Eating meat and the planet

One of the themes that runs through my blogs is how the intensification of British agriculture is detrimentally impacting on wildlife, habitats and the environment generally. For example I have written recently about the huge growth in maize cultivation (see here), the decline of the cuckoo (see here) and the loss of heather on Dartmoor (see here). I guess therefore that it is no surprise that I am attracted to read a book entitled ‘Farmageddon’ by Philip Lymbery who is the CEO of the organisation Compassion in World Farming. To be honest I can only read the book in the small chunks as it is quite depressing but it unfortunately does tell a tale which we all eventually need to confront.


For me, the key sentence in the book is this, it is talking about factory farmed animals, “Together they consume a third of the world’s cereal harvest, 90% of its soya meal and up to 30% of the global fish catch – precious resources that could be fed direct to billions of hungry people.” Unbelievable except that it is true.

Factory farming involves keeping animals inside sheds all year round and feeding them there on cereals, soya or fish meal. This raises all sorts of issues surrounding animal welfare, pollution (from their waste), overfishing along with the intensive pesticide, fertiliser driven agriculture needed to produce the animal feed. Livestock agriculture also produces around 10% of manmade climate change.

This is of course all driven by the world population’s desire to eat meat rather than having a vegetarian diet. Livestock agriculture requires around 10 times as much land to grow the same amount of food which is plant based. Different types of livestock agriculture have varying efficiencies of converting ‘grass’ into animal protein – this is called the feed conversion ratio – see here and here for more details. There is an interesting article in the Economist from 2013 setting out the same story  – see here.

Different countries eat differing quantities of meat per capital – see here for a table (note the dates at the top of the table are the wrong way round). This shows that in the UK we eat on average around 80kg meat per annum, in the US the figure is 124kg. In both the UK and the US the consumption levels are pretty stable. However in China in 1961 3.8kg of meat were eaten per annum and by 2002 this had risen to 52kg. Now 50% of all pork produced in the world is consumed in China ……

So what is the situation in the UK regarding the production of meat? Pig and chicken farming in the UK is generally pretty intensive with animals reared in sheds. However when it comes to cattle we have not adopted a factory approach to beef/dairy production yet. Cattle and diary cows in this country feed on grass fields during the spring, summer and autumn and are only brought into sheds in the winter when the ground conditions deteriorate. This method has much higher animal welfare standards than factory farming but it not without its environmental impacts – most cattle and diary cows are pastured on improved fertiliser enhanced grasslands. Feed does have to be grown to feed the animals during the winter – traditionally this would have been hay or silage but now is more likely to be maize.

In essence if we in the UK ate 1/2 or 3/4 the amount of beef we currently do it would free up a huge amount of land where crops could be grown which we could eat instead.

Interestingly I have just started getting my fruit and veg from Riverford – the organic farm co-operative near Totnes.

Riverfords 1

In my box this week was Guy Watson’s weekly article – on this very topic ‘Ruminating on ruminants‘.

Riverfords 2
If you want to read more about the Riverford’s ‘How much meat’ debate – press here.

This isn’t an anti meat, anti farming debate – it is about how we can sustainable manage the planet and feed the growing population – by making meat a bit more of a luxury item and not an every day necessity would make a massive difference.

Let’s also be clear many of the wildlife habitats and landscapes we cherish in this country and elsewhere depend of cattle and sheep grazing for their survival. There may be a debate about whether our uplands are overgrazed but as I have said before without any grazing on Dartmoor we would lose a huge archaeological landscape from the Bronze Age and many habitats and species we love – see here for example.









The Land – Can Britain feed itself

2 thoughts on “Eating meat and the planet

  1. This is so interesting, Adrian. I am definitely going to rethink my eating habits and try to be an environmental eater, if not a vegetarian. Will also pass to Olivia, who is now a vegan.

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