range poultry farming systems must allow the birds 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,’ which can have welfare benefits, but these terms are not legally defined.
  • Freedom FoodRSPCA Freedom Food – this scheme aims to improve farm animal (and farmed fish) 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 RSPCA Freedom Food logo on their products.
  • Pasture Fed Livestock - this association of farmers promotes grass-reared beef, lamb and mutton. Many groups agree that animals that graze on natural farmland provide a number of benefits to people (including health), the countryside and the environment.
  • 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 minimum legal requirements for food safety, environmental issues, and how animals are kept. Red Tractor has claimed their welfare standards are high, but given that they are set around the legal minimum they do not, for example, require that animals or birds have outdoor access. The standards have been criticised by some organisations for being insufficiently stringent, in terms of both the environment and animal welfare.

‘Rare breed’ meat from native British breeds of livestock can also be a good choice. 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.

Ask businesses and policy makers to take action

Ask your local council and health authority to work with their caterers to reduce the amount of meat they serve, and improve its quality, in schools, hospitals and other parts of the public sector. It’s our money that’s paying for this.

In November 2012, Los Angeles City Council in the USA unanimously voted to adopt a resolution endorsing Meatless Mondays, and from March 2013 all schools in the district stopped serving meat on Mondays.

You might also want to ask restaurants, cafés and other outlets to provide a better choice of meat-free options.

Stay informed

As well as the organisations mentioned above:


Pasture-fed produce

The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) was formed in 2011 to recognise the virtues of livestock systems based purely upon pasture and to provide a distinct identity for the produce from such systems. Pasture-Fed is clearly defined and underpinned by audited production standards. It is supported by the "Pasture-tracks" system, providing full information at the point of sale about the farm and individual animal it came from.

With over two-thirds of UK farmland under pasture, including many areas where grass is the only crop that thrives, grazing livestock is an efficient way to use our natural resources. Pasture-fed animals form an integral part of farming methods that underpin both organic and some traditional crop husbandry. They can also play a vital role in helping to manage natural and semi-natural habitats, including by improving the soil, helping crops grow and controlling weeds.

Sustainable Food: What you can do - and ask others to do - to help make our food and farming system fit for the future.

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