Red meat: a scapegoat for planetary problems?

Frederic Leroy speaking at RMSC 2019, photo Beef and Lamb NZ Ltd
Frederic Leroy speaking at RMSC 2019. Photo Beef and Lamb NZ Ltd.

Red meat, including venison, is being used as a scapegoat for planetary problems and misinformation needs to be put into perspective with good, scientifically-grounded fact, was the message from a well-received presentation at this year’s Red Meat Sector Conference (RMSC) in Christchurch.

“There is something surreal about food today,” food scientist and bioengineer Professor Frédéric Leroy of Vriije Universiteit in Brussels told the 260 delegates from throughout the sector.

Meat, in particular, has many symbolic layers. “It is presented as a long-time nourishing health food, but at the same time another voice says it is dangerous for you.”

The  danger is that idealogically-driven behaviour change is being forced through by a loud minority, without consideration of the full scientific facts. The narrative, whether for profit, growth or ideological reasons, has been further propagated by the mass media, he argues. This has resulted in urgent calls for changes to dietary guidelines, meat taxes and bans.

The narrative “crossed the line”, for him, when ultra-processed foods like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, were proclaimed as ‘Champions of the Earth’ last year by UN Environment, a global authorative body. .

“But, grand narratives require solid backers,” he noted, pointing to the additional dollars being made off the back of novelty and lifestyle marketing and added-value for the products.

He showed the audience the similarities to the campaign for the synthetic alternative for natural butter, ultra-processed margarine, in the 1950s. Slogans like “It Looks Like, Cooks Like and Tastes Like” butter spread misinformation, from which it took the dairy industry 40 years to recover.

Leroy argued the meat industry is now being used as an easy scapegoat for planetary problems. His presentation walked through many examples where science fact is being abused and overly simplistic messages continue to be spread. He gave the example of one authoratitive body, the World Health Organisation, assigning an 18 percent risk of developing colorectal cancer for people eating 50g of processed meat a day. This was relative risk, but when translated to absolute  – that is, ‘actual’ – risk it is just one percent.

Another problem, he showed, is that global figures are presented simplistically and applied across the board, but that separate regions have varying profiles and so require different solutions.

Another of his slides showed livestock food products – meat and dairy –  actually account for a small proportion of the global average individual’s annual emissions profile – 12 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide CO2 equivalent. Going vegan might reduce it by six percent, vegetarian by four percent and flexitarian by two percent. An individual can make more of an impact moving to an electric car, for example, or cutting back on air travel, he suggested. Pretty much the same order of magnitude is found on a macro level, he has noticed.

“Fossil fuels are the elephant in the room,” he argues.

The sector needs to be wary of the abuse of metrics, slogans and misrepresentations, he said.

“Let’s get some perspective here,” he said, adding humans have been eating meat for 1.6 million years. It  was essential for our ancestors and is still essential nutritionally today.

Drawing attention to an emerging division of the narrative of food between the evolutionary, species-adapted animal and plant-derived diet and symbolism and ideology, highly processed foods like fake meats fall just beyond the symbolism line, he said.

Dietary comparisons need to be done on a fair basis, including consideration of a food’s nutritional contribution to a healthy diet.

“Yes, we are facing a substantial public health crisis and there is a threat to our planet and life on it,” he said, acknowledging the status quo is not acceptable.

“But, we need to work with the best evidence and stop thinking in binary/moral categories, stop blaming farmers/livestock and animal source foods and intregrate them respectfully as part of the solution instead.

“Livestock farmers are not working against nature, they’re working with nature,” he said.

“More importantly, refrain from scapegoating (whether for redemption and/or to divert focus) and start dealing more seriously with the actual priorities.”

Sector committed to climate change

Deer Industry NZ is working alongside the Meat Industry Association (MIA) and Beef + Lamb NZ  as part of the Primary Sector Climate Change Commitment. This recognises climate change is the biggest issue facing the livestock production sector and details its practical five-year climate change response plan, said Meat Industry chairman John Loughlin.

It is also a signal that the sector intends to be more assertive, “in a balanced and sensible way that balances all the realities,” he said.

The New Zealand red meat sector is also uneasily looking forward at uncertain global markets. A range of other RMSC 2019 speakers unpacked Brexit in the UK, US politics, consumer trends and the US-China trade war and the continuing fast-paced changes for retail in China, plus the many domestic policy changes that will impact the sector over the coming year.

You can find out more and, where available, download presentations from RMSC 2019 at www.redmeatsector.co.nz.

This article appeared in the latest edition of Deer Industry News magazine (August/September 2019) is reproduced here with permission. Check out the magazine for more in-depth deer industry specific news, including on-farm fieldays, trials and more.

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