I wake most summer mornings to see a herd of South Devon cattle, our local breed, grazing on the slopes opposite; the land is too steep for veg, so I rent it to my neighbour.
Two years ago, influenced by reports that livestock contribute more to climate change than all ships, trains, planes and cars combined, I planted 1,000 trees on the steepest part of the field. I also made myself pretty unpopular in this livestock-farming area by publicly concluding that meat eaters should try to reduce our consumption from around 1,500g per week to 600g, to give us a chance of feeding ourselves without destroying the planet.
I acknowledge the strong environmental arguments for going further – but as I don’t know how we would grow organic veg without grass-clover leys and manure from grazing animals to fertilise our soil, it seems hypocritical to advocate veganism. I’m also reluctant to condemn something that feels so right even if the numbers say it is wrong.
The numbers aren’t all they seem, either. It turns out that the methodology used to assess the climate change potential of methane produced by ruminant livestock (grazers: cattle, sheep and goats) has over-estimated methane’s impact relative to CO2. It has also become more widely accepted that pasture, managed to increase root and mycorrhizal biomass, can sequester large amounts of carbon (not yet convincingly quantified), protect soils, and enhance biodiversity.
Feeding ruminants any substantial quantity of grain or soya remains environmental madness, and there are other good reasons for reducing consumption of meat, dairy and eggs (especially intensively produced), but I am persuaded that there is also a strong argument for a limited number of grass-fed livestock as part of a sustainable agricultural system. As Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust argues, a sustainable diet should be defined regionally. With so much of the UK’s land unsuitable for growing crops, there is a place for grazing livestock.
For a fuller, more convincing version of the argument, see ‘A Convenient Untruth’ by Simon Fairlie. I highly recommend subscribing to The Land, ‘an occasional magazine about land rights’. It’s a radical read with its roots somewhere near the 17th century Diggers or the 19th century Tolpuddle Martyrs, but always original, well researched, and a refreshing counterbalance to Farmers Weekly.