As part of a healthy diet, people should eat a bit less meat and dairy, and a lot more fruit and vegetables, but removing livestock products from our diets is bad for human health, and potentially delivers little for the environment, industry experts have claimed.
Speaking at a webinar organised by the Worshipful Company of Butchers on the future of UK meat production, Professor Michael Lee from Harper Adams University highlighted the key nutrients for humans available in meat, and not in plant-based foods.
“We have got to position food as the health industry and livestock have a critical role to play in that,” he said.
When it comes to the various measures of environmental sustainability, including carbon emissions, Professor Lee warned about the dangers of comparing foods based on global averages.
For example, the global average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per kg of product for grass-fed beef is nearly 60, yet the UK figure is just over 18.
100g of beef delivers 18.6% of the recommended daily intake
However, he advocates other metrics, including assessing food on its nutrient density and nutrient availability.
He said that 100g of beef delivers 18.6% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of key nutrients, and when carbon emissions are expressed against RDI, beef has a much lower carbon footprint, and comes out below chicken.
Taking his analysis further to compare different diets where beef or pork is the main source of protein, or it is a plant-based food (tofu), the plant based food has much lower carbon emissions per kg.
Our early indicators are that pork will be less than tofu, and beef won’t be far off
But when expressed on a nutrient density basis, the gap is much narrower.
The next stage is to express emissions against the bio-availability of the key nutrients.
“Our early indicators are that pork will be less than tofu, and beef won’t be far off,” he said.
However, he also made the point that there is more to environmental sustainability than just carbon emissions. While beef and lamb might have higher carbon emissions per kg than chicken or pork, they are generally produced off land not suited to arable production.
“Let’s use that arable land for producing fantastic plants for human nutrition, and use our livestock on land not suitable for growing crops,” he suggested.
In total, he maintained that humans need to eat around 60g per head per day of protein, and the optimum sustainable pathway involves around 25g to 30g of that coming from livestock production.
Attendees on the webinar also heard from Judith Batchelor from Sainsbury’s, who highlighted the range of claims presented to consumers around these issues. She said that a lot of the communications are not well understood or over-simplified, and in some cases deliberately disingenuous.
There is no point us all dashing down the road to restoring our environment
She talked about how it is necessary to have a “relentless pursuit of the best truth”, and how the industry should potentially take the lead on developing a “responsible communications charter”.
“There is no point us all dashing down the road to restoring our environment and net zero if one man’s net zero is different to another man’s net zero,” she said.