Guest post: Red meat – to have or have not?

Fiona Greig
Fiona Greig

Recently, researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford published a review titled ‘Meat consumption, health and the environment’. This looked at the evidence base regarding the effects of a growing global meat consumption on both the environment and human health. Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc’s head of nutrition, Fiona Greig provides a New Zealand industry and nutrition perspective.

The authors highlight policy makers are grappling with the economic, health and environmental consequences of a growing population and, hence, growing demand for meat.  This poses their question of the degree in which policy makers have the societal licence to intervene to influence a reduction in meat consumption.

It looks into how social norms of meat eating behaviour can be influenced given many see it as natural, normal, necessary and is the centre of many a meal planning. Suggestions include on-pack labelling, noting there needs to be more evidence to confirm whether sustainability criteria actually influences behaviour. They also suggest how can nudging consumers to eat less meat without conscious choice, such as repositioning meat in store so that it appears after vegetarian options, taxing, and changing serving sizes in restaurants.

They summarise that there is a need for more evidence about the effectiveness of different interventions seeking to influence people’s conscious and unconscious food purchasing and consumption practices.

Looking forward, they specify it is difficult to envisage how the world can supply a population of over 10 billion and with the quantity of meat currently consumed without further affecting the environment.

Nutrition is not a simple science

As a registered nutritionist working in the New Zealand red meat industry, I’m faced with a myriad of balls to juggle in the ‘meat and planetary health’ discussion.  Nutrition is not a simple science; add environment and moral dilemma in to the mix, and you’ve got a complex challenge that keeps all involved researching to the nth degree.  And it’s just the beginning.

Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious about the impact of their lifestyle choices on the planet, and meat has become the low hanging fruit that seems to be the easiest to target and eliminate without a second thought given.  I see it with health concerns too – despite the wider lifestyle pattern recommendations and implications on health, there is a misunderstanding of looking at meat in isolation, rather than looking collectively at the bigger picture of how we live our everyday lives, the amount of exercise, alcohol, fruit, vege and wholegrain intake is getting factored in.

With this in mind, all humans on the earth have a part to play to improve the planet’s health, but does that mean three or four meat meals across the week should be removed?  I believe not.

What I am comfortable with is reinforcing what the dietary guidelines have always said, and that means plant-based eating (spoiler alert it’s not the latest trend), that is about three-quarters of your food intake should be from foods derived from plants – I’m talking fruit, vege, wholegrains and pulses, which are perfectly complemented by nutrient-rich animal foods – meat, dairy, fish.  And yes – it still comes back to moderation.  As sexy as it is not, that word should be the mantra of all dietary patterns regardless of whether you eat animal products or not.

As a nutrition professional, I’m very proud about what our industry does here in little ‘ol New Zealand, beyond just providing a nutritious staple on the tables of Kiwis – for those that are still eating meat of course – and according to our insights, that’s still 89 percent of us. I’m talking about farmers, the backbone of our country, the guardians of our land who raise livestock to feed the world.  Many will not realise what has to happen on a farm to produce a premium product, nor the advances that have been happening for a long time to address environmental concerns.

Sheep and beef pasture-based farming systems in New Zealand are among the lowest intensity systems in the world for greenhouse gas emissions.  Our sheep and beef farmers have already reduced their carbon emissions by around 30 percent below 1990 carbon emissions levels, exceeding New Zealand’s current Paris 2030 target (11% below 1990 levels) on the back of productivity and efficiency gains.  We are moving in the right direction.

It’s a beautiful thing when you can say the New Zealand sheep and beef sector is focused on farming within the natural limits of the environment, relying on rainfall, sunshine and providing a habitat for native fauna – with 24 percent of New Zealand’s total native vegetation on sheep and beef farms – whilst potentially contributing to offsetting emissions from the animals.

And have you seen our butchers on the world stage?  Call me biased, but they are rocking it, showcasing one of the oldest professions, yet being from one of the youngest countries – the New Zealand butchery trade is punching above its weight.

So, with the rise of alternative proteins and growing concerns about agriculture’s impact on the environment, what will our industry look like in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?  Will a meat nutritionist be representing cell cultured meat, and/or working closer with plant-based nutritionists to deliver nutritious products that have very little impact on environment, if that’s possible?

There is room for faux meat, plant meat or alternative protein. Call it what you will – this makes sense to feed a growing global population who want more options to meet their needs and desires.

The nutritionist in me couldn’t help notice with the recent hype of the Impossible Burger on the Air New Zealand menu, how this new product stacks up nutritionally.  It has 20 ingredients, so in trendy eating circles, this would not be considered to have a ‘clean label’.  OK, it’s a burger so you may not expect it to be an elixir, but comparing to a burger using New Zealand beef, you may be surprised to learn the Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat, due to the added coconut oil and a lot higher in sodium.  Without the intrinsic ‘meat factor’, your body would have to work harder to absorb the nutrients it contains, but if it’s ‘saving the planet’, would you be cool with that?

On the topic of processed foods, over in Australia, agricultural and food scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have looked at whether changing our diets will reduce environmental impact.  In a nutshell, they highlight the food system is a major source of environmental impact, but assessing the environmental impact is complex due to the diversity of agricultural systems, the huge variances within production systems and range of foods eaten around the world.  Of the limited evidence available, it says that in some cases recommended diets that governments endorse, have a lower environmental impact.

This means our over-consumption of food energy (which is another form of food waste) associated with average diets (i.e. eating more food than our bodies actually need) is likely to be the issue, not a single food.

As our colleagues over in Australia have reiterated, until the evidence base becomes more complete, commentators on sustainable diets should not be quick to assume that a dietary strategy to reduce overall environmental impact can be readily defined or recommended.  This could be achieved by established a shared-knowledge framework to guide future research on this topic.

Read more about How Red Meat Fits in a Week of Meals in a handy new infographic from B+LNZ Inc …


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