Friesians dairy cows

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If UK meat-eaters reduced their meat intake, it would be like taking eight million cars off the road. That’s according to researchers behind the latest Oxford University study on meat consumption.

The study, the first to pinpoint the impact of ‘high’ and ‘low’ meat diets on greenhouse gas emissions, allegedly gives the most reliable calculation yet on the impact of what we eat our planet.  

But you shouldn’t believe everything you read. For a study of such significance, there are some seriously misleading conclusions being drawn here.

First up, methodology. The research looks solely at carbon emissions from livestock production. It doesn’t take into account the carbon sinking activities of grazing animals, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes provides the most accurate estimate of the warming potential of methane. If this was taken into account, we would have a different picture. 

The study is also reliant on food frequency questionnaires from 1999, which are a notoriously unreliable method of information collation. Can anyone actually remember what they had for dinner 12 months ago?

Secondly, it uses global figures. Britain has some of the most sustainable methods of meat production in the world, yet the study calculated the UK’s meat emissions using data from more than 38,000 farms in 119 countries. Given that the carbon footprint of a kilo of British beef is 17.12kg CO2e (compared to a global average of 46kg CO2e), how can these figures give an accurate reflection of the impact of eating meat in the UK?

Thirdly, methane is not CO2. While burning fossil fuels is a relatively new process that unlocks tonnes of ancient carbon into the atmosphere, animal emissions are centred around methane, which is part of a natural carbon cycle – one that has existed for millions of years. And methane in the atmosphere is short-lived – around 12 years compared to up to 1,000 years for CO2. Comparing the two is like chalk and cheese. 

Plus, methane may not have quite the same warming effect as previously thought. New research has found no additional warming is made in animal herds if the size of the herd stays the same. In the UK, the amount of cattle has fallen dramatically from 15.2 million in 1974 to 9.6 million in 2023. Perhaps this is part of the reason why UK methane emissions actually fell 62% between 1990 and 2020? None of this context is accounted for in the Oxford study. 

And what about nutrition? The reality is, a swap from animal to plant-based alternatives could leave people bereft of crucial nutrients including K2, D3, B12 and heme iron. Studies like this are missing the human context. 

Why is the advice never to drop ultra-processed foods? UPFs already account for one-third of all diet-related emissions of adults in high-income countries. We know they drive overconsumption and lead to obesity, furthering indirect emissions through hospital care and pharmaceuticals. So why isn’t the study calling out the emissions of UPFs, instead of recommending ultra-processed, nutrient-weak meat alternatives? It feels like we’re missing a bigger issue here.

Everyone has a personal right to choose what to eat. A nutritionally dense diet, rich in sustainably produced pasture-raised British meat, is my choice. Others may choose plant-based. But it’s not the right dietary move for everyone, or for the planet.