Reducing meat consumption may not be as environmentally friendly as campaigners have claimed.
The findings of a new report have shown that increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to maintain grassland and recover degraded pastures.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), found reducing beef production in the Brazilian Cerrado could actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalists including George Monbiot have been campaigning to cut the amount of meat consumed in the UK due to its ‘damaging’ effects on the environment.
In 2009 Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney and his family launched the Meat Free Monday campaign in a bid to ‘encourage people to help slow climate change’ by having at least one meat free day each week. The campaign has gained traction in recent years.
The SRUC report’s lead author, Rafael Silva of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Mathematics, said: “Much of Brazil’s grassland is in poor condition, leading to low beef productivity and high greenhouse gas emissions from cattle.
“However, increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to recover degraded pastures. This would boost the amount of carbon stored in the soil and increase cattle productivity. It would require less land for grazing and reduce deforestation, potentially lowering emissions.”
While grasslands are not as effective as forests at storing carbon, Brazilian grass – mostly Brachiaria genus – has a greater capacity to do so than grass found in Europe, due to its long roots.
High quality grasslands will cause more carbon to be stored in the soil, which will lead to a decrease in CO2 emissions.
The report, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change said in the case of the Brazilian Cerrado, reduced meat consumption could remove the incentive for grassland improvement and therefore lead to higher emissions.
Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, which has campaigned to reduce meat consumption, said: “This research rightly focuses on the significant climate change and health benefits of eating grass-fed beef, as opposed to meat from cattle reared in intensive, grain-fed systems.
"We strongly agree that rearing and finishing cattle on grass, such as the Brazilian Cerrado, is far better from a climate change and environmental point of view than the ploughing of these ancient grasslands to grow crops for feeding intensively-reared livestock.
“However, a negative consequence of some Brazilian beef production is the increase in the number of intensive feedlot operations, where cattle are fed soya, maize (corn) or wheat, as seen in North America.”
He said it was these systems which were ‘largely responsible for the significant contribution of global livestock production to greenhouse gas emissions’.
“We agree that people need drastically to reduce their meat consumption, and that this reduction should focus specifically on intensively reared white meat, due to the unsustainable amounts grain and protein fed to chicken and pigs,” added Mr Melchett.
“We would like to see grass-reared beef and lamb promoted as the more climate-friendly meat option.”
The full paper can be found here