We asked a British beef farmer about the rise of veganism

‘We’re omnivorous – meat should be eaten as part of a balanced diet to get the nutrients we need’

More and more young people are beginning to turn away from meat and follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – the Vegan society claims that over the last 10 years, the number of vegans has risen from 150,000 to over half a million.

Aside from animal welfare concerns, many vegetarians and vegans argue that livestock contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and are an inefficient use of resources.

A UN report in 2006 claimed that cattle rearing alone produced more greenhouse gases than cars, due to their high release of methane (from farting) as well as the deforestation caused in order to expand grasslands in areas such as Brazil.

With this in mind, we decided to talk to Devonshire beef farmer Andrew Baker to get an alternative perspective – and to ask his whether modern meat eaters can still be ecologically concerned.

Hi Andrew. Can cattle rearing still be considered ecologically sustainable?

This question boils down to what you feed the cattle. Many European beef farmers use concentrated feed, including crops such as barley and other high energy foodstuffs allowing them to gain weight quickly. This means that more farmland and resources have to be devoted to growing crops that could otherwise be used to grow food for human consumption.

The cattle that I rear are not fed on any concentrated feed apart from a little bit of barley that is sourced from the farm when they are very young. This means that most of their foodstuff is all naturally occurring and grown slowly, meaning that there is a significantly smaller carbon footprint because less of our resources are devoted to feeding cattle.

European breeds like the Belgian Blue have been bred to quickly put on weight

European breeds like the Belgian Blue have been bred to quickly put on weight

Many European cows are also raised indoors, meaning that the food has to be brought to them, such as grass that is mowed from surrounding fields. This means that unlike grass-fed cattle, that forage for food independently, there’s a higher carbon footprint because of the time and effort used to bring the grass to the cattle.

So do you consider that grass-fed cattle have a much smaller impact on the environment?

As a general rule of thumb yes, but it depends on the breed of cattle. Cattle have a ruminant digestive system, meaning that they can acquire nutrients from plants effectively by fermentation. This means that cattle can be fed vegetation that humans have no other use for.

Most of the native British breeds, such as the Hereford or the Red Devon, have been bred to thrive on Marginal Grassland – which is land unsuitable for crops for example moorland and marshland. It basically means that famers can use land much more effectively.

So would you argue that there is such a thing as an ecologically concerned beef-eater?

It obviously depends on where your beef comes from and how it was reared. Brazilian cattle, for example, are often fed on soya crops, which come from fields that have been reclaimed from the rainforests.

The intensive farming practices mean that the reclaimed land can normally do one or two harvests before becoming useful for little else than grassland- for which the cattle are grazed on.

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This, plus the fact that the beef has then to be shipped to the UK, is a perfect example of meat that has a very large carbon footprint and isn’t ecologically sustainable in the long-run.

However, buying grass-fed British beef has a much smaller carbon footprint partly because of fewer travel miles and also because it was reared on grassland that hasn’t derived from harmful practices, such as deforestation, but has existed for hundreds of years.

So what’s your opinion on the recent rise in veganism?

I can see the merits of it as well as understanding that there are generally sound motivations behind cutting down on products derived from animals.

The Western World is eating far too much meat and dairy products, most of it deriving from unsustainable sources that make it cheaper but don’t take the full ecological cost into consideration.

One of the Red Devon Cows that Andrew farms

One of the Red Devon Cows that Andrew farms

The biggest problem that humans are going to have to consider is global hunger and how to effectively share out natural assets and turning to an exclusively plant-based diet does partly address the problem.

However, by nature we are omnivorous, meat should and can be eaten as part of a balanced diet to get the vitamins and nutrients that we need. Vitamin B12, for example, can only be naturally found in animal products – it’s therefore a question of ensuring that we consume meat in a sensible and sustainable way.

One way to do so would be to buy meat that is sustainably-sourced, good way. Yes, it will be more expensive, meaning that many will not be able to eat as much meat as we have become accustomed to – but this will only reap benefits both for us as well as for the planet.

You can see Andrew’s tips on what beef to buy here.

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