The recent publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Land Use report has renewed efforts by vegan lobby groups to vilify livestock farmers on flimsy environmental grounds.
The standard argument runs that since cows are only about 10 per cent efficient at turning plant based food into meat, we would be better to eat the plants ourselves, producing fewer emissions and requiring less land to be farmed.
In itself, this is a poor argument. The breadth, quantity and quality of mirconutrients from meat and milk is far greater than from any plant-based source, with far greater bioavailability once ingested.
Food accounts for a very small proportion of the emissions of the average westerner, and a recent study showed that giving up meat altogether would reduce the emissions of such an individual by only 4.3 per cent.
The effect on the climate would be negligible.
More than that, however, such simplistic arguments miss the vital role which animals play in conservation. Much of the plant material grown even on productive arable land is indigestible by humans.
But that ‘waste’ provides food for livestock, which, in turn, produce manure to improve soil quality and promote biodiversity.
Many remote or mountainous areas are simply unsuitable for arable farming, yet can be put to use feeding sheep and cattle.
Economically, such regions depend on livestock farming and would be devastated were it to disappear. Environmentally, this would cause severe damage.
Without animals as a source of fat and protein, more land elsewhere would have to be taken up with arable production.
That would mean more ploughing, more compacting and more soil erosion. It would mean, inevitably, destroying more wetlands and more forests to use the fertile ground.
Far from reducing the amount of ploughed land, an agriculture without animals would actually increase it.
Instead of lambasting farmers, or seeking to present agriculture and environmentalism as two opposed and mutually-exclusive practices in public debate, campaigners would do well to recognise the role which farming plays in conserving and improving the natural environment.
A classic example is a recent and ongoing study by University College Dublin of the benefits of multi species pastures for better, more sustainable meat production.
These studies have shown multispecies pastures can boost lamb weaning weights by 2.4kg, maintain dry matter yield and quality from 45 per cent less nitrogen fertiliser, reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 90 per cent per kg of herbage and improve soil biodiversity to a level where they observe up to 1.1 million earthworms per hectare.
Examples such as this are fantastic representatives for the future of farming.
Twenty-first century agriculture must address the twin challenges of producing more food for a growing population on less land while improving the environment.
By recognising that our response to these questions need not be ‘either or’, farmers, scientists, conservationists and Government can work together, embrace innovation and build a sustainable future.