Is the meat industry at a crossroads?

1st June 2020

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Paul Wildin

Livestock farming faces an uncertain future as environmental and ethical concerns combine with other challenges, says Chris Seekings

Many believe the meat industry is facing a crisis. The popularity of vegetarianism and veganism, fuelled by concerns over industrial farming, have combined with issues such as limited land availability and antibiotic resistance to create a perfect storm for the sector. Various scientific studies have concluded that, due to the emissions released, our current consumption of red meat is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The University of Oxford's Food Climate Research Network has stated that grazing animals should not be a central part of sustainable food production, and the UK's Committee on Climate Change has recommended people cut the amount of beef, lamb and dairy they eat by a fifth to combat global warming.

Some, meanwhile, argue that rearing livestock could help solve our environmental problems, claiming that pasture-fed cattle and sheep help boost soil health and carbon sequestration. Still others say grain-fed animal rearing is more efficient, with scientists from Harvard University finding that a nationwide shift to grass-fed beef requires a larger cattle population and far more pastureland.

All this comes as technological advancements make lab-grown 'meat' for the masses an increasingly realistic prospect, potentially providing ethical and environmental advantages. Dutch company Mosa Meat and Spain-based Biotech Foods expect the price of producing a lab-grown burger patty to drop to $10 by 2021 – down from $271,000 in 2013. In addition, modelling by the $20trn FAIRR investor network suggests that alternative proteins such as plant-based burgers could command over half of the current meat market by 2050, depending on factors such as technology adoption rates, consumer trends and a carbon tax on meat.

With so many trends converging, I asked three experts whether cattle and sheep rearing can ever be truly compatible with a sustainable food system..

Sustainable food systems: A look at the option.

Dave Stanley FIEMA.

Pasture-Fed Livestock Association director.

“Pasture-feeding should be part of the solution“

Cattle and sheep are not the cause of global warming, but intensive production of food and livestock does contribute. The accepted view of global warming and associated climate change is that it is largely due to the fossil fuel burning and consumption.

Two-thirds of farmed land globally is pasture, so it makes sense to graze cattle and sheep on it rather than feed them grains – 60% of the world's grain is fed to livestock! Intensively grown grains requiring fossil fuels have resulted in significant soil degradation on arable farms. Farmers that rear their animals on a grass/pasture diet can improve soil productivity through grazing management and returning animal manures to the soil. They also capture carbon in their soils. The effects of drought and flooding are reduced because the roots of a diverse pasture grow deep – improving soil structure and water retention.

Farmers with 100% pasture-fed cattle and sheep enhance support and biodiversity in their fields. Paddocks or rotational grazing with a diverse sward, trees, hedgerows and a mixture of grasses and herbs will sequester carbon in the soil. You can eat meat or dairy with a clear environmental conscience if it is labelled 'Pasture for Life', certifying that it has come from animals reared exclusively on pasture.

Dr Cécile Godd.

Food systems research scientist, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisatio.

“It's all about context“

Grazing ruminants play an important role in the world's commitment to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure health and prosperity for all. Grass-fed ruminant systems contribute positively to many environmental and socio-economic aspects, but also cause 30% of the livestock sector's greenhouse gas emissions and are often more emission and land-intensive than other systems. Soil carbon sequestration would not be enough to offset global grazing systems emissions.

What is the role of grazing systems in a sustainable food future? There is no straightforward answer – it's all about context. We will need to ensure grazing systems perform well across themes such as food security, livelihoods, animal welfare, disease prevention, biodiversity conservation and ecosystems protection. Multiple approaches must be undertaken, such as improving farm efficiencies, altering dietary patterns and reducing food waste.

What the sector will look like in future is uncertain. It will depend on crop and livestock productivities, food demand, regulations, global forces, and technological 'wildcards' such as meat alternatives and their associated trade-offs. This uncertainty means we have a great opportunity to shape the future of our food systems.

Maria Lettini.

FAIRR Initiative director

“The sector must reform to manage the risks“

The beef industry faces significant challenges if it fails to acclimatise to the risks posed by climate change and shifting consumer preferences. The sector must reform to manage the risks it faces. The Coller FAIRR Climate Risk Tool, designed to help investors quantify transitional and physical risks, shows that corporate EBITDA could be lost or enhanced based on how companies respond to the challenge.

Increased cattle mortality from heat stress, reduced land availability, and rising feed and veterinary costs will have significant financial implications. Failure to adopt a climate progressive pathway could result in the loss of billions; FAIRR found that meat companies with high exposure to beef were most at risk. The likelihood of a meat tax is also looking probable, as the sector's environmental and health costs have become difficult to ignore.

We expect to see meat companies pursuing alternative proteins. The alternative protein sector is expected to command at least 16% of the current meat market, potentially rising as high as 62%. The Coller FAIRR Index found that 15 out of 60 of the largest meat, fish and dairy companies are already invested in plant-based options. We expect to see this trend become more widely-adopted, as meat companies adapt to survive.

Image credit: iStock


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