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Arguing the case for grass-based sustainability

Grass-based production milk and meat production can support soil structure, according to Patrick Holden, CEO of the UK Sustainability Food Trust.

Slowly but surely the merits of grass-based livestock production are coming to the fore. Teagasc’s research on grass-fed dairy production is bringing science to bear on previously anecdotal evidence that the environmental impact of using pasture to produce milk and meat is far more benign that confinement systems which rely on grain buffered diets to produce food.

The latest testimony to the desirability and, indeed, necessity of incorporating grass-based livestock production into our efforts to deliver sustainable meat and dairy production systems, comes from an informed source in the UK. Patrick Holden is the CEO of the UK Sustainable Food Trust. In a discussion on the BBC recently Patrick warned that plant-based cropping systems are leading to the depletion of carbon in soils. While this is not new science it has been difficult to get the message across that continuously turning over the soil for planting various crops leads to the release of significant amounts of carbon from the soil. By comparison, semi-permanent or permanent pasture-based food production binds carbon into the soil structure.

Opposing the vegan rationale 

The actual context of the debate in which Patrick Holden engaged was in relation to the question as to whether the consumption of meat and dairy should be abandoned entirely in an effort to limit agriculture’s contribution to climate change. With a strong background in soil science as a former Soil Association director, Patrick Holden can be relied on to know what he is talking about. He had this to say about the growing interest among young people in adopting vegetarian or vegan diets: “Our concern is that in giving up eating meat altogether, which of course is perfectly legitimate for ethical reasons, many people do not understand the difference between the livestock that are part of the problem – which undoubtedly a lot of industrial livestock are and the livestock that are essentially part of the solution. I’m talking here about ruminant animals – beef and sheep, mainly grass-fed dairy cows – without which we would not be able to feed ourselves in this country in a sustainable way.” He went on to outline the role that livestock at pasture play in soil fertility: “Some of the most fertile soils in the world, including in the UK, were built through the interaction between ruminants and grassland.” He quoted a figure of 71 per cent of UK agricultural land being under grass (an even larger proportion of Irish farmland is similarly laid down to permanent grassland). Vegan or vegetarian based diets would require a vast proportion of that land to be inverted to grow plant-based food produce. That would result, Patrick emphasised, in the release of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

A more sophisticated approach to food production

Patrick Holden then made a very important and, from an Irish agriculture perspective, a very positive remark: “For those reasons we need to become more sophisticated in our future meat-eating habits to differentiate between the meat we should eat, and the meat we must give up.” This contradicts the simplistic approach adopted by many of the anti-livestock production brigade who insist that plant-based protein is always a more environmentally positive option: “I think many people who are on the plant-eating side of the campaign fail to understand that if we want to maintain the fertility of soils in a sustainable food production system, we need to go back to production systems that have a crop rotation which includes a fertility building phase. To arrest the carbon depletion associated with continuous plant cropping there needs to be a review of the entire system, The Sustainable Food Trust CEO explained: “In arable food production systems, with continuous cropping, we’ve depleted the soil carbon levels to critical points. It’s only if we return to sustainable crop rotations, which will probably have at least 40 per cent of the time period under grass, that we’ll able to get the carbon back. For that grass to be turned into something we can eat, we need ruminants, and they are very efficient at doing that.”

The Irish carbon lock-up

Better still, from an Irish farming viewpoint, is a farming model based almost exclusively on the production of livestock-based foods from a permanent grassland system, as is the norm in Ireland. The comments by Patrick Holden expose some of the woolly thinking by advocates of meat and dairy-free diets and he essentially advocates a more enlightened approach, rather than the extreme Animal Farm type ‘no legs good, four legs bad’ propaganda which is gaining far too much traction in the debates over climate change and animal rights advocacy.