Red meat in the diet: what's in the future for Scottish farmers?

Over half (55%) of consumers think its healthier to eat less red meat. In the UK, 74% of households have consciously reduced the amount of red meat they consume. Half of 16-35 year-olds are concerned about the environmental impact of red meat (Source: IGD & Leatherhead). These were some of the figures presented at the opening of the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) conference #meatthefuture2020 in Glasgow last week.

The 430 people in the audience came from a wide range of backgrounds including farmers, meat processors, food producers, butchers, academics, members of parliament, and at least one public health nutritionist! The talks covered a range of issues relevant to the meat industry.

Dr Frédéric Leroy, Professor of Food Science at the University of Brussels, gave a thought-provoking talk using Greek mythology as a metaphor, to explain the philosophy behind the way we think about meat now and how we thought about it in the past.

Dr Jude Capper, Livestock Sustainability Consultant, provided an enlightening talk showing that beef and sheep production can be environmentally sustainable. The carbon footprint of Scottish livestock production has declined by 15% between 1998 and 2017 and is well below the world average carbon footprint of beef production that is often referred to when taking about meat and sustainability.

Dr Capper explained that Scottish livestock production accounted for 14.7% of total Scottish greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 and reminded the audience that all foods have an environmental impact, from cakes to cashews and fruit juice to fish cakes. The sustainability of a diet is indeed a complex area and one that needs further consideration.

Livestock production not only provides food, but it is also important for providing many by-products for a wide range of consumer items – including pharmaceuticals, pet foods, paints and perfumes.

Another point highlighted was that 65% of land in the UK is not suitable for growing arable crops. This grazed land provides much more than food. Farmers help maintain the British landscape that can be used for recreation and tourism. It enables carbon sequestration, wildlife biodiversity, water filtration and forestry. I would encourage you to take a look at Dr Capper’s slides from the QMS conference on the sustainability of red meat production in Scotland.

Amongst the many interesting points raised at the conference, here’s a few of the take-aways I had from the day.

🥩 Embrace the flexitarian opportunities

Meat is a nutrient dense food and can form part of a healthy and varied flexitarian diet. Between 2009 and 2019 Google searches for ‘vegan’ increased 5x while searches for ‘plant-based’ grew by 22x (Food Spark, 2020). In November, Mintel released their Global Consumer Trends report, that predicts in the year 2025 we will start to see consumption of red meat moving from mainstream, to luxury, and eventually to taboo (Food Spark, 2019).

The word flexitarian is becoming more commonly used and people are choosing to eat less meat but more high-quality meat. This is a great opportunity for the Scottish red meat industry to embrace the changing consumer and meet the demand for less but higher quality meat.

🥩 Better communication of regional sustainability

The carbon footprint of beef varies widely across the globe and the sustainability of Scottish red meat production is far better than the global average. Further information on how British farmers work to protect the environment, care for their animals and provide food for the population on the National Farmers Union website.

There is a fantastic new podcast called ‘ONFARM’ that covers issues on food, agriculture and rural matters. The most recent episode was on ‘Climate change: the challenge and opportunity’ and one I’d recommend listening to for gaining more understanding of what farmers can do to reduce climate change, what is the science around farming’s impact on global warming? And how can Scottish agriculture better share its message that it is part of the solution on emission, rather than the problem?

🥩 Farmers: Share your story

Consumers are becoming more interested in how food is produced. With 82% of 16-24 year olds and 64% of all adults choosing social media for news (Ofcom, 2019), it offers a fantastic tool for sharing farming practices and helping connect consumers to the realities of meat production.

Farmers: Be open and share your work with others. Consumers are keen to hear more about what you do. There are some amazing farmers on twitter sharing their daily experiences at work, for example: @1Garthwynjones, @JoeWStanley, @thisfarmlife and @ffionhooson0.

If you’re a farmer and are thinking “social media is not for me” then check out Just Farmers, a new communications project for British agriculture. They are helping build confidence amongst farmers regards media engagement.

🥩 Stay positive

Those working in the meat industry should be proud of their high standards of production and animal welfare. Share your values, stay positive, be transparent when sharing the work you do. There is lots of mis-information on social media related to British livestock production. The NFU have recently prepared a toolkit to help communicate messages around the impact of meat production on the environment, nutrition & health, and animal health & welfare. The mythbuster document is a well worth a read.

The QMS conference on Tuesday supported the RSABI charity, which provides help to those involved in Scottish agriculture emotionally, practically and financially in times of need. Farming can be a tough job at times, and delegates were reminded to look out for each other.

Including red meat a few times a week in the diet provides a rich source of high-quality protein, and a variety of essential nutrients. These include iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Red meat can be particularly useful for some population groups, such as young infants, women of childbearing age and older adults. For more information on the nutritional content and health effects of red meat in the diet, see the review paper I published in 2011 (Wyness et al, 2011).

Dr Laura Wyness is an award winning Registered Nutritionist specialising in evidence-based nutrition writing, workplace wellness and online nutrition consultations. Contact Laura for any enquiries: nutrition@laurawyness.com

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