Currently 85% of agricultural land in England is used for animal husbandry or to grow food which is then fed to livestock.
Henry Dimbleby – the key adviser to the UK Government on future food policies – has reckoned the need to reduce consumption of meat in England by 30%
The Leon restaurant chain co-founder has authored two government-commissioned reports into the UK’s food system, which included meat reduction policies.
Dimbleby told the Guardian that although asking the public to cut down on meat would be politically toxic, it was the only way to meet the country’s climate and biodiversity targets.
The UK has bold plans to get to net zero emissions by 2050. However, currently 85% of agricultural land in England is used for animal husbandry or to grow food which is then fed to livestock.
Animal agriculture is a leading cause of the climate crisis. The meat industry is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions from the methane it produces and through the carbon associated with the feed it eats.
However, methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat. A single cow produces roughly 220 pounds of methane each year.
The industry also wastes a significant amount of water. One steak, for instance, takes up more than 8365 litres of water, which is almost enough to fill 40 bathtubs.
“It’s an incredibly inefficient use of land to grow crops, feed them to a ruminant or pig or chicken which then over its lifecycle converts them into a very small amount of protein for us to eat,” Dembley said.
‘We will fail to meet our biodiversity or climate goals’
According to the food tsar, a 30% meat reduction over 10 years is required for land to be used sustainably in England.
“If we fail on this,” he said, “we will fail to meet our biodiversity or climate goals in this country. We also have a huge opportunity to show thought leadership worldwide, and show them that this can be done, that we can farm sustainably and still feed people.”
While Dembley has been pushing for meat reduction policies, the government watered down his key recommendations.
“It’s such a politicised area, it’s one that everyone globally avoids,” Dembley said while admitting he wasn’t surprised about his recommendations being omitted in the government’s white paper.
“You’ve got huge lobbies campaigning for consumption, and the public don’t like the idea of reducing meat and dairy.”
Meat lobby: Pasture lands help in carbon sequestration
According to the National Farmers’ Union, it is “criminal” to frame farming as meat versus trees and going vegan.
It added that an “honest conversation” about grasslands and the carbon they store “hasn’t been allowed to happen” since a lot of the land used for pasture, particularly that in the barren uplands, is useless for anything else due to the poor nutrient content of the soil.
“One of the arguments people make about pasture is that land is not good for anything else,” Dembley noted.
“But actually, even more than the actual direct carbon emissions from ruminants, the opportunity cost of the land they occupy is huge. We destroyed most of our rainforests 1,000 years ago in this country but most of that land has huge potential to store carbon.”
Instead, Dembley suggested that barren uplands should be taken out of food production and rewilded. According to him, taking just 5% out of production and restoring the lost landscapes they used to contain could go a long way.
Meat production remains one of the leading causes of climate crisis
Reiterating the need to cut down meat and dairy and transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, Greenpeace in a statement said: “Meat and dairy make up only a third of the calories we eat. Yet 85% of UK farmland is used for feeding and rearing livestock. Around one-sixth of this is used to grow crops for animal feed (although we buy a lot of feed in from abroad), and the remaining land is used for grazing. This is a wildly inefficient use of land.
“Growing plants for human consumption generates around 12 times more calories per hectare than using the land for meat production. Reducing meat consumption is the single most effective lever we can pull to improve the productivity of our land.”
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