Never mind the farting: a modicum of red meat’s good for you – and the planet

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What do you mean, farting? Sustainably raised cattle are part of securing a future for the planet

You didn’t misread the headline. That stuff about the farting of sheep and cows destroying the planet is wrong. In fact, keeping a moderate amount of red meat in our diet could help save the world. And farting isn’t harmful.

This massive turnaround in scientific thinking on methane and global warming appears barely to have tickled the interest of national media: but it’s surely big news. We oft-reviled meat-lovers had stood accused of accelerating the apocalypse: but it turns out that the maths was wrong.

According to a blog from the British Veterinary Association (BVA), Oxford University-based research by a global team from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that “methane from Britain’s ruminants is not causing global warming – instead ruminants provide a viable pathway to net zero emissions from UK agriculture by 2030”.

This change of heart stems from a different approach to calculating the warming effect of methane. Unlike carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), which hang around in the atmosphere for generations, methane’s short-lived: theoretically the gas produced by the herd of cows currently in the field behind you is only replacing that created by its predecessors, not adding to it. 

The new, corrected, method of calculating Global Warming Potential (called GWP100 or GWP*) reflects the actual impact of cattle and sheep farming on global temperatures much more accurately than conventional methods, by correctly representing methane’s warming effect”. The good news is that GWP* measures agriculture’s emissions to only 20% of previous estimates.

Isn’t this all a bit too good to be true? I’m as ready as the next man [sic] to seize on any medical advice that says red wine is good for the heart, that there’s such a thing as good cholesterol. To be told eating beef isn’t just good for me, but also helpful to the environment, is Christmas coming early. 

For once, I’m not kidding myself. The message really is positive:

“For methane to continue having a neutral impact, emissions must still fall, but only by 0.3% each year…. Good policy, great farming, innovative businesses, and better diets could deliver net zero warming from agriculture by 2030.”

Nonetheless, there is a caveat: 

GWP* is not a prescription for business as usual.  As the population grows humanity must reduce its per capita meat and dairy consumption… We can still eat meat and dairy, as part of a new era diet that includes greater nutritional diversity, but also restore natural balance on all farm land… sustainable consumption and the concept of ‘less and better’ is recommended. In this way we can re-establish the building blocks of biodiversity on all farms, not just in protected, spared islands of nature surrounded by ever more intensive agricultural land use.”

Grass-fed cattle abound in North Northumberland: we watch them from our kitchen window

Now I begin to understand. Traditional farming is, I think, what I observe in Northumberland. The cattle and sheep I see are in fields, on hillsides, mostly (if not entirely) grass-fed. To be sure, arable fields are worked hard, and there are fewer hedgerows than a century ago. But crops are mixed, and copses, patches of woodlands and hedges support wildlife.  Bee-hives around the margins of fields suggest that, in Godzone at least, we haven’t poisoned all the pollinating insects.

Thus:

“Cattle and sheep are not the enemy – instead it’s high-yield, high-fodder (maize, soy and cereal) production systems, which are driving humanity towards the precipice. Benefits under GWP* are gained through well-managed grass-based agriculture; by a diverse patchwork of rural businesses, and the restoration and maintenance of rural economies… farmers can produce nutritious, affordable, quality food, while sequestering carbon, restoring nature, delivering mitigation against extreme weather, and establishing rural economic resilience.”

To support this message, we consumers must avoid demanding so much meat that we drive intensive production. Eat a bit less, eat better: smaller yield from farms, better quality. 

I’d like to think Northumberland’s farming industry is already a long way down that path. If I’m right, and if it stays on it, we just have to buy locally and eat moderately. Then we can stop worrying about the farting (the cows, that is), enjoy a modicum of red meat – and help save the planet at the same time.

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