Friends of the Earth urges people to eat less meat

Friends of the Earth is gearing up to launch a campaign highlighting the link between meat and rainforest destruction.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) is planning a major campaign in March to galvanise support for a step-change in UK livestock farming and reduced consumption of meat and dairy products.

The green group’s food chain campaign began with a parliamentary reception in late December which set in motion FoE’s lobbying efforts on the issue. The campaign will run through the summer following March’s public launch, it says.

It aims to raise awareness of the link between the consumption of meat and dairy products and the spiralling rates of deforestation in South America.

The campaign follows the publication of a Cabinet Office report on food policy last summer (ENDS Report 402, pp 47-48 ). Launching it, the government’s chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington said future work will look at how the food system might evolve as the world adapts to climate change.

The report warns that "agriculture is… set to have a more prominent place in greenhouse gas abatement policies in the years ahead". The Committee on Climate Change’s first report in December made the same point for UK agriculture.

It comes amid growing evidence of the impacts of livestock farming on the climate in response to growing demand. The World Bank estimates global meat production must rise by 85% by 2030 to meet demand.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates livestock farming accounts for nearly a fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The European Commission puts the contribution of meat and dairy to the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions at 13%. The UK government says the sector’s contribution to domestic emissions stands at 4.5%.

Farming groups dispute the FAO figure. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) described it as "distinctly dodgy". But while being far from precise, the FAO’s estimate is the only one accounting for greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land-use change, such as deforestation in South America, driven by demand for cheap animal feed in global markets.

FoE argues that soya beans’ contribution to embedded emissions in meat and dairy products sold in Europe cannot not be ignored. Soya is an important feed ingredient for pigs and poultry where high protein levels are needed to boost growth rates. Soya can make up as much as 20-25% of UK poultry feed. In pig and dairy farming it can account for as much as 10% of the feed.

The green group estimates that if current trends continue, cattle ranchers and soya farmers will destroy 40% of the Amazon rainforest by 2050. Rapid deforestation has put Brazil among the highest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

Even with the variations in estimates, studies agree livestock products are greenhouse gas intensive compared with other food groups. FoE argues that the current model of production "is no longer affordable in environmental terms". It is calling for a raft of policies to initiate the changes needed across the supply chain.

By 2012 it wants public sector food procurement, worth £2.2 billion a year, to comply with carbon reduction targets. It says the Environment Department (DEFRA) should work with the Food Standards Agency on a strategy to reduce livestock farming impacts. More funding for research and development should also be provided. And funding for intensive livestock farming through the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should cease within two years, it says.

It also wants the UK to work in Europe to shift Common Agricultural Policy subsidies away from supporting intensive livestock rearing to promoting low-impact livestock systems, domestic production of feeds and research into which breeds are better suited to new feeding regimes. It is also calling for Europe’s trade strategy to be reviewed.

The message for consumers will be simpler but no less controversial: eat less meat.

Several studies have advocated reducing meat in diets to lower their carbon intensity. The idea featured in DEFRA’s vision of what sustainable eating patterns might look like (ENDS Report 396, p 6 ). And according to a 2008 report by the Food Climate Research Network "eating fewer meat and dairy products and consuming more plant foods in their place is probably the single most helpful behavioural shift". But the government has so far shied away from developing policies to encourage such a shift.

Last month, the NHS said in its carbon-reduction strategy that, along with seasonally adjusted menus, it was looking to reduce reliance on meat, dairy and eggs (see p 10 ). The statement was met with howls of consternation in mainstream media.

Farming unions are likely to react just as angrily to the campaign. The NFU has defended the livestock sector by pointing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It says research into feeds, selective breeding and wider use of anaerobic digestion to treat slurries could slash livestock-related emissions further.

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