Eating “too much meat” has got a bad press, notably with the Lancet report on its health and climate effects, but it must still be recognised as “a very nutritious food”, according to a leading agricultural economist.
The report by 20 influential food scientists, published this week, said meat consumption in western countries such as Ireland may need to drop by 90 per cent to avert a climate catastrophe and reverse the current obesity epidemic.
Prof Alan Matthews, emeritus professor of agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, noted that in some scenarios meat production had adverse consequences depending on how it was produced, including climate impacts, reducing biodiversity and causing a deterioration in water quality.
However, he stressed the Lancet study was a global analysis, noting that some forms of intensive agriculture, where feed grains and arable crops were used, left a significant environmental fingerprint.
In contrast, he said, Ireland continued to be grassland-based, which was a significant positive. While there had been a shift to “feedlots” by some big producers, the predominant production system was closer to nature and in some instances even enhanced it – for example, the role played by cattle in the Burren.
On the diet issue, he accepted too much meat was not a good thing, but questioned the basis of the recommendation that there should be a 90 per cent reduction in consumption in the western world. “That is probably not justified.”
He said he would contend that in spite of the negative press, Ireland had a role in continuing meat and dairy production, provided it backed up its sustainability credentials with rigorous evidence.
Ammonia and nitrous oxide were issues associated with agriculture, Prof Matthews said, while methane (the main greenhouse gas associated with farming) “although a more powerful climate change agent [than carbon dioxide], disappears after around 10 years”.
This means that if methane emissions are stable over time, they do not contribute to increased temperature. “If methane emissions increase in a sustained manner, that increase has a very large impact on future temperature and much larger than a unit increase in carbon dioxide. Conversely, if methane emissions decrease in a sustained way, this will contribute to global cooling.”
Although he accepted the need to reduce carbon on a global scale, Irish methane emissions had been flat-lining since 1990, he said.
When asked about the Lancet study, Minister for the Environment Richard Bruton said agriculture was a hugely important sector for Ireland.
“What you have to recognise is that in 15-20 years’ time, the face of the supply chain and the demand chain may be very different. It’s really important that agriculture has a long-term strategy as to how it can contribute to decarbonisation and be competitive in an environment when people’s choices and expectations may different,” he said.
On his diet, he said he was “a bit of an amateur chef” who always ate a variety of foods. He tried to “buy local” and “buy in season”, which he felt were good principles of sustainability.
Irish Farmer's Association president Joe Healy said the report failed to take any account of how carbon-efficient food is produced in different regions of the world. "We have very efficient food production systems in Ireland from a climate perspective. We are the most carbon-efficient dairy producer in Europe and among the top five in beef. It's important that this sustainable production is not restricted, as it would lead to increased international climate emissions."
A climate road map published by Teagasc represented a clear strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the sector in Ireland, he said. "However, it requires whole of Government support."
Proteins from beef and dairy were an important part of a balanced diet, he insisted. “The threat to public health from obesity is well documented. Dietary balance, variety and moderation combined with an active lifestyle remain the single-most important message we all need to act upon, and this is what public health authorities must focus on.”
It was “a ludicrous distraction” to suggest people should have little or no meat and dairy as part of their diet.