AHDB has hit back at the latest calls to cut down meat consumption in response to climate change, branding the thinking as ‘flawed’.
A group of 50 scientists from around the world wrote to academic journal Lancet Planetary Health urging global nations to ‘declare a timeframe for peak livestock’ after which production would not increase.
With signatories including Professor Pete Smith, of the University of Aberdeen, UK and a senior author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on land use and climate change and former Defra Chief Scientific adviser Ian Boyd, the letter claims ‘animal agriculture is a significant and fast-growing source of global greenhouse gas emissions’.
Cattle and sheep emit large amounts of methane while forests are destroyed to create pasture and grow the grains that are fed to intensively reared animals, the scientists say, adding that reducing meat and dairy consumption, and eating plant-based diets instead, would free up land to be returned to natural forest, the best option for carbon storage.
But AHDB experts have issued a firm response, claiming that these arguments rests on the false premise that increased production means more animals, equating to increased carbon emissions. In reality, genetic improvements and management efficiencies mean flock and herd numbers have not risen in direct proportion to production, the levy body points out.
At UK level, production increased by 4% for meat, eggs and milk from 1990 to 2017. But in the same period, greenhouse gas emissions for these foodstuffs dropped by 20%.
Chris Gooderham, AHDB head of market specialists for livestock and dairy, said: “What this letter fails to recognise is production and animal numbers do not go hand in hand, so the argument is fundamentally flawed.
“Our industry has made huge strides over the past few decades to make efficiencies and produce more from less, making the UK one of the most sustainable places to produce livestock in the world, with carbon emissions well below the global average.
“Any cap on production would be a misguided and meaningless tactic for tackling climate change. Our farmers need support to further improve productivity and reduce their carbon footprint while continuing to produce vital, nourishing food for a growing population.”
The scientists’ letter cites global figures showing production of meat, milk and eggs has increased from 758 million tonnes in 1990 to 1,247 million tonnes in 2017 – a rise of 65%. But it fails to note that in the same time period, emissions from these products have risen by just 15% and in the meantime the global human population has increased by 42%.
In the UK, the number of cattle has dropped from more than 12 million in 1990 to just over 10 million in 2017, an 18% decrease. In the same period, production dropped by just 10%. Total sheep numbers dropped by 48% over the 27-year timeframe but total production by just 19%.
The pig herd reduced by 43% but production by just 5%, to just over 900,000 tonnes.