A clear case of herd instinct?
Our Head of Policy and External Affairs, Jen Elford, reports back from January’s two big farming conferences.
At COP28, there were record numbers of meat industry lobbyists and an overt narrative coming from a high level, with corporate agriculture vouching that meat is sustainable. However, there are questions as to both the truth and transparency of this claim at all levels of the farming sector.
Small scale farms are said, by champions of sustainable farming, to be key to agroecology and the regenerative model, which seeks to work with natural ecosystems while producing food from the landscape. The narrative sounds appealing, but do the numbers really stack up?
This thought was uppermost in my mind ahead of attending the two big January farming conferences – the traditional Oxford Farming Conference and its counterpart the ‘Real Farming Conference’, the latter focused more specifically on sustainable farming and agroecology. I was particularly keen to hear from speakers at the Real Farming Conference, given that it was covering the issues of grassland utility and sustainable meat.
In recent years, the notion of sustainable meat has gained considerable currency. Big farming organisations have produced shiny reports about the climate credentials of grazing. Glossy food magazines and marketing promos have been drip-feeding the intuitive ‘truth’ that ‘grass-fed equals good’ into the public consciousness.
The phrase ‘It’s not the cow; it’s the how’ has become something of a mantra in meat farming circles and it’s not difficult to see why. Clearly, people cannot eat grass, and there are undeniably fewer inputs (such as grain) in truly grass-fed beef. But what about the carbon emissions? With ruminants producing a third of the planet’s methane, where is the proof that grazing can create lower emissions – or, as some claim, a negative net emissions scenario?
As I took my seat at the Real Farming Conference I was yet to be convinced. Somehow, we expect greenwashing from big business, but scrutinising the question of ‘the how’ and, quite frankly, ‘the cow’ seemed all the more important in this more focused and evidence-driven arena.
In particular, I was minded of a much-praised science paper published a few years ago titled ‘The Importance of Getting the Numbers Right’, which covered various issues associated with accurately calculating carbon emissions from farmed animals and in particular the avoidance of double-counting. I therefore had plenty of questions requiring answers and seriously wondered whether the numbers around sustainable meat were really going to add up.
The argument that sustainable meat protagonists put forward is that grazing is a solution to agricultural carbon emissions because grassland can take carbon out of the air and, via its root system, create a soil carbon store. They say that putting animals on grassland increases this effect by encouraging this carbon-storing response in the grass.
This concept of soil carbon sequestration, or storage, via grazing is scientifically controversial. An Oxford University review from 2017 titled ‘Grazed and Confused’ concluded that grazing does not offer a substantial mitigation opportunity and soil carbon can be lost much faster than it can be accumulated.
The writer and activist George Monbiot has long contested the argument that soil carbon storage benefits grazing. Indeed, in a debate broadcast just last summer, Monbiot challenged one of the key proponents of conservation grazing and carbon sequestration Allan Savory, and was, in his words, left dumbfounded by what he described as the ‘pseudoscience’ Savory put forward. Even the UK Climate Change Committee has reported on the subject and rejected soil carbon sequestration as a reliable way to reduce emissions.
And yet, with all of this in mind, I was determined to remain open-minded and carefully assess the evidence presented.
First up was a discussion on farm carbon toolkits and land use plans and sessions that featured several farmers extolling the virtues of sustainable meat. From the leading organisations in this area, I expected a ‘soil carbon 101’ and a demonstration of how the figures might in fact add up. The Sustainable Food Trust were first up and appeared on the surface to have pulled together some credible figures. However, something felt amiss, and the narrative seemed several times to mismatch the actual scale of the numbers, with relatively small numbers being described as ‘very significant carbon savings from grazing’.
Just after lunch, the CEO of the Farm Carbon Toolkit couldn’t shed any light. She said there were, according to Defra, ‘some wrong ways to do carbon calculations, but no one right way’.
Later in the day, a leading light of the sustainable meat movement Simon Fairlie said that methane emissions simply don’t matter if the number of animals stays constant. This is patently untrue, and in a warming world close to some devastating tipping points, a downright dangerous message. The effects of ruminant methane can only reach equilibrium if the numbers of animals are falling, which globally, they are not.
The conference’s online chat filled up with some very direct questions about what was unfolding on stage. In one presentation given by a Wiltshire beef farmer, someone quite rightly pointed out: “The speaker has just said his beef farm stores 10 times more carbon than it emits, but where’s his evidence? Not a single figure given in support!”
Questions from myself and others about the patent unreliability of all this went unaddressed, and so what we got was in many ways more aligned with what passed in the summer for the Monbiot-Savory debate: some very nice pictures, but not a lot of clarity on the data.
I came away from the conference with the view that in the short, medium, and long term there is an urgent need for a great deal more clarity, and a comprehensive method for assessing and interpreting carbon storage in grasslands if it is to be taken seriously by policymakers.
Meanwhile, owing to the short-term potency of methane – the chief greenhouse gas from farmed animals – the question of animal product ‘consumption’ remains an urgent priority for campaigning organisations like the Vegetarian Society. Our message is clear in that, despite the claims of the ‘sustainable meat’ lobby, going vegetarian or vegan and hence reducing the numbers of grazing livestock remains the most effective tool for bringing down emissions related to the food system.
As for my questions for the conference speakers, I’m not expecting quick, clear and comprehensive answers in my post bag any time soon.