In the backdrop of the rapid decline of our planet’s health, with dramatic manifestations such as more frequent and severe natural disasters, many of us are wondering how we might be able to make a difference. One rapidly growing body of research is looking at the environmental impact of how we eat, with a salient emerging theme being veganism. According to a report from 2016, world-wide food-related emissions would fall by 70% in 30 years if everyone went vegan today.
However, critics posit that simply cutting out all meat is a disingenuous oversimplification of the issue. They point out that it ignores the option of local, grass-fed meat, often being beef, which many believe can be more environmentally friendly than veganism.
Local, grass-fed meat avoids deforestation
One of the main areas of contention around livestock and its impact on the planet is the over-use of land to grow crops for animals, rather than for humans. This results in extensive deforestation, especially from soya crops. At first glance, this might cast blame on veganism, with soya being found in meat and dairy alternatives. However, almost all of the world’s soya, around 75%, is produced to feed livestock, and only 6% goes to directly feeding humans. Raising cows to be grass-fed instead negates this issue and can avoid a lot of the emissions commonly associated with the meat industry.
While the effect of soya crops on deforestation is substantial, it is eclipsed by beef farming. Great swathes of forest, particularly in the increasingly vulnerable Amazon, are cleared every day to make space for raising more and more cows for beef production. Therefore, avoiding contributing to this by locally sourcing meat, especially beef, can make your plate much more planet friendly.
Therefore, some believe that a dogmatic approach and demonising the environmental impact of all meat doesn’t take into account that local, grass-fed beef largely avoids deforestation, significantly cutting its impact.
Importing and transport emissions
Many vegan meat products have to be imported from abroad and this naturally raises the question of whether these can legitimately be marketed as the ‘sustainable option’. Meanwhile, by its very definition, local beef minimises any emissions associated with transport from farm to shop.
However, this concept of food miles, the distance a product travels between its manufacture to the consumer, is only part of the whole picture. The vast majority of greenhouse gases generated during food production occurs not in the transport phase but during the production stage, with some studies placing this as high as 83%. The argument behind local beef being more sustainable by minimising its transport emissions loses some traction as a result of this. A further hit is the fact that even the lowest impact beef still generates six times more greenhouse gases than plant proteins in the production phase.
Food transport emissions also heavily depend on the mode of transport being used, with sea freight being far more efficient and less impactful than air transport. Therefore, there is flexibility for suppliers of vegan proteins to cut down on their emissions through alternative transport options. This isn’t the case for producers of local beef, as they have already minimised their transport phase, and are left with the more difficult task of cutting down their high production emissions.
Another feather in the cap of local beef supporters is that animal agriculture can play an integral role in regenerative farming. This practice aims to improve the health of the soil and sequester valuable carbon from the atmosphere back into this soil.
One technique is to use animal grazing systematically, such as by rotating grazing areas. Strategically managing the level of grazing – finding a balance before overgrazing – can help encourage the growth of new plants. Therefore, an aspect of live-stock rearing can actively contribute to carbon absorption from the air, rebalancing the greenhouse gas scales.
While this practice has some potential and has been shown to both improve the health of the soil and positively affect carbon dioxide levels, these benefits have their limitations. If grazing is poorly managed and too intensive, plant growth can be stunted, resulting in counterproductive losses of carbon. Also, while carbon can be sequestered through grazing management, studies place this as an offset of only 20-60% of the yearly average emissions from the sector.
So, what’s the answer?
First of all, it’s important to note that choosing what we do and do not eat is a huge privilege, and not everyone can do this. Those who are lucky enough to have this freedom can take the time to learn how to make choices that balance what’s best for both themselves and for the planet. However, a variety of economic, social and health factors can limit the options for many and, on a planet of over 6 billion individuals, one universal answer won’t fit the bill for everyone. What’s right for one person won’t necessarily be right for the next person.
On the whole, local, grass-fed meat can offer a solution that cuts down on transport and soy-associated emissions. It presents a viable option for those who want to make their food choices more sustainable but don’t want to completely remove meat from their diet.
While it’s not equivalent to a veganism in terms of minimising emissions, being aware of the nuances of each option and seeing the whole picture remains the best way to make choices on an individual level. Avoiding dogmatic views on either on the spectrum will also help us all understand each other better, so we can take a collective step together towards a healthier planet.