Five Key Changes: Meat intake

4th February 2021
4th February 2021 Nutrition Creative

Five Key Changes: Meat intake

Welcome to the first of my Five Key Changes (at long last…), highlighting my dietary choices as a result of seeking a balance between health, preferences and environmental sustainability. I hope it helps to paint a bigger picture of farm to fork by introducing the importance of planetary health. The overall aim is to show how we, as consumers, can make choices that consider both health and environmental issues and help drive change.

When it comes to meat consumption, I think it’s fair to say that we are entering a transition towards more mindful choices about where to source meat and what meat should be consumed. A growing appreciation for sustainability is starting to influence our decisions and behaviours, largely for the better. Which is a positive step forward, one that should be embraced by food producers and (hopefully) won’t be squandered or abused.

Below is a snapshot of my journey in assessing meat intake and the choices that I have made along the way. It is always evolving and it is an aspect of our food system that I find most fascinating, because it evokes such strong emotions in conversation. Whether you’re speaking with farmers, government, academics or individuals of any other background, we are all intrinsically and emotionally fuelled by food.

Before Studying

I ate meat regularly, largely on a daily basis and I would only really concern myself with common health considerations:

  • Mostly opting for lean cuts of beef, pork, lamb and chicken to avoid fat content
  • Limited processed meat intake to avoid associations with cardiovascular complaints
  • Attempting to get my fish associated omega-3’s and minerals in, as and when I could (but not nearly close to 1-2 portions a week)

The tendency was to pick up something quick from the supermarket that I could easily cook with, or if we were eating in a restaurant, I’d order meat that I wouldn’t likely cook at home. Rarely would I reflect on whether the meat I selected was coming from a sustainable source – both in terms on nutritional and environmental quality – because I thought most meat would be modestly sustainable. I trusted our food system and I was yet to question, respect or understand it.

Sustainable at Heart

It’s coming up to a couple of years since I graduated and the first thing to say is: I still eat meat. However, I am much more mindful of what I eat, how much I eat and where I source it from. It’s really difficult to prescribe a diet on a public health level, but I think the UK Eatwell Guide created by Public Health England is a good starting point for health and sustainability. Of course, it’s a work in progress, not least because our dietary choices and individual needs are more nuanced than a colour coded plate.

From a sustainability perspective, if we were all to follow the Eatwell guidance as intended in the UK, it has been estimated by the Carbon Trust that we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by around 31% when comparing it to the average UK diet. However, I find the issue of measuring greenhouse gas emissions problematic, particularly in relation to livestock farming. It’s not that it isn’t relevant or helpful, it’s how the data is used in comparison to other industries and the fact that it’s only one part of a complex system, which can allow it to suffer from the fallacy of division.

There are many considerations to engage with when hoping to achieve a balanced understanding of what’s truly sustainable in our food system. It means having to account for other resources like water and land use, transport, processing and packaging, animal welfare, biodiversity and societal welfare. Luckily, all of the above are being rigorously assessed, to find a balanced approach for the future sustainability of food production for our growing population (in 2050 our population will likely reach 9.8 billion people). But there’s is yet to be a definitive answer on how to achieve such a balance.

I’m not going to get into a huge amount of detail here, as I’d be here for a very long time with few answers beyond a need for diversification and variety within our diet. However, just to give you a few examples of why the issue of meat consumption can be problematic when considering health and the environment, I have a few themes below to open up the discussion followed by the changes I have made to date:

  • Global emissions are not directly representative of any one region

Global estimated greenhouse gas emissions give us a valuable insight into the environmental impact we are having on the planet. Scientific accuracies in measuring emissions are improving, public awareness is increasing and it is a measurement that can create a reference point, to assess any reductions we make which helps to identify beneficial change in our action.

However, a global farming measure of emissions shouldn’t be applied to UK farming practices, as it would be a misrepresentation of the true emissions being emitted and therefore saved. The reason for this is due to a huge disparity between countries that farm livestock and their efficiency in doing so. Loosely speaking, developed countries have improved skills and infrastructure to farm more efficiently (using less animals, land and water) when compared to those of developing nations, that still require higher numbers in livestock as their yield can be much lower.

Plus again, this single measure of sustainability neglects the other considerations mentioned previously which in part, I attempt cover in my next few points. But first, to break down the emissions issue further…

  • There is more than one cycle of greenhouse gases to consider

The biogenic carbon cycle is the natural cycle of carbon exchange between land and atmosphere via photosynthesis in plants. Livestock that consume grass, contribute to emissions by producing digestive gasses – methane – which converts into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has a very short lifespan compared to fossil fuels that we extract from the land, and ultimately it’s partly recycled by the very process that produced it.

Our land is both a source and sink for greenhouse gases and we’re realising that the health and diversity of our soil is of great importance for the ability to recapture emissions and sequester carbon. Livestock require a lot of land and a lot of water – in that, there is no denying. However, not all agricultural land is equal in terms of how it can be utilised. For example, marginal land (land than cannot support arable farming) can benefit from browsing livestock to improve soil quality and biodiversity, creating capacity for plant growth and therefore increased carbon sequestration in the soil. Increased soil fertility, drainage and new growth upscales photosynthesis to capture more carbon. This doesn’t mitigate emissions fully necessarily, but it shows great potential for balance in land management, to employ diversification of farming for the benefit of environment.

The impact of monoculture crops is also proving to be detrimental to soil health and carbon sequestration, so even our non livestock farming can give very little back to the land. Well managed crop rotations and reduced or no-tilling methods – which substantially reduces structure and biodiversity in soil – will be of huge benefit.

Our whole food system is in need of careful management, and that is happening but it certainly isn’t without its challenges. In all scenarios, there are local needs and experiences to consider first and foremost, with research in sustainability being able to refine practices to protect the future of our food and environment.

Quality of Nutrition

With a fairly comprehensive understanding of nutrition – knowing how to calculate nutritional values of food and what humans require to live healthily – we are in a very privileged position of being able to make informed choices about the food we eat. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case that nutritional information is used reliably or presented fairly.

  • Gram for gram is not always a fair discussion when comparing the byproduct of emissions or use of resources

Comparing food sources solely on a calorie, macronutrient or weight matching basis is fundamentally flawed. You might have seen examples of 100g of [e.g. beef] vs. 100g [e.g. vegetable], or 10g of meat protein vs. 10g of plant protein etc. often comparing their respective contributions to greenhouse gasses or water usage, for example.

They may be matched in weight, macronutrient or calorie, but seldom are they ever matched on their total nutrient profile or what they give back in practise to the producer or the environment. If this conjures commentary such as: “just get your minerals and vitamins from a diverse plant based diet”… don’t worry, I agree with you. Whether we choose to eat meat and animal products or not, we should all be encouraged to diversify our diets with varied plant based protein sources.

My issue with this method of comparison is the notion that somehow you get the same between the two items when in reality, you do not. It adds to the incredibly divisive narrative that some foods are implicitly good and others are bad, which is not helpful in decision making and leads to confusion. Whether it’s individuals making changes to their diets or countries in greater danger of food insecurity, this just isn’t a helpful dialogue in health or policy making.

  • Quality can vary drastically between farming methods

Higher efficiencies in farming that lead to reduced emissions or land use, can still become unsustainable in other ways. For example, intensive farming often relies on antibiotic use to maintain healthy animals. So although the farming method may technically provide a lot of meat on less resources, that meat is part of a concerning public health issue, as it contributes to antimicrobial resistance.

Nutritional quality of meat (or any other food) is not equal across different regions and even between two neighbouring farms that adopt different farming practises. To put this into perspective, intensively farmed beef is not the same product as slow reared, 100% grass fed beef – even if the same breed were to be farmed in both scenarios. This is due to their diet, their lifestyle and of course their welfare which all contribute to improved nutrient quality. Fatty acid composition, for example, is much more favourable in slow grown, grass fed beef; providing more of the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids required in our diet to help reduce inflammation and improve integrity within most cell structures which supports a healthy immune system, brain and heart health.

In Short

There is so much more I could write about from food technology innovations to the issues faced within our farming communities, so I will stop to summarise:

In order to make sound decisions, they need to be based on the total sum of evidence available – combining scientific, historic and lived experience, the latter being able to inform what will adapt well to what already exists. So while changes to our food system are necessary, it’s important to keep communication open and continue to question what will be of lasting benefit to planetary health, which is inclusive of our needs.

In the meantime, what we do know is that diversity and variety from plant based foods in conjunction with reduced meat consumption – a recent webinar with Christian Reynolds suggested a 30% reduction while Eating Better are calling for a 50% reduction, with respect to our current consumption – is a beneficial step forward, encouraging mindful and respectful consumption.

So with that, how have my eating habits changed since engaging with the information above?

Key Changes in Meat Intake

Eating better quality

I choose to eat meat from a wide variety of sources including chicken, beef, pork, lamb, goat as well as game and venison. Fish tends to be infrequent, mostly because I would prefer freshly caught fish or fish that has the MSC blue label, to ensure that it has come from a sustainable source, which you don’t tend to find all the time.

Here are the rules I tend to go by when buying meat:

  1. Prioritise something that will provide multiple meals and produce little waste – eg. a whole chicken rather than chicken breasts only. (see my Making Meat Go Further blog for ideas on how to really get the most out of meat)
  2. Source conservation-led meat when looking for game and venison
  3. Buy local (not usually inclusive of supermarkets but you learn about what labels to look out for here when shopping online or in store) with links to sustainable farming practices
  4. Try new cuts to help improve cooking skills and vary the cost

Eating Less – frequency and portioning

It may seem like I eat a lot of meat from the above but I actually eat substantially less than before. I make meat in meals go a lot further with portioning and pairing with plant protein sources, like beans and pulses. I also eat a lot of meat free meals, usually only having meat in an evening meal, if at all. This helps with increasing my vegetable and fibre intake hugely, as they’re so versatile on their own and you can just pile them into a dish!

It doesn’t just help me naturally include more variety in my diet, it’s also keeps me mindful of the true cost of meat. When sourcing sustainable meat it tends to come with a higher cost financially. However, the valid argument of ‘hidden’ cost in relation to government subsidies and environmental impact, when purchasing intensively farmed or imported products, is something that will cost us all in the long run. So, I’m willing to pay extra and then balance that with eating a little less, and respect that quality over quantity should be my ultimate concern. Being more mindful about meat intake in this way hasn’t led me to suffer financially, with my usual spend being just under the UK national average: spending approximately £49 on food for 2 adults, per week.

Local Sources

All meat for home cooking now comes from the incredible selection of butchers and farmers shops in my area. I’m really spoilt for choice in this part of Suffolk. Rolfe’s of Walsham and Elmswell, is one of the longest established butchers in the area, with traditional ethics when it comes to minimising food miles and highly valued animal welfare. Hubbard’s Traditional Butchers (Bury St Edmunds) are both family friends and seriously passionate people when it comes to good meat – especially pork – and again ethically sourced with a wealth of knowledge, generously shared when you have any questions about their work. Thurston Butchers and the Lavenham Butchers both provide meat to the local village shops, which is a great collaboration allowing people in the village to enjoy locally and ethically farmed meat. Game and venison, which tackles both nutritional and environmental matters in a different way (which I will cover at a later date), are available either in season or when conservation requirements provide, with most butchers and farm shops serving on that basis.

Recently I visited Heath Farm as it’s a stone’s throw from where I live (the luxury of which is not lost on me, I am very lucky to live in Mid Suffolk and it absolutely has an impact on the choices I have). They have a shop to sell their grass fed long horn beef, sandy & black and saddleback pork, and lamb from both native and rare breed sheep. This has been an exciting discovery for me, as they are really focused on sustainable farming and many of the acres they graze are on the Higher Level and Entry Level of Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship Scheme, an agri-environment scheme run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England which aims to secure widespread environmental benefits.

Please note: I am not being encouraged or incentivised to share this information about the above businesses, this is just my opinion and I urge people to reach out to their local butchers and farm shops – even if it’s just to talk about their produce. If you don’t have a butcher or farm shop near by, read my Making Meat Go Further to see what labels you can look out for in your local supermarket.

If you are concerned about sustainability and the environmental impact our diet can have, keep an eye out for my Top Three Recommendations for becoming more sustainable with food. I will focus on three key areas that we all have control over and can actually make a lasting difference.

Also stay tuned for the other posts I’m due to share within this Five Key Changes Series and as ever, do not hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to discuss anything related to nutrition.