The way forward for meat and dairy is lower production to a higher quality, says Joanna Blythman

I find myself having some sympathy with the National Farmers' Union of late, watching it defend livestock farming against the Vegetarianism Can Save The Planet brigade.

While there are some impressive animal welfare organisations, such as Compassion in World Farming, with well-reasoned, impeccably researched critiques of intensive livestock production and its environmental impact, many veggie zealots have only the foggiest understanding of farming methods.

Instead they have an ideological objection to rearing or killing animals for human food and jump on any argument welfare, environmental, health to advance their viewpoint. It's news to them that at least half the UK is unsuitable for horticulture. They want to dig up moorland and grow aubergines.

But I also find my patience wearing thin when the NFU defends livestock production in an similarly broad brush way. While it is fatuously simplistic to argue that all meat and dairy production is bad and environmentally destructive, it is equally stupid not to acknowledge that eating less would be better, both for our collective health and the environment.

The obvious way to do this is for us to stop chomping our way through huge volumes of factory-farmed meat and dairy products. We need to restore foods from animals to their proper place, playing second fiddle to vegetables, grains and legumes. We must return to the days when a chicken was a treat and stew was made with modest quantities of meat but heaps of vegetables.

There is a compromise position in this dialogue of the deaf between veggies and farmers. The former need to accept that traditional extensive livestock methods such as the pasture rearing of cattle and sheep and keeping free-range cows and hens have a place in an environmentally sustainable food production system.

For their part, farmers have got to get over their obsession with increased productivity and 'efficiency'. Unless the NFU wants to align members with climate change-deniers, it must start talking about jumping off the treadmill of factory farming and encourage farmers to focus on producing smaller amounts of higher-quality meat and dairy food. Traditional farming methods, with their inbuilt natural constraints, represent the only ecological livestock farming model for the future.

Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.

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