Looking for heroes and villains or having an “us and them” mentality is too simplistic when it comes to subjects such as the environmental impact of farming or a red meat diet, Beef + Lamb chair Kate Acland writes.
Is society as a whole getting increasingly binary in our thinking?
I certainly find that reflected in a lot of conversations and commentary where people are looking for a hero and a villain - there is little if any consideration of the nuances in between.
We hear this in debates about transport, housing, immigration, crime, education or political ideologies.
We’re all guilty at times of gravitating to the headlines and simplistic slogans for what in reality are incredibly complex subjects with a number of dimensions.
As a farmer, I witness this with the vilification at times of our farming sector, particularly when new research is published into farming practices or the impact of red meat.
Recently scientists at the UK’s University of Oxford published research advocating eating less meat to lower people’s carbon footprint.
This gained many headlines internationally, such as the New York Times’ “Save the planet - put down that hamburger”.
Coverage in New Zealand focused on the article’s claim that eating 100g of red meat per day contributes 10kg of greenhouse gas - but without making clear the context and situation of the study.
That may have left audiences with a misleading view of the findings with regard to New Zealand. However, it is crucial to understand that this research doesn’t relate to New Zealand farming situations.
It was conducted in the UK, using datasets for beef emissions sourced from a database, which primarily includes data from a range of other countries.
In contrast, research using New Zealand data tells a different story.
AgResearch’s Life Cycle Analysis of New Zealand beef and lamb found that our red meat has among the lowest carbon footprint in the world – even when taking into account shipping it to our global markets.
It is at least half and potentially around one-fifth of the level suggested in the Oxford University study.
While the Oxford study was garnering headlines, Gavin Hodgson, director of agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture for iconic UK retailer Sainsbury’s, was visiting New Zealand.
Addressing an industry conference, he outlined how Kiwi livestock farmers are “years ahead” and “leading the way” in meeting the environmental and social requirements of consumers and are aligned with Sainsbury’s strict sustainability values.
Reporting of studies such as the Oxford research tends to cover what researchers have considered, but not what they haven’t.
For instance, studies often don’t take into account the impact different gases have on temperature change, treating methane, a short-lived gas, the same as carbon dioxide. Methane only persists in the atmosphere for 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide from fossil fuels will persist for thousands.
If we want to understand how we are progressing as a country towards the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to well below two degrees, then we need discussion to focus on what level of warming is created from products, not what emission levels are.
They also fail to account for the co-product benefits of livestock agriculture, such as wool, bone, and manure, or how soil carbon can increase with good grazing techniques.
Additionally, they don’t consider the role red meat plays in a healthy diet or the public cost of iron deficiency.
Hospitalisations for iron deficiency anaemia doubled between 2008/9 and 2018/19.
Studies have shown that one in 14 New Zealand women are low in iron and eight out of 10 toddlers and one-third of teenage girls don’t meet the recommended daily intake of iron.
The body absorbs the haem iron found in foods such as beef, lamb, poultry, and seafood much more easily than the non-haem iron found in the likes of beans, lentils, eggs, and nuts - with around 15-25 per cent being used compared to five to 12 per cent.
As part of a healthy balanced diet, the World Cancer Research Fund and the Ministry of Health recommend eating up to 350-500g of cooked red meat - or three to four meals a week.
That is a happy medium - and the Oxford University research saw a 30 per cent difference between high and low-meat diets for most of the measures of environmental impact.
Most farmers accept the sector does have an impact on the climate.
The growing low carbon credentials of our red meat sector provide opportunities globally for our farmers and our economy - while New Zealanders have the option on our doorstep of choosing red meat with a low carbon footprint.
It’s natural to look for heroes and villains in life - to feel passionate about issues and engage in robust debate.
But good debate should be informed with all the facts, and when you look beyond the headlines, the facts point to our farmers being part of the solution, not the problem.
“All of us working together” has to be the way forward, not “us and them”.
- Kate Acland is the chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand and a mid-Canterbury sheep, beef and dairy farmer.