If one of your New Year resolutions was to do better for your health and the planet by eating less meat, thumbs up to you. Can’t fault the desire to be a more conscious consumer.
But before you entirely swap out beef steaks and rack of lamb for eggplant and lentils, you might check out the new edition of The Role of Red Meat in Healthy and Sustainable New Zealand Diets. Released last month, it’s the fourth edition of a report that captures the evidence base underpinning the ongoing nutritional work of Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
It’s just livestock farmer spin? Well, 20 of the 88 pages in the report are swallowed by references to national and international research and scientific papers covering health, food systems and sustainability. And cons feature with the pros – for example, the report notes that evidence for the carcinogenicity (ability or tendency to produce cancer) of processed meats is “convincing”, and the need for our sheep and beef sector to continue work on improving its impact on water quality is acknowledged.
Overall though, the report concludes:
- On health: “The weight of evidence supports current guidance within New Zealand and internationally to enjoy unprocessed red meat in moderate amounts (between 350-500g of cooked red meat per week, or around three portions) as part of a healthy, balanced diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, legumes and nuts.
- On the environment: “All food production has an environmental impact, including meat production. International research that examines the sustainability of sheep and beef production primarily draws on feedlot production, which has a different environmental footprint to (New Zealand’s) pasture-based systems. When it comes to sustainability, New Zealand exports beef and lamb to 120 countries, using one of the lowest input and lowest impact production systems in the world.”
This article can’t capture all the detail in B+LNZ’s comprehensive report (go here for the original; it’s interesting and pretty easily digested, so to speak.) But as a way into some of the report’s major themes, here’s a look at five of the commonly voiced misconceptions or myths about red meat from a New Zealand perspective. (Unless otherwise stated, the information is sourced from The Role of Red Meat in Healthy and Sustainable New Zealand Diets.)
Myth 1: By not eating meat, I’ll be doing my bit to reduce global warming.
Debatable. As noted, our red meat production systems are very different from feedlot systems in many other parts of the world. NZ’s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per kilogram of beef or lamb produced are around 25% of the global average (lamb – 8.6 kg of Co2 per kg of meat, vs 23.4 global average; beef 11.6 vs 46.2) and our emissions are at least 50% lower than those achieved in Europe.
Emissions from New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector have decreased by over 32% since 1990 through decreasing stock numbers and improved eco-efficiency per animal (higher lambing percentages, better finishing weights from improvements to genetics and pasture management, etc).
Research shows most of the remaining on-farm emissions from the sector are offset by sequestration by woody vegetation – there are 1.4 million hectares of native forest and 180,000ha of pine forest on NZ sheep and beef farms.
We also export enough red meat to feed another 19 million people one 100 gram serving of protein, vitamin and amino acids-rich meat per day. If we stopped, other meat producers with a heavier global warming impact would more than likely step in.
Myth 2: It would be better to ditch livestock and use our land for producing plants, grains, fruits and vegetables.
Would it? Sheep and beef production uses 34% of New Zealand’s total land mass but because of hilly terrain and other factors, only 7% of that is suitable for cropping, and much of this land is already in some form of cropping.
Horticulture is seen as a – sorry, another pun – growth sector. According to Horticulture NZ’s latest annual report, it currently uses 79, 790 hectares (34k in fruit, 45k in vegetables, 246 indoor crops). The sector – and the government – has ambitions to significantly increase this, but even if it were to double, that’s a very small dent in the 5.4 million hectares used for sheep and beef farms.
The red meat sector earned us more than $10 billion last year. How would we replace that export income and jobs?
The fact is, pasture-fed sheep and cattle are very effective up-cyclers converting low quality protein (grass) into highly bio-available protein in the form of meat.
Myth 3: Meat production is horrendous for water use and quality.
Global average water usage to produce a kilogram of beef is 1,001 litres, excluding natural rainfall, and including irrigated water to grow grain. For comparison, global averages for fruit production are 236 litres/kilogram and for pulses 875 litres/kg. New Zealand’s average is 210 litres per kilogram of beef, and for sheep meat 46 litres/kg.
Ok, so what about the impact on our rivers and lakes? No doubt about it, sheep and beef farming has an impact on water quality, mainly from sediment from erosion, phosphorus, and E-coli getting into waterways during heavy rainfall. There’s a lot of work underway by farmers to lift their game on this front: planting erosion-prone areas, retiring land such as gullies from production, fencing waterways and significantly reducing phosphorus fertilizer in the last decade.
Modelling by AgResearch found that average nitrogen leaching from sheep and beef farms was 11-31kg per hectare per year. This compared with 0-6kg from forestry (which can peak at 28kg/N/ha during harvesting); dairy 44kg; 14-104kg for wheat (based on a four-year period in Canterbury) and as much as 100kg/N/ha/yr for some horticultural crops.
The meat processing industry is also committed to improving water quality. For example, processing plant waste product treatment systems have and are being upgraded to improve waste use as soil nutrients, instead of going to wastewater treatment. The 760,000 tonnes of inedible animal material produced each year is rendered into fats, oils and proteins providing secondary products such as biofuels and pet and livestock feed. This rendering avoids greenhouse gas emissions from natural decomposition of a quantity similar to removing 360,000 cars from the road.
Myth 4: Livestock farmers are big users of antibiotics and hormonal growth promotants.
Not so. New Zealand has among the lowest usage globally of antibiotics in cattle and sheep production. Our extensive outdoor farming systems means animals are less likely to catch infections requiring antibiotics caused by being in close proximity to one another. The antibiotics used here are only available from a vet, and their usage is controlled by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Hormonal growth promotants are almost never used in New Zealand (0.001% of livestock). Usage is restricted to veterinary supervision, and any animals receiving hormones must be tagged and included in a central government database.
Myth 5: Red meat causes all sorts of health problems for consumers.
Nearly half of the Beef+Lamb NZ report is dedicated to nutrition and health aspects. Nine pages alone are devoted to red meat micro-nutrients and their human bio-availability (ability to be easily used/have an active affect). Red meat is an especially rich source of bioavailable iron, which is important for vulnerable groups such as infants and toddlers, teenagers and women of childbearing age. Those who exclude red meat from their diets are strongly urged to include fortified foods or supplements to provide adequate vitamin B12 (the last national nutrition survey in 2009 found one in five adult New Zealanders had vitamin B12 inadequacy).
Red meat can preserve muscle mass as people age and there is emerging evidence to suggest red meat consumption may play a beneficial role in mental health independently of overall dietary quality. However, more research is needed on this.
There’s a heap of data on this topic in the report, but this summary might be helpful: “The unique combination of nutrients found in meats can play an important role in health issues facing New Zealanders today. For example, lean meat can be a helpful part of a heart-healthy diet for those at risk of cardiovascular disease; it can form a part of a weight-reducing diet for obese and overweight people. In terms of cancer prevention, the key focus should be to avoid smoking, limit sun exposure, maintain a healthy weight, and be physically active. In relation to diet, the emphasis should be on fruits, vegetables and unprocessed cereals and pulses. A reduction in moderate meat intakes in New Zealand is unnecessary based on current scientific evidence. However, it may be prudent to avoid very high intakes, particularly of processed meats, and to limit very high-temperature cooking methods.”
More to consider…
And we haven’t even touched on the role of grazing livestock on grassland ecosystems, biodiversity and soil regeneration, nor the role of red meat in feeding the rapidly expanding world population and the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger…..