Written by Hugo Ellis, 24.
Knowing what changes we can make in our diets to help reduce our environmental impact is important to many twentysomething, thirtysomethings, and most people nowadays. But what do we know about our food? And is a plant based diet the only way to mitigate environmental harm from our food? With the meat-eating argument such a polarised debate, I wanted to write about some factors supporting the production of grass fed meat as an environment-enhancing choice, which I have learned about in my short time of working in the industry.
There are two important long-term threats to our food security in the UK. These have been overlooked by the industry and the public due to many factors - one being the recent emphasis on cattle emissions, mainly reported on large regarding intensive herds in places like the United States.
Firstly, there is soil erosion. It has been said that we only have 60 harvests left due to soil erosion. This is the degradation of soil due to ‘over-farming’ of crops like vegetables, cereals and animal forage. Some ways in which the soil deteriorates include cultivations, loss of organic matter and leaving soil bare over winter. ‘Over-farming’ the soil can be mitigated by good management practises and there are a myriad of ways in which to do this.
Many do not realise the constant fight to keep crops free of disease and pests
The next major issue is the industry’s reliance on chemicals. Chemicals, when used safely and correctly, can be a great tool in the armoury of farmers to protect crops against diseases and pests. Many do not realise the constant fight to keep crops free of disease and pests. A number of chemicals are being banned from use due to negative effects on non-target organisms such as insects and birds, so it is in farmers' interest to reduce the reliance on these (not to mention the cost of these products). Other agricultural chemicals like artificial fertilizers and pesticides, are by-products of the petroleum industry and not only demand high emissions in production, but also release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere when applied, which is one of the six big greenhouse gases.
So how can we address these issues? There is not one ‘golden bullet’, but one important way is uttered from the lips of many farmers at cattle sales, machinery forcourts and farming shows up and down the country... To "go back to how we used to do it."
In the old days, many farms were mixed farms, they had both livestock and crops. The crops were fertilized by the livestock dung and the grass put a natural break in the crop rotation to build up the soil fertility. This, in turn, helps reduce erosion. Another benefit of grazing is carbon sequestration. This is the act of returning carbon back into the soil through the carbon cycle. Many farms are conducting 'carbon audits' using offsetting techniques like carbon sequestration or renewable energy to achieve net zero carbon by 2040.
This way of farming also helps to displace pests and diseases by the break up of monocropping. Grass and other animal forage crops can support many beneficial insects. Hedgerows and field margins around smaller grazing fields create habitats for birds and small mammals who also act as natural pest managers. This approach is deemed 'holistic', of which the definition is "characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole".
By utilising livestock in our agricultural systems, we can support wildlife and build soil health
Organic farming systems (those that do not use any chemicals or artificial fertilisers) have to have a holistic approach. To make work of animals to build soil fertility, and sometimes create environments for beneficial wildlife which tackle problems which otherwise would have been solved by a bottle.
Many conventional farms are having increased interest in these holistic techniques - also known as 'regenerative agriculture' - to build soil fertility and improve wildlife. It is many people's hope, although a ‘no deal Brexit’ may be on the horizon, that leaving the EU would enable us to construct a new environmental-approached farm subsidy payment in place of the EU's area payment subsidies. This will see farms being incentivised by the government to put more wildlife-friendly practises into place. After the repeal of the recent agricultural bill, where the government voted against their own pledge to protect UK farmers from cheap imports, I am not too sure. These foodstuffs will come from systems which do not match the UK's animal welfare or chemical regulatory standards.
It is not to go without saying that there is certainly a place for large-scale conventional food production in this country, but by utilising livestock in our agricultural systems, we can support wildlife and build soil health in ways which large scale monocropping cannot. Changes that we can all make when buying meat are to buy organic which supports holistic systems enriching wildlife, buying local and supporting family farms adopting good practises. It is equally important to take time to research the many good farming practises happening in the UK today.