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Have we hit ‘peak beef’?

Meat production is central to the debate on climate change and ethical food. But how much is too much – for people and the planet?

Peak beef illustration




Illustration: Garry Walton/The Observer

The meat on Richard Vines’s Wild Beef stall at Borough Market in London is purple. Puce, really; a cartoonish shade that old men sometimes go when they are really angry. Meat that is an unexpected hue would typically raise an eyebrow, but for Wild Beef’s devoted customers it’s the reason they come here. “The colour comes from the protein that’s been in the ground, the deep-rooted grasses, it gives that flavour of sweetness and that bit of fat taste as well,” explains Vines, who has 40 acres of wild pasture in Devon, on which he keeps Devon cattle and Welsh Blacks. “Dartmoor is mineral-rich country, God-given for cattle farming. Washed by the Gulf Stream, grass grows most of the year and there’s a lot of freedom for the cattle once they are up on the moor.”

For the carnivore, the chilled cabinet at Wild Beef is the promised land. There are all the familiar cuts (steaks, ribs), alongside parts of the cow you don’t see so often (cheeks and a giant, lolling tongue that is practically black). And, if you get there early and ask nicely, Vines will slip you a bag of bones from under the counter. “One thing that’s changed: people don’t sit down for Sunday lunch any more,” he says. “Just doesn’t happen, we don’t sell many joints. But I’m working out ways of making steaks all the time. Last year we did flat iron steaks; I didn’t know what they were but they sell. And 20 years ago, we used to waste buckets of liver and such like, which nobody wanted. Now the offal all goes before the meat.”

On this Thursday morning in early February, business is brisk – perhaps surprisingly so. There are many reasons why, right now, you might be thinking hard about how much meat you eat. That you believe eating less meat will improve your health. Or that you’ve read the increasingly ominous projections: like those in the Guardian article from December titled “Why eating less meat is the best thing you can do for the planet in 2019”. Another record-breaking Veganuary has ended with 250,000 people taking part globally, one-third more than 2018.

In many ways, our consumption of meat – and especially beef – has become the food issue of our times. By 2050, it’s estimated that the world’s population will be almost 10 billion, a rise of a third from today. Meanwhile, global meat consumption steadily, relentlessly grows at about 3% a year. (Growth in Europe and the US is slowing or even declining: the US reached “peak meat” in 2004 when an average of 83 kilograms was consumed by each person in a year. In the UK, we’re eating more chicken, less lamb, and about the same amount of beef. However, demand in the likes of China and Brazil continues to rise. In China, they now eat 55kg of meat a year, compared to 14kg per head in the early 1970s.)

Chicken might be the world’s most popular meat – 65 billion birds are consumed each year – but beef is by some margin the hardest to defend. Raising livestock is notoriously inefficient: last year an article in the journal Science found that meat and dairy provides just 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein while taking up 83% of farmland. Cattle are responsible for an unholy proportion of agriculture’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The controversial “planetary health diet” published in the Lancet in January – a three-year project compiled by 37 scientists in 16 countries – advised that global consumption of red meat needs to reduce by half. The recommended changes would be particularly severe in Europe and the US: Europeans should eat 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds to meet the guidelines, while Americans should cut back on red meat by 84%.

Vines, 76, has heard all these arguments. “It’s disproportionate,” he says. “How many people are there in the air at any one time? And what’s that doing to the environment? When you offset the fact that animals on the ground have a part to play in nature’s cycle as well.”

Sometimes people suggest to Vines that his land could feed many more people if it was covered in plants not cows. “Would that be more efficient?” he counters, more curious than argumentative. “It wouldn’t in our case because you couldn’t have vegetables on Dartmoor; there are too many rocks and blocks.”

Vines’s sales are pretty consistent, and in fact this January they were up on previous years. As we talk, he gives potted biographies for some his regulars: “the paleo boys”, a German composer, a BBC radio presenter, a chap with tattoos and chains who is vegetarian but buys three or four bags of casserole steak every week for his dog. They are people who care about where their food comes from, who believe they are making an informed, considerate choice and are willing to pay extra for that. Wild Beef describes its meat as “beyond organic”.

“All governments want cheap food and you cannot do what we do at an affordable price for people on low incomes,” Vines acknowledges. “It becomes a lifestyle choice and people who have money to spend on preferential food will shop from us.”

For all the media discussion of Greggs’ new vegan sausage roll and the coverage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z offering free tickets “for life” – well, for 30 years – to their concerts for a fan if they pledge to eat more plant-based meals, change is taking place slowly. Vines’s anecdotal experience of demand is, perhaps surprisingly, backed up by the statistics. Although veganism receives considerable attention, a 2018 study found that only 0.2% of the British population stopped eating meat in the previous year. It’s hard to be exact, but it’s estimated that vegans make up 2% of the population, vegetarians are 7% and flexitarians – those choosing not to eat meat for one or more meals a week – hover around 20%. Still, nine out of 10 British households regularly buy red meat.

Should we be alarmed by the slow progress? Simon Fairlie has spent much of the past three decades thinking about our consumption of meat and asking whether it can ever be ethical and sustainable. He was a co-editor of the Ecologist and now edits a magazine called The Land; he’s also the author of a book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, a thoughtful and rigorous trawl through the evidence. He was a vegetarian for six years and now he runs a microdairy with Jersey cows at Monkton Wyld Court, a commune in Dorset, and makes and sells Austrian scythes.

For Fairlie, it’s inarguable that we should all eat less meat: it’s not a great cornerstone for a diet and it’s harming the planet. But none? He doesn’t think so. Meat is a luxury, he argues, but so too are strawberries or coffee and any number of foods: also, meat can lay claim to being a “luxury staple” in that it provides protein, fat, vitamins and carbohydrate.

“The main problem we face is climate change and over two-thirds of global warming is caused by fossil fuels and industrial processes,” says Fairlie, citing US Environmental Protection Agency figures from 2014. “If the whole world went vegan it wouldn’t stop global warming. To do that, we have to stop using fossil fuels; and when we do we almost certainly won’t be able to produce as much meat as we do now, because of a lack of artificial fertilisers and the need to use land for biofuels, and diets will change accordingly.”

This is a topic that is both intensely tribal and resistant to simplification. In an unexpected recent development, avocados are now almost as vilified as red meat (sample headline from the Daily Mail about the Duchess of Sussex: “Is Meghan’s favourite snack fuelling drought and murder?”). How, the line goes, can having a small portion of pasture-fed beef raised by a local British farmer be worse – practically or morally – than eating an avocado, imported from Mexico, picked by low-paid, immigrant workers on land linked to illegal deforestation?

“Technically, a vegan diet probably is sustainable, but it is not sensible,” says Fairlie. “A diet with modest amounts of dairy, fish and meat requires less land than a completely vegan diet because a substantial proportion of livestock are fed on waste products. We also keep grazing animals for maintaining biodiversity, preventing forest fires, and keeping land clear for amenity use or renewable energy generation. Their populations have to be controlled, and if we are to cull them, we might as well eat them.

“A vegan diet is wasteful because it cannot use this valuable source of protein; whereas a high-meat diet is wasteful because it relies on feeding livestock inefficiently with grain that humans could eat.”

What makes this issue so hard to resolve is that, in Britain, we expect food to be cheap. We spend an average of 8% of household expenditure on food to eat at home. That’s lower than any country except for the US and Singapore (in Nigeria, for example, the figure is close to 60%). It’s also lower than it has ever been: go back 60 years and Britons spent twice as much on food, in relative terms, as we do now. And, much like fast fashion, when you come to expect a price for a product – whether it’s a T-shirt or a 99p burger – it is difficult to turn back the clock.

The most effective way to reduce our meat intake, in Fairlie’s view, is to charge more for it. (This is also the logic behind the sugar tax on soft drinks brought in last April: it is expected to raise £240m for the Treasury, which will be invested in school sports and breakfast clubs.) He would ideally prefer a swingeing tax on fossil fuels, but feels the only pragmatic way is to add VAT directly to meat that is sold in supermarkets, especially animals from industrial farms, though he would like to see small producers and farmers markets exempt.

An unprecedented time has led to some unprecedented proposals. One of these is lab-grown meat. Engineered or “clean” meat has some stigmas to overcome: in a recent survey only a quarter of people found the idea “very” or even “somewhat appealing”. But there’s considerable money behind it: Google co-founder Sergey Brin has backed Dutch-based Mosa Meat, while Tyson, the US food giant, funds Future Meat Technologies. (Tyson is also investing heavily in Beyond Meat, a California-based company best known for its plant-based burgers and new facilities for rearing organic poultry: no one seems sure which horse to back.) Optimistic estimates suggest that lab-grown meat will be in shops and restaurants by 2021.

One person who doubts the immediate impact of engineered meat is Abi Aspen Glencross, a farmer and chef whose PhD at King’s College, London had the grand aim to create “steak without cows”. After a degree in chemical engineering, Glencross, 27, decided she wanted to work in food, and lab-grown meat seemed a “no-brainer”. She secured funding from a big charity in the US and became one of only a handful of researchers globally looking into cultured meat. But after 18 months, Glencross became disillusioned with the project and quit.

“It just felt like an ego trip, thinking you were saving the world,” she says. “I was trying to create a new product and it was going to cost a lot of time, money and resources. Or we could all be more vegetarian. And that’s already there, it’s feasible and socially accepted. So why aren’t we doing that? It kept ringing in my head.

“We might never be able to grow a steak in a lab, we don’t know yet,” she goes on. “That’s a long way off. We can hardly vascularise a small piece of tissue that big” – her fingers are about a centimetre apart – “so a steak is a very far-fetched thing.”

Part of the reason Glencross abandoned her PhD was that she read chef Dan Barber’s 2014 book The Third Plate, which lays down a blueprint for a new food system, where vegetables dominate each dish and meat is merely a sauce or a seasoning. She spent a few months working at Barber’s farm and restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. There, she became interested in heritage and alternative grains and now grows them on a small farm in Hertfordshire. Duchess Grains currently only supplies E5 Bakehouse in east London, but will soon sell more widely. Glencross is also co-founder of a supper club called the Sustainable Food Story. She’s not vegetarian, as it happens, and jokingly calls herself a “bad vegan”.

“At the Sustainable Food Story, we use offcuts, offal, even byproducts of cheese-making in our dinners,” she says. “Last time we did blood pudding, using back fat and blood, and there’s a whole conversation to be had about that. It seems you’re one thing or the other: either you eat meat and you’re proud or you’re vegan. Well, some weeks I eat vegan, and some weeks I don’t.”

It is perhaps a forlorn hope, but Glencross would like to see less focus on the turf war, often vicious, between farmers and vegans, and more information – for people who care about such things and can afford to pay for them – about where food comes from, how it was grown. “Quite often farmers will get attacked when you really want to be attacking factory farming,” she says. “But they’re faceless and you can’t shout at them, so you shout at the farmer killing pigs on his farm. Which is sad. Or, vice versa: people shout at vegans, because they are angry and hairy or whatever it always used to be said. Again, you’re still fighting the wrong people. I feel we should be anti-industrial farming as much as possible.”

A Bureau of Investigative Journalism/Guardian report from 2017 found there were at least 789 megafarms in the UK, many of them owned by foreign multinationals. (A megafarm, by the US definition, houses at least 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle; in the UK, a farm is described as “intensive” if it has at least 40,000 poultry birds or 2,000 pigs grown for meat or 750 breeding sows.) Two of the biggest operators in the UK are the US-owned Cargill, with more than 100 farms, and Moy Park, based in Northern Ireland but backed by a Brazilian company. Another Bureau/Guardian investigation last year discovered that American-style intensive cattle farms, where livestock have restricted or no access to pasture, were becoming more common in the UK. The largest farms fatten up to 6,000 cattle a year on “feedlots”.

Such practices receive only a fraction of the coverage of the Greggs vegan sausage roll. But at the same time, there is something unsettling about meat becoming mainly available to the well off, whether it’s due to the price of “beyond organic” beef or an extra tax. There is much that is disturbing about intensive farming; at the same time it would seem nostalgic and questionable to return to a system where only an elite stratum of society has access to animal protein. Already, lower-income households in Britain spend more on food, as a percentage of their income, than the better off: 14% of their annual spend.

As a concerned individual, it’s not always clear what to do next. Foodies can cut back on their meat intake, and make sure what they do eat is either offcuts or of impeccable provenance. Vegetarians and vegans will likely continue to grow in both numbers and influence, and the sharing of recipes on sites such as Instagram will inspire more people to eat differently. All of us can lobby our politicians for better standards and monitoring of intensive farms. We’re told that the stories of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef are “inflammatory and misleading”, by the US ambassador to Britain, but post-Brexit, there will be new concerns over food safety and animal welfare. And, in the end, we might have to accept that, on a personal level, our efforts feel insubstantial.

“It’s difficult, because if you look at history, the biggest changes in our diet have come through things like war or natural disasters,” says Glencross. “It’s interesting to think: ‘Unless something really big happens, are we drastically going to change?’” She shakes her head and sighs, “Which is slightly worrying.”

Something that both Glencross and Simon Fairlie would like to see is more smallholdings, farmed organically. Fairlie has worked out that we would have to eat half the meat we currently consume to cut emissions, but the production of dairy would remain similar. At present, it is difficult and expensive for a farmer to certify as organic; Fairlie would like to see those methods as the standard, while farms that want to use chemicals on their land pay a premium.

It sounds like a utopia, but for Richard Vines trying to do things the right way has turned into a decent business. He launched Wild Beef in 1993 with very low expectations. He didn’t set out to be a high-end producer: “It was forced on me. I was going down the tubes otherwise.” Vines was 50, his marriage had just broken down, he’d lost his job and was “unemployable”, in his words. “I had a Land Rover, a Yorkshire terrier, 20 cows and 20 acres,” he recalls, as the wind whips through a frigid Borough Market. The owner of the local abattoir predicted that Wild Beef wouldn’t last three weeks. “Well, that was 26 years ago,” chuckles Vines.

Back then the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted to make serious money in farming, you had to operate on the biggest scale possible. Now, Vines believes, there is an alternative, more ethical model. Thanks to farmers’ markets and selling direct to consumers online, a farm can be compact, small-scale and focus on quality rather than quantity. Discerning consumers are out there who care about taste and actively seek out good welfare practices. Vines admits that he relied on luck as much as good judgment when he was starting out, but the modern farmer can choose what kind of operation he or she aspires to run. He smiles and says, “There’ll always be people who want to eat good food.”

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