A few years ago, the president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales wrote a defense of the meat industry after a BBC documentary criticized its environmental impact. “British farmers are not clearing rainforest to make way for beef and lamb production,” she wrote. “British meat does not come from the ashes of the Amazon.”
Many believe this, but unfortunately it is not entirely true. For starters, livestock farming in the UK and Ireland is still linked to rainforests abroad, as chickens, pigs and cows are often fed imported soybeans. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans and much of its crop is grown on deforested land.
Many people may also be surprised to learn that Ireland and the western regions of Britain are home to rainforests: temperate forests sometimes referred to as Celtic or Atlantic rainforests. And like their tropical counterparts, the British and Irish rainforests are threatened by grazing livestock, particularly deer and sheep.
Only a small and fragmented area of the British and Irish rainforest remains. As the Woodland Trust reports, it has “suffered long-term decline from evictions, chronic overgrazing and conversion to other uses”.
i found inside Twitter discussions that people will argue that the treeless state of many of the UK’s national parks is ‘natural’, but that is not the case. If fences are put up and grazing is excluded, trees and vegetation will recover quickly.
To protect nature, we must keep further deforestation to a minimum. However, we must also recover what we have lost. We are used to seeing current tree cutting as deforestation, and we now need to consider activities that prevent forests from regenerating naturally as deforestation as well.
Grazing animals have huge footprints on the land
Most grass-fed cows and sheep in the UK and Ireland are on land that would otherwise be temperate rainforest – arable crops prefer drier conditions. But even if cattle were not grazing in the rainforest zone — and these areas were instead threatened by other crops — cattle would still pose an indirect threat because of their huge land footprint. It takes about 35 times more land to get 100 g of protein from lamb than from peas, beans and other legumes.
Rainforest and cattle grazing therefore compete for space. The UK and Ireland have some of the lowest forest cover in Europe at 13% and 11% respectively, and only a tenth of that is natural rather than planted. By eating less meat and more plants, your diet has a smaller footprint on land, meaning more room for forests and rainforests to return.
Yes, grasslands in the British Isles with little grazing can be important ecosystems for wildflowers and insects, but this is not what most grazing lands look like. Grassland nature reserves managed for wildlife rather than agriculture, such as Martin Down in Hampshire, have trees and shrubs – in spring and summer the air is filled with birdsong and the ground with butterflies and orchids. They are a far cry from the intensively grazed fields and hills that resemble billiard tables and are too much of the grasslands of the UK and Ireland.
Eating meat from well-managed nature reserves is demonstrably good for nature and the climate, but such small quantities are produced from these systems that meat consumption should drop well above current reduction targets.
In addition, most British grass-fed cows still get crops on top of their main grass. They typically have a larger footprint per 100g of arable land than UK legumes, and a vastly larger footprint when you take their grazing land into account.
There is important on-farm biodiversity that should be supported, but this should not be at the expense of preserving and restoring virgin ecosystems – which most (but not all) species prefer.
The United Kingdom and Ireland are among the countries with the most natural depletion in the world. And grazing is the most common land use – the vast majority of grass-fed livestock do no harm to nature.
British and Irish rainforests are increasingly coming to the public’s attention thanks to campaigners such as Guy Bush sole And Eoghan Daltun. People are increasingly aware of the climate impact of meat, but there is still less discussion about the large land footprint and how it harms nature and biodiversity. This will have to change if the world is to fulfill the recent commitments made at the biodiversity-focused COP15 summit to protect and restore nature.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Emma Garnett does not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that could benefit from this article, and has not disclosed relevant affiliations outside of their academic tenure.