Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Irish beef producers must make more of our 'green' credentials

Alan Matthews
Alan Matthews

Alan Matthews

There are some industries that are legally allowed to sell their products but at the same time public policy tries to limit consumption or use of these goods. Alcohol and tobacco are examples of industries where demand management programmes are in place, and sugar-sweetened beverages are also on the list in some countries. Recent decisions by public health bodies in a number of countries raise the question: could beef be added to this list?

Last month, Public Health England revised the UK government's dietary advice to consumers. This had been called the Eatwell plate, but is now called the Eatwell Guide. The new advice recommends that someone eating more than 90 grams of red or processed meat (which includes bacon and sausages) should cut down to no more than 70 grams per day. For comparison, the average Irish male consumes about 95 grams per day and the average Irish female about 68 grams per day of red and processed meat.

The advice recognises that the type of cut or meat product consumed and how it is cooked can make a big difference. To cut down on fat, it suggests choosing lean cuts of meat and grilling instead of frying.

The Dutch also revised their nutrition advice, summarised in the 'Wheel of Five', last month. The new Dutch advice recommends that people eat just two servings of meat a week (it calculates this as equivalent to 500 grams which seems an excessive amount per serving, but it sets an explicit limit on meat consumption for the first time). The advice recommends that only 300 grams should be red meat.

A key driver of this advice was the perceived environmental impact of different diets. Meat-based diets have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based diets. Depending on production systems and where production takes place, livestock production can be a highly inefficient use of scarce land and water. At the global level, it is a principal driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and species loss.

Earlier this year the US also updated its dietary guidelines. The process began with the appointment of a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The Committee, in its 2015 report, concluded that sustainable diets, lower in meat intake, are also more healthy. This prompted a fierce reaction from the US livestock industry. It lobbied strongly against the inclusion of environmental considerations into nutrition advice.

As a result, an amendment was inserted into the US budget passed by Congress at the end of 2015 which explicitly directed the US Secretary of Agriculture (who actually issues the dietary guidelines) to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors such as environmental impacts, in formulating his advice. When the US dietary guidelines were eventually published in January this year, limits to meat consumption were knocked out.

Traditionally, dietary recommendations to eat less red meat have been based on the health risks of over-consumption. Consuming red meat leads to a higher intake of solid or saturated fats, which in turn has been associated with a higher incidence of cardiovascular diseases as well as contributing to general obesity.

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This dietary advice has been contested. Some studies have not found any association between consumption of unprocessed red meat and chronic disease. The thesis that reduced saturated fat intake leads to improved heart health has itself been questioned. The role of red meat in providing essential micronutrients as well as protein has been stressed.

Some argue that the focus in dietary advice on limiting red meat consumption has diverted attention from the real culprit in the obesity epidemic which is the excessive consumption of highly processed ready-to-consume foods and empty calories from added sugars.

In fact, beef consumption per capita has long peaked in OECD countries, including the EU. Beef consumption in the EU was 12 kg/capita/year in the mid-1990s. It is now around 10.5 kg/capita/year and is expected to fall to 9.7 kg/capita/year within a decade. Total beef production in the EU was 8.4 million tonnes in the early 1990s, and is projected to fall to 7.1 million tonnes by the early 2020s.

The recent public health advice around sustainable healthy diets will, if anything, accelerate this rate of decrease.

Successful marketing of Irish beef against this background is not only a matter of competing on price, but also demonstrating its environmental credentials in a credible way.

Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin

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