Local Meat or Less Meat?
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Elena Silverstein examines whether eating local meat or less meat is better for the planet and how we can reduce our impact on the climate.
The meat and dairy industries are in the headlines again with Covid19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants and pandemics caused by animal agriculture and wet-farms worldwide. Yet, ‘Big Livestock’ is being bailed out by the UK government. Buying local foods, whatever they mean in practice, is often seen as a better option for the sustainably conscious and welfare aware but is it the future of ‘good’ food?
There are many variations amongst large and small-scale farms around the UK. Scientists generally agree that large ‘intensive’ farms are devastating for the environment and animal welfare. Approximately 90% of British meat is currently produced by large UK intensive farms and the number of small farms is declining.
Supporting local businesses is vital, especially during the pandemic, but local animal agriculture is not the dream as advertised. There is a misconception about local small-scale farms being environmentally sustainable if they scale up to meet UK demand. However sustainable a small farm might claim to be, it is irrelevant because they will never be able to keep up with demand without employing appalling intensive farm practices. We must consider the overwhelming number of small farms needed to replace intensive farms in the UK when figuring out their impact on the planet.
Animals live longer on small farms because they aren’t fed industrialised feeds or artificially selected to grow abnormally large very quickly. Therefore, they usually require a larger input of resources like food and water but also more land to roam.
Intensive farms produce larger volumes of waste pollution because of their size and cost efficient but deadly practices. The waste coming out of a small farm is more manageable because of their size but the volume of small farms needed to replace intensive ones defeats the environmental purpose.
Transport accounts for just 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production. The greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of most animal products is a relatively insignificant environmental factor in the life cycle. Importing certain crops can actually be better for the environment than buying local animal products like beef or lamb.
We are not reliably informed that grass-fed animals are good for soil because their grazing helps absorb CO2 into the ground. However, an Oxford University study showed that CO2 absorbed by grazing livestock in no way offsets the rest of the emissions from livestock. Carbon offsetting by grazing (‘carbon sequestration’) would not make farms sustainable if we switched to that form of farming.
‘Big Livestock’ say that grassland can’t be used for anything but livestock. It isn’t just the grassland that livestock need, 59% of UK croplands are used to grow animal feed that should be used to directly feed humans.
Local vs Plant based
Plant-based diets require less land which allows land currently used for livestock to be rewilded for carbon capture and create habitats. Livestock and lack of biodiversity on farms destroys soil health. By not farming monocultured crops (i.e. corn and soya) for animal feed and using up so much land for livestock, we could improve soil health and grow a variety of crops sustainably for human consumption.
Almost 80% of the world’s agricultural land is currently used for livestock. In the UK, it’s estimated that plant-based diets require 1/3 of the fertile land, energy and fresh-water of a typical British ‘meat-and-dairy’ diet. There is not enough land in the UK to supply the population with their current consumption habits without factory farms. The sustainable solution is to reduce or remove meat, dairy and eggs from our plates.
Global trade allows for essential foods to be distributed to people across the world. This is good for trade and international relations and we shouldn’t necessarily discourage people around the world from buying overseas produce when transport is a relatively small proportion of agricultural pollution. Transportation is an issue but we can cut food related emissions far more effectively by reducing the volume of animal products. Purchasing seasonal foods from local farms can be good but we can’t expect everyone to do it.
Small local and express supermarkets are amongst the most convenient places for students to shop. Avoiding animal products is usually more straightforward, affordable and less restrictive than searching for locally sourced meat products. As difficult as it can be to find local products, ‘local’ labels can frequently be misleading but an attractive marketing tool for ‘greenwashing’. We don’t always know where livestock feed has come from; your neighbour’s cow might be fed imported grain.
Buying from small farms also costs more for the consumer which is elitist when asking everyone to stop buying meat from factory farms. The affordable and sustainable option is to reduce or remove animal products from your diet.
The average UK farm makes more money from subsidies than they do from agriculture, but the subsidies could instead be invested in supporting farmers' transition from livestock farming to other careers like crop farming or assisting with rewilding and generating bioenergy from crop by-products.
Is it Necessary?
Some say livestock live ‘happy’ lives on local farms which excuses us from breeding them and prematurely taking their lives ‘humanely’ for us to eat. ‘Humanely’ and ‘happy’ are just about vague enough to prevent us asking if it’s necessary to kill over 6.4 billion animals in the UK every year. What is a humane method to kill a sentient being if their death is not needed for our survival? Red and processed meats cause damage to our health. Plant-based diets are healthy and have been around for a long time. The rising number of delicious choices in supermarkets makes it a comfortable, affordable and positive switch.
You have the power to choose plant-based meals! Campaign for Meat Free Mondays at our university. There are new companies in the process of reinventing meat and they’re confident that in time we won’t be able to tell the difference between a beef steak and a plant steak. All over the world, companies and student start-ups are developing clean meat from cells without harming anyone or the planet. In the meantime, let’s eat some plants.
Videos and documentaries
Netflix Documentaries: Cowspiracy, Explained (Season 2, Episode 3 ‘The Future of Meat’), What the Health, Knives Over Forks
73 Cows documentary about ex-cattle farmer - https://vimeo.com/293352305
Vox ‘Why beef is the worst food for the climate’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lrJYTsKdUM
Alex O’Connor on animal rights - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcVR2OVxPYw
The Future of Meat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tn-GG1zDu1E
Collection of short clips: Earthling Ed responding to different arguments - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL03LZR09P2gQJyBgHk_XE8gbj8j9uFs8GThe Need to Grow (regenerative agriculture documentary) - https://grow.foodrevolution.org/?fbclid=IwAR1B_ET3FtBgoD6kk6lIUOvqFvfKisAXoWSGLkO7phzwR1rYQXg2ATWOwyo
Our World in Data, Meat and Dairy Production - https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production
Our World in Data, local food - https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local
Our World in Data, agriculture - https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food
Local food isn’t always an option - https://www.aalto.fi/en/news/relying-on-local-food-is-a-distant-dream-for-most-of-the-world
Zero waste Scotland, carbon footprint of food - https://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/press-release/consider-carbon-footprint-food-climate-week-2
Vegan cheat sheet: Nearly everything about veganism on one spreadsheet - https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19Cm5yHp16zSTSFrQ3B_3_vIK0b5QlJ8jpyPVrPrCKS0/htmlview?fbclid=IwAR3-D7T8ARArB73w3BveLIB8KymluPRUMaEUOOUrfFUillMzDwTEX8mKaG8#
Huge Reduction In Meat-Eating ‘Essential’ To Avoid Climate Breakdown - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/huge-reduction-in-meat-eating-essential-to-avoid-climate-breakdown
Food Production Is Responsible For One-Quarter Of The World’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions - https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions
The consequences if the world decided to go meat-free - https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170612-the-consequences-if-the-world-decided-to-go-meat-free
The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy - https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/08/save-planet-meat-dairy-livestock-food-free-range-steak
Giving up beef will reduce carbon footprint more than cars, says expert - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-than-cars
Making Veganism accessible - https://wearyourvoicemag.com/white-vegans-accessibility-poc/
Vox, crops going to animal feed - https://www.vox.com/2014/8/21/6053187/cropland-map-food-fuel-animal-feed
800 (US style) mega farms in UK - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals
NHS easy guide to a vegan diet - https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/
*I take a B12 vitamin most days. It’s a good idea to take this vitamin whatever your diet is since many people are slightly deficient, including some meat eaters*
I’m vegan/vegetarian – keeps track of what you save every day Happy Cow – restaurants nearby TooGoodToGo – for food waste Abillionveg – restaurant and food item reviews
*** The vegan cheat sheet linked in the reading section contains a huge number of books, studies, speeches, podcasts, videos, recipes (basically everything) on one nice spreadsheet.