We recently reported on the concept of low carbon beef, with a scheme set up in the US to “provide better information” on the environmental impact of burgers and steak. “[…] if we can produce beef with less greenhouse gas emissions, we should,” said CEO and founder Colin Beal. The scheme certifies beef from cattle that are at least 10% below the average emissions from cattle in the US (26.3kgCO2e per kilo) but extensive systems are finding it far trickier to achieve that benchmark.
But are not extensive systems the ‘in’ thing thanks to the regenerative agriculture (marketing) movement? Maybe. Or maybe not. This week BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today has been focusing on beef and one of the programmes featured the farm at Harper Adams University, in Shropshire. The beef system there is all geared towards efficiency explained lecturer James McCaughern – the sooner the animal makes it to market, the more efficient it is and the fewer emissions created.
So, all the animals are housed year round. They are also only around for a year: the cattle are slaughtered at 12 months, whereas most beef cattle in the UK make it to 26 months. Nick Allen from the British Meat Processors Association was asked whether supermarkets would like this approach. They’d be keen on the reduction of methane but there is research to suggest consumers prefer the taste of grass-reared beef, he explained.
We’d also suggest people mightn’t like cows being cooped up. And just as some food companies start to look seriously at lengthening the (very) short lives of chickens reared for meat, might we see more cows culled sooner in the name of sustainability?
Rather than a net-zero solution for food companies, it’s all likely to be more grist to the mill for animal welfare campaigners. And vegans – who were this week warned by the Daily Mail that “vegan diets are ‘less healthy’than including meat, eggs and milk in your meals”. The story is based on a study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which actually says: “Meat, eggs and milk provide a range of important macro-nutrients such as protein, fats and carbohydrates and micro-nutrients that are difficult to obtain from plant based foods in the required quality and quantity.”
The expert the paper approached (professor Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition and food scientist at the University of Reading) was at pains to stress that vegan or vegetarian diets can be “perfectly healthy” and just require “more planning”. Whether readers got to that bit or already had their bacon and eggs in the pan is unclear (the report says consumption of even low levels of processed red meat can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease outcomes).
The livestock sector also has a number of environmental and animal health challenges to address, the FAO’s report noted; though it does seem to shirk the need for consumers in developed countries to eat less meat, eggs and dairy. Joanna Trewern, head of consumption at WWF, said of the Mail’s article: “It is such a shame to see such polarised coverage on healthy diets. We know the science is nuanced and complex, but ultimately at global and national levels we will need to reduce meat production and consumption from current levels to remain within planetary boundaries. It’s not about complete elimination for every single individual on earth, as media often presents it,” she added.
Which brings us to a YouGov survey reported by The Guardian showing that under a fifth of UK consumers would be willing to cut meat and dairy out of their diets completely. There was more support however for limiting meat and dairy intake to, say, two or three meals a week. What’s more, 24% of UK consumers support government legislation to that effect.
There is no sign of the debate over meat and dairy consumption petering out. In the aftermath of Veganuary came stories of plant-based alternatives in decline. “Research from IGD suggests 7% of shoppers started taking part in Veganuary at the start of January. However, this uplift appears to have been short lived, with seven out of 10 failing to make it past the two-week mark,” reported AHDB (no doubt with a wry grin). Its own research showed more than a million fewer households bought meat-free products this January compared to last year with only 13.7% of households buying one. This compares to 96.4% of households buying meat, fish or poultry (MFP) in the first three weeks of the year.
UK sales did fall slightly by 3% to just over €1 billion (£0.88 billion) in 2022, according to retail figures compiled by NielsenIQ for the Good Food Institute. It’s certainly not as easy to make a profit from plant-based products, and scrutiny over their health and environmental credentials has (rightly) intensified. “Companies must continue investing in product innovation to develop delicious and affordable plant-based options,” said GFI’s Carlotte Lucas.
GFI has collected data from 13 countries in Europe showing that overall sales of plant-based products are in rude health. Unit sales of plant-based meat, dairy and seafood reached €5.8 billion (£5 billion) in 2022, up 21% versus 2020 and 4% versus 2021.
“The idea that plant-based meat is over is ridiculous,” wrote Sonalie Figueiras, founder of sustainability site Green Queen recently. “Sure, too many mediocre brands launched too fast and too early. But amidst a burning planet and worsening climate crisis, the category is just getting started.”
And that is the end of this week’s Digest.