Comment: Federated Farmers president Katie Milne explains why consumers can tuck into the milk and meat that New Zealand produces without qualms about global warming and health impacts.

You are what you eat.

To each his own.

Two time-worn sayings that have much to recommend them, and that are relevant in today's discussions about vegetarianism, red meat, nutrition and the environment.

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They're certainly worthwhile topics to talk about and in recent years voices saying meat eaters are doing a disservice to their health and the planet have become more insistent and strident.

Just recently, Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter suggested the health sector could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by, among other things, serving less meat and dairy to hospital patients.

Meat and dairy's credentials

Federated Farmers welcomes rational debate and pastoral farmers in New Zealand have sound arguments on why consumers can tuck into the milk and meat we produce without serious qualms about global warming and health impacts.

For starters, we've always said meat and dairy products should only be part of a balanced diet. Indeed, Beef + Lamb NZ's advice is that vegetables should make up three-quarters of the dinner plate, and red meat the other quarter.

We also try not to preach to vegans and vegetarians.

If people don't want to eat meat or dairy, there are other ways to gain the necessary nutrition for healthy bodies. But it can involve seeking out additional supplements, and we would argue special care is needed for children; in particular, that they are getting enough protein, calcium and vitamins if meat and dairy is missing from their diets.

Federated Farmers president, Katie Milne. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers president, Katie Milne. Photo / Supplied

Meat and dairy's credentials as tasty and nutritious food sources have been recognised for centuries – maybe that's why there are so many plant and lab-grown alternatives that piggy-back on the names 'meat' and 'milk', to the point there is one trendy restaurant in Wellington that makes a vegetarian concoction in the shape of a lamb chop.

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Red meat is an excellent source of protein and, if visible fat is trimmed away, is low in total fat and saturated fatty acids.

It's rich in monounsaturated and Omega 3 fatty acids, not to mention iron and zinc, selenium, vitamin D and B, taurine, carnitine, creatine and some endogenous antioxidants.

Milk and dairy products can be important sources of calcium, magnesium, selenium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and pantothenic acid.

There's also plenty of evidence dairy consumption brings reduced risk of several diseases and conditions, including osteoporosis, hypertension, colon cancer, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

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For recovering hospital patients with high energy and protein needs, meat and dairy is pretty ideal.

But what about meat and dairy's environmental credentials? Yes, livestock belch methane and urine/dung generates nitrous oxide, but for decades our pastoral farmers have made significant productivity and eco-efficiency gains, producing more from less.

Reports commissioned by Beef + Lamb NZ show that the production of 1kg of NZ beef generates 22kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (a unit of greenhouse gases that includes methane and nitrous oxide), and 1kg of lamb generates 19kg of CO2-e. That compares with global medians of 26.6kg for 1kg of beef and 25.6kg of CO2-e for 1kg of lamb.

Photo / File
Photo / File

Greenhouse gas emissions

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, NZ dairy is one-third to one-half better than is achieved in most other countries.

So much so that it is better for the climate to drink a glass of New Zealand milk in Europe than consuming the locally subsidised product, despite the export distance.

Fonterra has pointed out that 'fake' milks are not only more expensive, they are inferior nutritionally to cow's milk.

Milk protein is up to 30 per cent higher in nutritional quality than the quality of the highest scoring plant proteins and over three-fold higher than the worst scoring plant proteins.

The top scoring plant protein is soy at 28.1 grams per litre, but macadamia (6.1g/l), rice (7.4g/l) and almond (8.1g/l) rate much lower. Cow's milk produces 32g per litre of protein.

Livestock are critical in many ecosystems and when well managed they are reversing desertification in parts of the world.

In fact, it's by employing New Zealand rotational grazing methods that grasslands around the globe are being regenerated and returning to the healthy ecosystems they once were.

Global reports that finger the meat industry as being environmentally unsustainable and a massive consumer of fresh water often fail to differentiate between our largely grass-fed animals and the industrial feedlot systems common in the US and Europe.

We don't devote vast tracts of our landscape to growing grains and crops to feed animals.

Speaking of biodiversity, it's also often overlooked that 24 per cent of New Zealand's indigenous bush is on our sheep and beef farms.

While it's true that vegetable and grain growing doesn't release the same amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, we need to remember that much of our terrain isn't suitable for horticulture or crops, but is ideal for grass and trees.

And we're world-beaters in that niche, raising meat and dairy products that feed 10 times our own population – important in a hungry world where the number of people is expected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030 and nearly 10b by 2050.

In short, chew on those facts and raise that glass of milk/cut into that lean, natural, grass-raised steak without guilt.

- Katie Milne is the president of Federated Farmers.