Lord Stern's comments on the vritues of a vegetarian diet certainly generated plenty of column inches this week. 'Climate chief: give up meat to save the plant' screamed the front page of The Times on Tuesday a headline even Lord Stern distanced himself from on Radio 4's Today programme, on which he described it as "unfortunate" and admitted that a move to vegetarianism alone would not make a significant difference to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

And however strongly he advocates vegetarianism, the truth is it is not the answer to climate change. All agriculture depends on the land resource and prevailing climate conditions. About 60% of UK farmland is only suitable for grass and would not support a crop directly consumable by humans. Without grazing animals, you could not use this land resource to produce food for the population. The story is repeated globally, so the challenge is to get the best food returns from the available land while minimising water usage and other environmental impacts.

Livestock production makes use of co-products from the manufacture of human plant foods, such as citrus pulp and sugar beet, which could not otherwise contribute to the human food supply. And research has shown that in the UK 1kg of beef requires about 300 litres of water to produce, not the 15,000 litres often quoted.

Research has led to a reduction in the GHG cost of production per kg of product and that work continues. Breeding of animals that produce less methane is improving, as are selection methods as molecular breeding techniques are applied. Improving grass and clover varieties by genetic selection provides a feed for ruminants that has a lower GHG cost of production. Simple things like managing grass height can also help.

In the same edition of the Times, nutritionist Amanda Ursell made a valuable contribution by extolling the nutritional virtues of red meat, which provides high-quality protein.

Taking a balanced approach is the only way we can make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Trumpeting an isolated lifestyle change as the answer is irresponsible and likely to be counterproductive.

Peter Kendall, president, NFU; John Cross, chairman, Eblex; Jonathan Barber, chairman, National Sheep Association; Rees Roberts, chairman, Meat Promotion Wales; Donald Biggar, chairman, Quality Meat Scotland; Christopher Thomas-Everard, chairman, National Beef Association.