Can we decrease the environmental impact of eating meat?

The issue of how to eat more sustainably has become increasingly important to us all. The COP26 conference in Glasgow, hosted by the UN, brought parties together to accelerate work that tackles climate change. Farming is a key area of consideration, with the UK Government saying:

“We have announced plans that put farmers at the forefront of reversing environmental decline and tackling climate change.”

The government’s planned changes incentivise the sustainable farming practices that are already growing in popularity in the UK and are aimed at reducing the burden on farmers to shoulder the challenge of innovation.

There have been a number of advances already in the UK farming industry, directly aimed at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in livestock farming.

So, can we eat meat sustainably? Here, we explore how meat farming in the UK is changing, and what this means for the environment.

The sun is rising on a countryside view of a green field, framed by an overhanging tree branch

Meat and the Environment: The Facts

The environmental impact of food is being analysed extensively. While studies to date suggest removing meat and other animal products from Western diets may reduce personal carbon footprints and land use, this may slightly increase the water footprint of current diets. To avoid any unintended consequences, more research is needed to better understand the impact of food, including the development of more consistent measures, consideration of local (vs global) variations, and potential innovations to reduce the impact of food production.

Removing nutrient-dense animal source foods from the diet could also reduce intakes of some important vitamins and minerals typically provided by these foods in the diet. Meat can provide essential nutrients in our diets, as a protein-rich food source containing additional nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B12, in a form that is easier for our bodies to absorb. So, as we move forward towards a new and more sustainable future, reducing the environmental impact of eating and producing meat is a priority – not just for consumers, but for farmers, too.

A close up photo of a Highland cow
A bar chart displaying 2019 UK greenhouse gas emissions: 27% transport, 21% energy, 17% business, 15% homes, 6% livestock, 4% crops

Is Eating Less Meat the Answer?

The question of how to eat sustainably is a complicated issue, and cutting out food groups – such as meat – is not the solution. In the UK, ruminants such as cattle and sheep play a vital role in sustainable food production as they convert something inedible to us – grass – to meat products.

Additionally, animals like cattle can be used to improve soil health. The manure they produce makes excellent manure fertiliser, which when added to the soil increases both organic matter and soil life.

In many cases, cows and sheep make use of land unsuitable for other kinds of agriculture. 65% of the UK’s agricultural land is typically grassland, meadows, woodlands, hills and even mountains. Without being used for livestock grazing, this land could be removed from food production entirely, which in turn could increase the pressure to import food from across the globe. Instead, by using land like this for grazing, farmers can produce a nutritious food source, as well as maintain green spaces for nature. Hedgerows, which are used so often to cordon off farmland, have their own value, providing much-needed food and shelter for a number of species. According to the RSPB, hedgerows support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies.

Another important consideration is that the sustainability of meat varies across the globe. Red meat and dairy produced in the UK are among the most sustainable in the world, with beef and lamb having almost half the global average carbon footprint.

A beef salad niçoise dish in a bowl on a table

How is UK Livestock Farming Changing?

Adapting farming practices can help livestock farmers reduce their environmental impact, as well as their profitability. Here are some key changes British farmers are making.

New grass varieties

Many British farmers have begun re-seeding fields with more productive grass varieties and herbal leys. There are a number of benefits to this approach, such as extending the grazing season and decreasing reliance on supplemental feeds. Additionally, herbal leys have a host of environmental benefits:

  • Improving soil structure and health
  • Less fertiliser is needed, due to nitrate fixation from legume species
  • Benefits soil carbon sequestration
  • Improves biodiversity of bird and insect species
  • Can reduce nitrate leaching

Improved genetics

With careful breeding, farmers are improving the genetics of their livestock. This is helping to raise their productivity, making livestock farming more efficient.

Genetic variation is an important consideration, as it not only affects productivity but also how well animals adapt to changing conditions. With improved genetics, livestock will be better able to meet challenges such as climate change, emerging diseases and pressures on feed and water resources.

Feeding by-products

To decrease reliance on commercial feeds, British farmers are using an increasing variety of locally-sourced feeding by-products. This is an innovative way to cut down on waste, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from imported feed.

Crop waste and by-products from crops such as wheat, barley, maize, oilseed rape have long made up a part of livestock feed. Now, this is starting to include other by-products, such as those from food processing.

Brewing by-products are a popular choice, as brewers grains provide protein, fibre, and energy, making them useful in a variety of diets. In fact, the protein in brewers grains can meet a significant portion of supplemental protein requirements. Peapods, vegetable peelings and sugar pulp are further examples of food-processing waste now used to feed livestock.

Is More Sustainable Meat the Future?

The future of meat production in the UK looks particularly bright, with research in 2020 indicating 66% of British farmers are focusing on the future and sustainability – a figure that is likely to rise.

Farmers are committed to doing their part in the fight against climate change. The National Farmers' Union has set the ambitious goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture 2040, in England and Wales. Stuart Roberts, the Vice President of NFU, said:

“British farmers are leading the way in producing climate-friendly food and we are the only community to set an ambitious target to become net zero by 2040. People say ‘cut out meat to save the planet’, but this message wrongly implies all farms throughout the world have the same carbon footprint and environmental impact, and so misses the real point We believe it is far better to buy British meat than to rely on imported alternative proteins from production systems that don’t observe our high values or don’t share our environmental ambitions.

By buying British, people can trust their beef and lamb have been produced sustainably by farmers who care.”

Cattle in field

Combined, these efforts will lead to a more sustainable agriculture industry in the UK overall, with meat and other foods having a minimal environmental impact.

Adapting farming practices can help livestock farmers reduce their environmental impact, as well as their profitability. Here are some key changes British farmers are making.

Learn More about Sustainability in UK Farming

Want to learn more about how the UK is leading the way with sustainable farming practices? Read all about red meat and dairy farming on our Sustainability page. 

Plus, find out more about the role meat plays in a balanced diet to make more informed choices about what you eat and how to stay healthy.