The case for eating meat

The case for eating red meat is a simple one - not only does this nutrient-dense protein produced naturally and in abundance here in Scotland offer significant benefits to public health, when consumed in moderation, but its very production is critical to sustaining rural life, local wildlife and boosting biodiversity.

Livestock farming in Scotland delivers a multitude of goods for wider society and critics often fail to recognise the regenerative actions taken by many in the sector to improve soil health, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, protect local wildlife and watercourses – all as part and parcel of their meat production journey.

Proponents of a plant-based diet will regularly point the finger at ruminant agriculture for its contribution to greenhouse gases, often citing grossly inflated figures, whilst calling for a reduction in livestock numbers.

Such arguments fail to acknowledge the impact such actions could have, not only on public health, but on the social fabric of our rural communities, and as clearly demonstrated by the war in Ukraine, national food security.

Livestock farming plays a crucial role in supporting rural areas and the most fragile communities – keeping the flow of money in these parts of Scotland and providing local employment opportunities. Farming and crofting are integral to the social fabric of rural Scotland and has been a part of our culture and heritage for thousands of years.

Blairvockie herd of Belties – photo by Rob Haining, Scottish Farmer

However, the over consumption of meat raises big questions around sustainability, as rising demand for global meat production has led to land being increasingly cleared to make way for animal feed and ground for grazing livestock.

There is a dire need for a re-balance in our relationship with meat, one which moves beyond the currently polarized camps of discussion and acknowledges the need for a balanced diet, where less, but higher quality meat is consumed – and the rolling hills of the Scottish countryside provide the perfect setting for such a task.

The benefits of eating high-quality red meat, particularly in young children and women, cannot be overstated as it is rich in micronutrients, including vitamins and important minerals such as iron, zinc and selenium.

Iron deficiency can lead to the poor development of children and a lack of iron and vitamin B12 is often associated with cases of anaemia in young woman. Although a well-researched plant-based diet complemented by vitamin supplements, can provide equivalent levels of micronutrients, it is dangerous to assume that all followers of a plant-based diet have such access and knowledge.

It was deeply concerning that a recent letter addressed to the Chief Executive of NHS Scotland, Caroline Lamb, by a small group of Scotland’s clinicians and GPs, called for red meat to be removed from hospital meals. Such a move could prove to be a dangerous one for those most vulnerable in society, as locally reared, grass-fed beef and lamb is a healthier option than ultra-processed meat alternatives.

Access to red meat as part of a balanced diet, is particularly important for the healthy recovery or sustenance of patients, when their bodies need it the most. We only have to look to parts of the developing world, where a lack of access to meat has been linked to high cases of malnourishment – an argument which is often forgotten in reports calling for a global reduction in meat consumption.

Director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems at Edinburgh University, Professor Geoff Simm, recognises the need for a balanced diet which includes appropriate amounts of red meat, in order to support those most vulnerable, particularly those in the global south.

“Hundreds of millions of the poorest people on this earth rely on livestock for nutrition and livelihoods,” he said. “Globally, 21% of children less than five-years-old are stunted, and over 50% are deficient in micronutrients vital for healthy development.

“We know that modest amounts of livestock-sourced foods make a vital contribution to the wellbeing of nutritionally vulnerable groups – particularly in low-income countries – especially pregnant and lactating women, and in supporting physical and cognitive development of children in the first few years of life.”

Leading cardiovascular pharmacologist from the Royal College of Surgeons, Professor Alice Stanton, similarly argues that there is a close correlation between those countries where less meat is eaten – in Africa and Asia – with a greater than 30% prevalence of childhood stunting.

She explains that childhood stunting is not only a body stunting or reduction in height of children, but that it is associated with severe brain maldevelopment, which could limit academic performance and career opportunities later in life. Although lack of access to meat is only partly responsible for childhood stunting, increased consumption could be part of a wider solution.

“Studies repeatedly show that for the first 1,000 days of life, from conception until the second birthday, protein, iron, vitamin B12, EPA and DHA intake contribute importantly to normal brain and body development,” argued Professor Stanton. “The consequences of deficiencies in these nutrients in childhood can be severe and irreversible, including stunting, reduced cognitive ability and school performance.”

As well as highlighting the benefits to public health of a nutrient-rich balanced diet, consisting in part of high-quality red meat, Professor Simm recognises the social, economic, and environmental benefits of livestock production, here in Scotland.

“For over 10,000 years our fortunes have been closely intertwined with the husbandry of livestock,” he continued. “They are part of our culture and heritage and, for most people, an important part of our future too. While we need to reduce overconsumption, we must also reward those who are demonstrating world-leading practices in sustainable, ethical farming, of which we have many in Scotland.

“Scotland has abundant natural resources in the form of grasslands and water, which make it well suited to rearing livestock. Not to mention a skilled and dedicated farming workforce, a strong reputation for animal welfare and product quality and a farming landscape which is driven by a strongly pro-climate government policy,” he explained.

“Red meat production in Scotland also benefits from a strong science base, delivering new knowledge and tools to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, to sequester carbon, to improve biodiversity and animal welfare.

“The mixed farming systems common in Scotland are quintessential circular systems with livestock producing high quality foods from resources unsuitable for direct human consumption – be that grassland, crop residues or other by-products such as the grains left after brewing & distilling. Not to mention that livestock produce manure which enhances soil health, fertility, and its ability to store carbon,” Professor Simm concluded.

Supporters of a plant-based diet here in Scotland, who call for a reduction in livestock numbers to make way for vegetables and cereals, are often unaware of the unsuitability of our land for such a task.

Over 80% of Scottish farmland is not suitable for growing cereals and vegetables - due to the topography and nature of our terrain – but is perfectly suited to grazing livestock, which can turn rough grassland into delicious, nutrient-dense protein. A much higher demand for a vegan diet could not be met by local Scottish farming systems and would lead to higher dependency on imports.

Every time land is ploughed for vegetable and cereal production – carbon is released into the atmosphere. Whereas grasslands, grazed by ruminants, contain large stores of carbon, and it is those very grazing actions that stimulate the sequestration of carbon in soils. What is more, the nitrogen in their manure can substitute for energy intensive synthetic fertiliser inputs, which can lead to avoided emissions.

With increasing pressure on Scotland’s livestock farmers to reduce their carbon footprint and improve biodiversity levels on-farm, both to hit government targets and appease changing consumer demands, they are constantly exploring ways to improve livestock nutrition, restore soil health, explore agroforestry opportunities, reduce fertiliser use, plant hedgerows to support local wildlife populations, plus much more.

Although critics often blame livestock production for the demise of biodiversity, grazing livestock is crucial to restoring wildlife habitats, boosting biodiversity, and supporting soil health. In the past decade, many arable farmers in the UK have been introducing livestock into their crop operations to build back organic matter into soils, to regenerate them for food production.

Livestock farmers are in many ways the custodians of the countryside, managing the beautiful landscapes which are to thank for drawing in a thriving tourism industry. If livestock were to disappear from Scotland’s countryside, so too would the beautiful vistas, for which Scotland is renowned.

The case for red meat production in Scotland cannot be overstated, not only does it play an invaluable role in supporting good public health, but high-quality, locally reared meat delivers a plethora of social, economic, and environmental benefits, which must be revisited, as arguments advocating for radical dietary switches grow with increasing momentum.

Written by: Claire Taylor

Source: Herald Big Read, 7th May 2022