Having a beef over the government’s proposed meat tax
I have to hand it to the Telegraph and George Eustice – they really know how to excite their base. The headline Meat Taxes will make British Farmers go greener, Says George Eustice has certainly attracted salty comments from a readership that most people presume vote Conservative. Well, the Conservative Party may lose these core voters if they proceed with this meat tax. And I doubt it will play well with Red Wall voters either.
I have written at length about many of these issues, so I am going to be brief; if you need more information, follow the links.
Carbon basics – who’s to blame?
Let’s start with some basics: as a rule of thumb if it is green and grows it is absorbing carbon dioxide. So that will cover all UK farms with the exception of massive factory farms full of chickens or pigs.
The Telegraph picture editor should not have used a picture of the Minister for the Environment, Food and Agriculture standing beside beef cattle in a shed. Beef cattle are not the major carbon culprits. For most of their lives, beef cattle in the UK will live in a field, they are only bought into a shed when they are being fattened for market – a process that may last for three months. During this time, they may be fed grains which are mostly imported – this is not good, but it is not for long.
If you follow the Telegraph’s link that ‘the government is already working on a new tax system for parts of the food sector’, you will find a very useful graph which explains what is really going on. Although the meat tax article specifically targets beef, sheep and milk producers, the massive growth in UK meat production has come from the poultry and the pig sectors. The vast majority of both animals will spend their lives in a shed, even pigs that are labelled ‘outdoor bred’ and ‘outdoor reared’. And when they are in these sheds, they mainly eat imported feed.
According to Poultry News, the UK imports around 3.3 million tonnes of soy annually, almost 60% of which is used by the poultry industry. Most of it comes from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and the US. While Feednavigator.com claims the pig sector uses about 15% of UK soy imports. So, these two industries alone account for 75% of the UK’s soy imports, but are not even mentioned by this meat tax. The remaining imported soy will be fed to dairy cattle, with very little used for beef or lamb production. We also import many other types of animal feed including corn.
British sheep and beef cattle are being framed for carbon crimes they do not commit. They mainly eat grass, and while they may belch methane from time to time, the grass they eat absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, and their dung puts carbon back into the soil. And yet this tax is being specifically aimed at them. Why? Again, the graphics editor provides a clue.
The Telegraph article contains an active chart where you can enter the number of chicken breasts, lamb chops, steaks, hamburgers, sausages and bacon rashers you consume in a week and see the number of litres of water required, the grain used, and the CO2 produced. The Telegraph is so proud of this graphic that it appears in both articles cited above as well as another by Josh Wilson entitled Feeding the Future. I suspect Wilson’s article is the source – but is this chart accurate?
For a start, the weights of each portion are very different, which therefore exaggerates the CO2 of beef steaks and underestimates the amount used to produce bacon. Why did they not use the same weight for each type of meat? Also, you can’t get a chicken breast without producing the whole chicken, and unfortunately the UK population seem to prefer the breast meat while the rest of the chicken is exported (more CO2) or binned (a waste of water, feed, and CO2).
When evaluating the CO2 used in producing meat, we have to consider:
- Where the feed came from;
- If it was imported, how far did it travel;
- How long will the animal take to reach market weight;
- The proportion of the animal produced we eat or use (including leather, wool, hoofs etc);
- The proportion of the animal we export and how far;
- The proportion of the animal we scrap.
As for the amounts of water the Telegraph’s calculator claims is required to produce the meat, where does one start… An animal cannot physically hold more water than its weight. A finished steer may be max 300kg. Mammals are generally about 70% water. So, an 8oz steak is about 230 grams, which at 70% may be 160 grams of water. However, the Telegraph calculator tells me that a single 8oz steak would require 3,496 litres of water to produce. That is 15,400 litres a kilo. Seriously?
Failing the maths test
There are 10 million cattle in Britain. Say each weigh on average 200kg, so that would make 2 billion kilos of beef. According to the ready reckoner, the UK’s cattle herd would therefore use up 30.8 trillion litres of water. A week, a year, over their lifetime? This isn’t made clear. But beef cattle are finished at under 30 months in the UK and dairy cattle live for 4 to 5 years.
Thames Water only supplies 2.6 billion litres a day to its 10 million customers. Are the nation’s 10 million cattle really using 12,000 times as much, without even taking a shower or washing their clothes? The Telegraph’s calculator seems like a quite extraordinary exaggeration. And that’s just the cattle.
Apparently, a single lamb chop uses up 1,432 litres (1,432 kg) of water. It only takes 6 to 7 months to produce a lamb, and the average live weight of a finished lamb is around 42.3 kilos according to the AHDB. Tesco’s website tells me that a lamb chop weighs 75g, so there are 564 lamb chop equivalents in the average finished lamb. Somehow, according to the Telegraph, producing a 42-kilo lamb would use 807,648 kilos of water. Who believes this?
The subtext to the numbers
I have seen these sorts of wild exaggerations about farming and meat before. In an article in CapX, Jim Mellon declared that ‘one kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres of water.’ Mellon, a hedge fund manager, is a big investor in artificial, laboratory produced meat-like substances, and his wild exaggerations are intended to convince people to invest as well. He has also written a book about this. His claim that one kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres of water is similar to the amount given by The Telegraph’s calculator, and again there are no citations, time periods or details of how it was calculated. Coincidentally, Wilson’s Telegraph article cited above, also concludes that lab grown meat is the solution to save the environment – I wonder if the Lab Meat PR department was the source of this water use?
Wherever it came from, the numbers simply don’t stack up.
This lack of precision in the science behind a major policy proposal which would have a huge impact on everyday life is deeply concerning. Even more concerning is that DEFRA policy leads and ministers who haven’t done their homework are proposing harmful taxation on the back of it.
Water consumption and cattle: the facts
If an animal is kept in the field and eats grass, then the water the animal drinks will be urinated back into the soil; the nitrogen the urine contains will help the soil, and the water will eventually pass into the country’s aquifers, then to rivers and the sea, and then evaporate and eventually rain down on British farms again and again and again. This water is not used up. It is constantly recycled. An animal could be drinking the same water every week.
An academic article suggests that a unit of beef production uses between 3 and 540 litres per kilo over its life cycle, depending on where and how the animal is farmed. That sounds reasonable. I am sure a steer in western New South Wales gets a lot less water than a steer in western South Wales. Although the article states that the total water footprint will be greater, this includes the rain used to grow the animal’s feed. In the UK this feed is the grass which absorbs CO2 out of the atmosphere, the rain also keeps the soil moist which provides a home for wildlife, insects and worms. Rain isn’t exclusively used by grass – it supports all living things in a field. Will people using the Telegraph’s environmental impact calculator understand this? And will they know that a kilo of tofu requires 3000 litres of water to produce, rice uses a similar amount, while it takes 19,315 litres of water to produce a kilo of almonds.
This tax proposal would hurt British beef and sheep farmers and penalise consumers, whilst having minimal environmental impact because it is based on flawed modelling. It is most likely being promoted as a distraction by the producers of soy-fed factory farmed animals or as a promotion by laboratory meat investors, yet it will be amplified by the vociferous climate change and vegan lobbies because it suits their agenda. But instead of fighting it, the NFU has jumped on the meat tax bandwagon to yet again demand that imports of meat from Australia and New Zealand be banned. This time the claim is that it will be less environmentally friendly than UK beef. But as I have also written many times – not if the meat is produced with local feed, and the UK only imports the parts of the animal that it intends to eat.
Eco-friendly meat production
Importing three kilos of feed to the UK from South America to produce a 2-kilogram chicken, if you only intend to eat the third of a kilo of breast meat, with the rest of the animal going to the renderer or exported, is not environmentally friendly. Nor is importing three kilos of feed to produce only one kilo of pork.
But as meat production is a big industry in Australia, the Australians are already on top of this environmental propaganda. They are developing a seaweed-based feed that reduces methane emissions from cattle. The Mulloon Institute has been researching replacing carbon in farm soils and increasing soil moisture for years. Soils contain more carbon than plants and the atmosphere combined, using agricultural practices to sequester carbon would be better for the environment than taxing meat. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation sustainably managed soils can sequester up to 2.05 giga-tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.
The EU counts biomass electricity as renewable because trees are replanted after being cut down for timber, with the offcuts beings burned in biomass reactors to produce electricity. But for some inexplicable reason, animals in fields, cropping and eating grass while the grass is regrowing, are not counted as renewable. The animal is no different from a biomass reactor, except that its end product is meat rather than electricity. And the grass is regrowing and using up CO2, just as a replanted forest or elephant grass (miscanthus) does.
But there are things that the UK could do to help the environment. Many people complain about food wastage at the domestic level but ignore food wastage at the wholesale level. If DEFRA really wants to be ‘Green’, besides promoting a return to grass-fed beef and sheep and away from indoor produced chicken and pigs, it should be encouraging people to return to eating most of an animal. The UK’s green activist chefs should be reviving eating the cuts of meat that our parents and grandparents used to eat, which have now gone out of fashion and are often not even offered in supermarkets.
Sainsburys is currently running a promotion to replace some meat with beans in recipes – but the UK grows very few protein crops such as beans, peas, or pulses. They are mainly imported from Brazil, the US, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. Using grass-fed UK grown beef or lamb in a recipe would have a lower carbon footprint than using soybeans from Brazil, red kidney beans from Argentina or chickpeas from Australia.
The UK is lucky; there are very few areas of land not covered in vegetation. There are no deserts and few rocky escarpments. All this vegetation – the food crops, the biomass crops, the forests for timber, the national forests, and those green and pleasant grass covered hills – all soak up CO2. It would be a massive mistake to tax the eco-friendly grass-fed meat industry.