Why less and better meat and dairy is better for nature
Following the publication of Eating Better’s ‘Principles of Eating Meat and Dairy More Sustainably: The Less and Better Approach,’ and the VLOG on the same subject. We asked Harry Greenfield to set out RSPB's stance on how a ‘less and better’ approach to meat and dairy consumption impacts on nature. This is what he had to say:
For the health of ourselves, our planet and society, we know we need to eat less meat, which is backed by good evidence. But we also need to ensure that the meat and dairy we do eat is really 'better', and Eating Better’s recent report helps to explain some of the principles behind what this means. In this blog, I’ll focus specifically on why eating less and better meat and dairy is vital for protecting nature and the environment, and how we can do this.
With over a third of land globally, and over 70% in the UK, used for agriculture, it’s no surprise that farming has an impact on the wildlife that also lives, eats, and breeds in the countryside. This impact is alarming in the context of a potential doubling in global meat production by 2050, due to rising populations and higher (and therefore meat-heavy) living standards. Wildlife meanwhile is in trouble: since 1970 we have seen 58% of species decline globally, and 56% in the UK. Changes in farming over this period have been a key driver of these declines.
Producing meat and dairy impacts wildlife at all stages of the process: from inputs to the system like livestock feed, to the effects of rearing animals on the land, and finally the waste, and pollution, that accompanies production. Some of these may be localised near to production but others, above all the impact of feeding livestock and their climate emissions, are thoroughly globalised.
Most livestock are fed on manufactured feed, often designed to promote rapid growth in the animal, which is based on soy and maize crops. These crops take up huge amounts of land to produce and this largely happens in some of the most wildlife-rich parts of the world such as the Amazon. This is having a devastating impact on some of the world’s most precious wildlife. We need to eat less meat and dairy, we suggest that the remaining meat and dairy we do eat is reared on home-grown feed or grass, or systems such as organic, which require livestock feed to be sourced locally wherever possible.
Another problem from livestock farming is the large volumes of waste produced, especially from intensively managed livestock. The average dairy cow in the UK produces 52kg of manure per day! While slurry and manure can be used as fertiliser, this needs to be managed carefully. Incorrect storage or spreading of manure, for example at the wrong time or in the wrong place, can lead to pollution of watercourses. This in turn can be extremely harmful to the ecology, with fish, amphibians and invertebrates susceptible to the changes caused by pollution. Unfortunately, an investigation last year revealed an increase in serious farm pollution breaches, with the Environment Agency dealing with one a week. Many of these incidents go unprosecuted, despite there being powers in place to do so.
But the impact of livestock on nature is not all doom and gloom. As well as finding more sustainable feed sources and improving the way waste is dealt with to avoid pollution, rearing animals on the land can itself be ‘better’ for nature. High nature value (HNV) farming refers to farming that contributes directly to wildlife conservation, often taking place in some of the country’s rarest and most threatened habitats, such as on marginal land in the uplands. In the UK, many HNV systems are based on extensive beef and sheep farming, with the grazed landscape helping support and maintain habitats such as upland heath, saltmarsh and hay meadows as well as species such as curlew, lapwing and marsh fritillary.
Changing farm practices can result in not only environmental benefits but can also improve the farmer’s bottom line. Neil Heseltine, who farms in North Yorkshire, switched from just farming sheep to including Belted Galloway cattle, and reducing the stocking density. As the grazing intensity relaxed, not only did his costs go down, as he was spending less on feed and veterinary bills, but wildlife began to return to the farm, including barn owls, curlews, brown hares and wildflowers have all thrived because of these changes.
So, while it is so important that as a population we reduce the amount of meat we eat there is real opportunity to make sure that the meat we do eat is not just better quality but better for nature.