Not all meat and dairy is equal. Where and how an animal was reared, and what it ate, matters for climate change, antibiotic use and animal welfare. Within the context of eating less, choosing ‘better’ production can be a powerful way to minimise our impact and harness benefits for our health and restoring nature.
Short of getting to know the particular circumstances of a farm, assurance schemes and labels, such as organic, are the best way of identifying ‘better’ meat and dairy products.
All animal products have high impacts, and consuming meat and dairy more sustainably means, primarily, eating less of it. Yet, livestock farming has a role to play in delivering sustainable food and agriculture. An approach favouring much smaller amounts of meat and dairy produced ‘better’ has the potential to help restore balance to our diets and farming landscapes. We need a shift from intensive, very impactful forms of livestock production that rely on high amounts of inputs to farming fewer animals in tune with nature.
‘Better’ meat and dairy comes from animals reared within healthy ecosystems, favouring more natural diets from sustainable sources, in well managed farms that deliver high standards of animal welfare. Farming in this way helps to maintain good soil health and fertility for crop production, manage landscapes and support biodiversity whilst delivering a smaller volume of high quality meat and dairy products. Our Principles for eating meat and dairy more sustainably: the ‘less and better’ approach explore the rationale and benefits for people, for animals and for the planet.
For most of us, the simplest way of identifying ‘better’ meat and dairy is choosing products with a reliable certification that offers key benefits beyond the legal minimum. Options include organic, free range, pasture-fed, RSPCA Assured and, in specific cases, quality based and traditional production labels.
Currently, there is no label that delivers neatly across all our better meat and dairy principles, although organic comes closest. Schemes vary considerably in their scope, status and standards - so it is best to get to know the labels available to you and what they stand for.
Organic standards, for example, are enshrined with EU Organic Regulation, apply to all EU organic production as well as imports, and cover the whole life of an animal. In the UK, the Soil Association certification goes beyond this baseline, for instance on antibiotics and slaughtering practices. ‘Free range’ is a broad term and may only apply to the way an animal is farmed for part of its life. Other terms, such as ‘grass-fed’ or ‘outdoor-bred’ are less regulated, and can mean a variety of things. For example, a beef product marketed as ‘grass-fed’ may have come from cattle reared on grass/forage for anything between 51% to 100% of its life, indoors or outdoors. Baseline quality assurance certifications, such as Red Tractor, provide assurance on traceability but do not require any standards to go beyond the legal minimum, and so cannot be used to identify ‘better’ meat and dairy production.
The picture is complex and no approach is perfect. We advocate choosing to eat ‘less and better’ meat and dairy as the best way to navigate the trade-offs and support farming that helps restore, rather than hinder, nature.