Cows in field

How much meat should we eat?

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but it's not as simple as it sounds.

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has emphasised the urgency to collectively change our diet before it is too late.

At Riverford, we’ve always made vegetables the star of the dish, with a little bit of good (organic) meat as a treat; less and better is our guide. But when scientists claim this warning is the ‘final call to save the world’, it prompts the question: should we all turn vegetarian or vegan? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward.

Pigs, poultry and intensively-produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

For forage-eating ruminants (grass-fed cows, sheep, goats) the argument is much more complex for several reasons: they can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none. With a growing population to feed, this is important to consider.

By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.

Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20 per cent) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that around 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to around 13 per cent for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. It is also claimed that extensively, grass-fed animals cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though we think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.

The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g. ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question, but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating significantly fewer animal products. If we’re going to eat meat and dairy, let it be better quality, eaten less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully. And above all, let the veg be the star of the show.


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  1. George Monbiot refutes the idea that it is necessary to maintain grazing animals for a healthy ecosystem. (link below). Possibly, the difference would be marginal given a major shift to a plant based diet. The great thing about changing to a plant diet, is that, apart from challenging personal tastes and a little initial thought in balancing food groups , there does not appear to be any downsides but upsides in environment, health, and the ethics of animal agriculture.


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