Why we should be cautious about some red meat consumption research

// Climate Change

There has been a lot of media coverage lately on the health and environmental benefits of reducing red meat consumption, but the research referred to in these stories may not always apply to how we farm in New Zealand.

red meat being served

NZ Herald and 1News (28mins) ran stories last week saying “eating less red meat is good for your health, wallet and the planet” and how eating less meat is the equivalent of “taking eight million cars in the UK off road,” based on an Oxford University report.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) CEO Sam McIvor says there are several reasons to be sceptical about the research used in stories like this, but a significant detail to consider relates to the way we farm in New Zealand.

“How we farm in New Zealand is unique, and global data may not always be relevant,” he says.

The statistics in the Oxford University research referred to in the 1News story are underpinned by the 2019 Nemeck and Poore study. This uses global averages for foods and has beef at around 50-60kg CO2-e/kg carcass weight for on farm emissions, and nearly 100 CO2-e/kg carcass weight to market including land-use change.

Meanwhile, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study by AgResearch funded by B+LNZ shows New Zealand beef to be around 24kg CO2-e/kg carcass weight, even after it has been exported to market, bought by a consumer and the packaging sent to landfill or recycled.    

“This is a significant difference and has the potential to skew the entire Oxford research as a result,” says McIvor.

The AgResearch study found the carbon footprint of New Zealand beef and lamb to be among the lowest in the world because our natural, low-impact farming practices are in stark contrast to some intensive high-impact systems overseas.

McIvor says it is also important to use the right metric when measuring the impact of farming.

“The Oxford study uses GWP100, which isn’t as accurate if methane is stable or reducing as it has been in New Zealand. It’s therefore not accurate when comparing emissions from different foods.” 

B+LNZ has been advocating for a more appropriate metric to be used to understand and compare environmental footprints.

“GWP* scales emissions over time, and better accounts for the different warming behaviours of short-lived gases like methane than the widely used GWP100 metric. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed GWP100 overstates the impact of methane when emissions are not increasing, as is the case in New Zealand,” he says.

The AgResearch study showed, when using GWP* and considering trees and other vegetation on farms absorbing emissions, that New Zealand’s sheepmeat is arguably climate neutral and New Zealand beef was half its GWP100 result and well on the way towards being climate neutral. 

“The Oxford University report also neglects the nutritional attributes of red meat, which significantly changes the amount of CO2 produced per nutrient compared to other foods,” he says. 

McIvor says we must also consider the co-product benefits of livestock agriculture including wool, offal, bone, and manure, which all have uses and markets, and more importantly, the importance of red meat as part of a healthy diet.

“Red meat provides important nutrients. It can also be described as nature’s power pack,” he says.

“It’s the best way for Kiwis to get the high-quality protein with all essential amino acids along with iron, zinc and B vitamins.”

New Zealand farmers have made significant progress in improving the sector’s carbon footprint through world-leading animal husbandry, planting and retaining trees and other woody vegetation on-farm to absorb greenhouse gas emissions and pioneering the use of low-methane animals.

“This has resulted in absolute greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand sheep and beef production reducing by 30 percent since 1990,” he says.

“We know there is still room for improvement, and we are confident that our farmers will continue to make progress as we continually explore new farming practices, research, and emerging technologies.”