Sustainable Meat Lovers?

Understanding if we can enjoy meat but in an ethical and sustainable way.

We’ve been told eating less meat is the way forward for a more sustainable way of life. The straightforward arguments include animals require great amounts of land for production, they overheat the planet because they need food and water to survive and they emit methane and other greenhouse gases. While there is a lot of debate about whether vegetables or meat are most environmental, the question is how we can actually enjoy our meat in a sustainable way? When the average Australian consumption of red meat is 111kg/year, it’s unlikely meat can be completely phased from our diets. So how can we eat our meat and still improve our carbon footprint and the welfare of the animal?

Kate Wingett is currently completing her Master of Vet Science at the University of Sydney. The aim of her research project is to investigate the willingness of Australians to consume mutton and sheep offal again, and to determine what effect increased consumption of these meats domestically would have on human health, animal welfare and greenhouse gas emissions. So far in her research, Kate says interestingly “there are no statistics publicly released regarding offal consumption in Australia” and “there is very limited availability of mutton meat at the retail level”.

Kate will be part of a panel of leading thinkers including Dr Sabrina Lomax of the University of Sydney and Grant Hilliard from Feather and Bone, an ethical meat supplier, on Wednesday 28 October looking at how we can still enjoy meat but ethically and sustainably. It is the third event in “The Small Changes: Environmental Conversations” series run by the Sydney Environment Institute.

Kate believes by itself, eating sheep at an older age would not bring any environmental benefit, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reduction (GHGe) as research shows GHGe from sheep are highly dependent on food intake. But by changing some management practices on a farm, such as changing lambing time to optimise the number of live lambs, there is the potential for mutton consumption to lead to a reduction in GHGe. Furthermore, eating meat from sheep raised for producing wool also increases the benefits from each individual sheep. And eating offal would improve the carbon footprint of farm animals.

She says research in this area is still in its early stages and until the effects of climate change and mitigation become evident, no one will know. “Of most importance is maintaining high levels of research into the climate and agriculture and broadly communicating the results.” Kate points out that there are generally very green alternatives to fossil fuel burning but not as many alternatives to food. “There are however different ways of producing and consuming food, and if a system of clear, meaningful product labelling is introduced, perhaps people will begin to reconnect with the food value chain again.”

Dr Lomax of the University of Sydney Vet Science faculty looks at animal health and production as part of her research. With a family agricultural background, her PhD examined topical anaesthesia for painful livestock husbandry procedures. Dr Lomax agrees greater education is needed to empower consumers to make decision about what meat they are consuming. “Aussies love their red meat – but the majority of consumers don’t really know very much about what they are eating, or where their meat comes from.”

She has found in her research that a shift to pastured-based (or pasture-finished) systems is better for accommodating animal welfare.  “This is because cattle and sheep in these environments (or e.g. free range pork or chicken) live a more ‘natural’ lifestyle.  They are grazed on pasture (with some supplementation in low feed periods) for their entire lives – which means they don’t face some of the restricting aspects of feedlots.”

And taste is not something that is pushed into the background. “Pasture fed beef is often associated with improved flavour, and does not require high levels of antibiotic use to combat diseases such as bovine respiratory disease (BRD).” She believes a shift towards consumers demanding high quality pasture finished beef will allow for an increase in market value for this product, leading to improvements in beef prices for these producers and improvements to quality in the systems.

Top Image: Greg Johnston – FlickrCommons