Here we summarise the findings from a new report on grassfed meat production, and explain what your restaurant can do to serve meat in a sustainable way.
The recent report by the FCRN makes a strong argument that even grassfed meat cannot really be considered sustainable, especially at the current and projected levels of meat consumption.
There has been an ongoing debate about whether the real issue with livestock farming is industrial factory farming, or more generally about the impact all livestock production has on the environment. Advocates of grassfed beef argue that grazing livestock avoids many of the pitfalls of factory farming, and makes use of natural resources that we cannot eat ourselves (mainly grass in this case). And this is all valid up to a point. More strident claims are that in fact grassfed livestock is "sustainable" because grazing animals causes the grasslands to sequester (suck in & store) lots and lots of carbon, thereby cancelling out the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock production itself. And this is kind of the crux of the argument.
Here are the key points made in the report:
- Research shows the level of carbon sequestration to be much lower than that claimed by advocates of the "carbon neutral cow" theory (such as Allan Savory and his holistic grazing).
- The amount of new carbon that can be stored in the pastures due to grazing is much less than the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from raising the livestock in the first place.
- Soil carbon reaches an equilibrium quite quickly and at that stage it will stop cancelling out the emissions from the livestock anyway.
- Soil carbon is not permanent, and it can be easier to lose carbon than store it.
- And the emissions from the livestock are very high, very complex and will keep on coming as long as there are livestock on the land, long after the soil carbon has stabilised.
In other words, it looks like this:
Do we have enough land anyway?
And here is the real catch. Rearing animals on land that cannot be used for much else is ok so far as it goes, but at current levels of meat consumption (never mind projected global levels for the next 30 years) we don't have enough of the "cannot be used for anything else" land. So to convert all of our meat to "grassfed only" would likely require more land to be cleared, which sounds a lot like deforestation. And nobody thinks we need more deforestation.
There is an additional issue here, that if we took the livestock off the grasslands and let the land "rewild" or reforest, then how much more carbon would be stored in that land (and without the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock)? Nobody seems to have a good answer to that yet, but its an important land-use question.
Is "grassfed" still better than "industrially farmed" meat?
The FCRN report did not set out to answer this question, it focused on showing what the greenhouse gas outcomes are from grassfed meat, so there is no firm conclusion here. However, here is a practical perspective: there are so many things wrong-headed about factory farmed meat that making a direct comparison is missing the point. We know that factory farmed meat has enormous environmental costs, not to mention animal welfare and health issues. But we can also now say fairly confidently that switching over to grassfed systems would not solve one of the key problems : climate change. It could indeed make things worse, if it resulted in more deforestation.
What can your restaurant do?
At IntoFood we are all about taking constructive action, based on what the evidence is saying. And in many ways, this report does not change our message.
Reduce meat consumption for many many reasons, not least because the climate change impacts of eating so much meat will in all likelihood act as a barrier to meeting the 2 degree goals of the Paris agreement.
How much meat?
One off-the-record comment that came out of the webinar for FCRN's report was that consumption of meat per person should perhaps be reduced to about 25% of our current western levels. Which for most countries means going down from about 180g per day to about 50g per day.
This will not happen overnight of course, but setting yourselves a goal in your restaurant to cut meat consumption by 30% within 1 year is actually very manageable, if done right. You are then on a pathway to more responsible food service, whichever way you look at it.
When it comes to what type of meat you should be buying, you need to balance the climate change impacts of different animals (beef/lamb = high, pork a bit less so, chicken a bit lower) with the general consensus that the lower the carbon footprint, the more intensive the production and perhaps the lower the animal welfare and biodiversity. You also need to consider that there is probably an argument that grassfed beef (at very low levels) could be as near to harmless as we can get right now. But this would means a lot less than the total about of beef we are currently consuming.
Think of it this way: if research identifies an optimal level of grassfed beef that can be produced globally in order to be as near to sustainable as possible, (a big ask!), then each of us should not be eating more than our fair share of that anyway. Nobody is sure what that number is, but I would recommend aiming for the 30% reduction within 1 year as your starting point. Anything else seems irresponsible, given what we now know.
You can find the FCRN report here.