Everyone agrees we need to improve our diets – but not what that means. By Nick Hughes.
What do we mean by “better” meat? It’s a question with the potential to divide farmers, confuse consumers and frustrate foodservice sustainability managers in equal measure.
From organic, to pasture-raised, to intensively reared livestock, each system has a vociferous band of supporters armed with carefully curated statistics to advance their particular cause.
Striding bravely into the crossfire is the NGO Eating Better, whose latest report aims to offer up principles for eating meat and dairy more sustainably: the “less and better” approach.
Quite sensibly, the report frames the debate on better meat within the context that we all need to eat a little less meat and dairy both for our own health and that of the environment. This is relatively solid ground given the growing evidence base for the unhealthiness of diets high in animal protein and the prevailing market trends towards more plant-based eating.
Yet when the subject turns to better meat, the ground begins to feel rather shakier. Take the question of the climate impact of intensive versus extensively reared meat. The Food Climate Research Network, which has carried out extensive research into emissions from ruminant animals, has previously noted that studies tend to show that pasture-based cattle have a greater climate impact than animals fed grains and soy (excluding the potential benefits of carbon sequestration, which itself is a contested subject). This is because feeds tend to be less fibrous than grass, meaning cows that eat them produce less methane.
Does this mean, therefore, we should be eating meat raised predominantly indoors? Not necessarily, since, as Eating Better points out, the lower greenhouse gas emissions achieved by the intensification of production can come at the expense of animal health and welfare, and an unsustainable reliance on high levels of antibiotic use.
To its credit, Eating Better does not pretend there is a perfect solution to these tensions “short of getting to know the particular circumstances of individual farms”. Instead, the report lists a set of criteria for better meat – encompassing climate, nature, health, livelihoods and other key indicators of sustainability – and maps how common certification schemes perform against these criteria.
It concludes that organic ticks the most boxes; yet Eating Better also acknowledges there is no single scheme that “delivers neatly” across all of its better meat and dairy principles.
And herein lies the problem for foodservice businesses looking for a one-size-fits-all solution to offering their clients sustainable meat. When you set aside vested interests no one – not even the experts – can say for sure that one production system or label is inherently more sustainable than another.
For businesses that lack the resources and expertise to drill down into their supply chains to the farm level, certification schemes are the crutch they lean on to show the outside world their credentials on responsible sourcing. But as things stand, there will always be ammunition for sceptics to pick holes in corporate commitments.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, spoke of his desire for a new gold-standard metric for food and farming quality. As hard as it would be to bring all factions together to agree a common set of criteria, Gove’s idea surely has merit.
Would it be better than what exists already? That’s a debate for another time.