Less and Better? Episode 2: The Cow or the How?

Less and Better? Episode 2: The Cow or the How? 150 150 Farmerama Radio

What do we do about meat? With this urgent question as its starting point, this series seeks to move beyond polarised debate and identify key questions and shared values to help us build a better meat future for all.

In episode 2, co-hosts Katie Revell and Olivia Oldham meet a climate scientist, along with regenerative and organic farmers across the UK, to discuss the complex ways that animal agriculture interacts with our natural environment. From how we measure emissions of greenhouse gases, to what we feed our animals, and which management systems we use, they ask – what is the place of farmers when it comes to less and better meat?

In this episode you heard from Colin and Jill Russell from Ramstane Farm, Flavian Obiero, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, FRS, Andrew and Seonag Barbour from Fincastle Farm, Nikki Yoxall and James Yoxall.

Less and Better? was created thanks to the generous support of The Roddick Foundation and The A Team Foundation. Our series music is made by Alex Bachelor, with artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. The series was researched and produced by Katie Revell and Olivia Oldham, with support from executive producer Jo Barrat. Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Abby Rose, Dora Taylor, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

If you are interested in the ideas and questions raised in the second episode, we’ve linked some further resources below. Enjoy!

1) Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock – FAO

2) Transforming food systems – UNEP

3) Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts

4) Eating less meat ‘like taking 8m cars off road’ – BBC

5) Deforestation linked to agriculture – WRI

6) Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption

7) What climate and environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture practices? an evidence review

8) Can pasture-fed livestock farming practices improve the ecological condition of grassland in Great Britain?

9) Soy in the UK: What are its uses?

10) Grassland soil carbon sequestration: Current understanding, challenges, and solutions

11) Soil carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture in the U.S. state of Vermont

12) Soil carbon sequestration in grazing systems: managing expectations

13) Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points

14) Agriculture’s Contribution to Climate Change and Role in Mitigation Is Distinct From Predominantly Fossil CO2-Emitting Sectors

15) Demonstrating GWP*: a means of reporting warming-equivalent emissions that captures the contrasting impacts of short- and long-lived climate pollutants

16) Soy no more: Breaking away from soy in UK pig and poultry farming

Episode Transcript:

Seonag Barber 0:04
Walking through the fields here, you know it’s just full of full of life. If you were up here in the summer months it’s teeming with swallows flying around all the family has pairs and pairs and pairs of swallows.

Andrew Barber 0:16
Swallows are just an indicator of health in the place. We you see the swallow as a totemic bird.

Katie Revell 0:32
Less and Better episode two the cow or the how?. I’m Katie Revell.

Olivia Oldham 0:39
I’m Olivia Oldham.

Katie Revell 0:44
A lot of the debate around the future of meat centres on its environmental impact. It seems like nearly every day there’s a new headline flagging the harmful effects of meat on the climate are on the ecosystems were part of claims like

Olivia Oldham 0:58
14.5% of emissions are attributable to animal farm animal

Katie Revell 1:02
farming uses 78% of all agricultural land worldwide eating

Olivia Oldham 1:06
less meat is like taking 8 million cars off the road

Katie Revell 1:10
Meat production is directly responsible for nearly 15% of all deforestation, or 36% of all agriculture related deforestation.

Olivia Oldham 1:18
30% of biodiversity loss is linked to livestock production.

Katie Revell 1:24
It sometimes feels like farming, and by extension farmers, especially animal farmers, like they’re being painted as a bit of an environmental bogeyman. And then on the other hand, there are voices like those in the regenerative farming movement, who argue that farming and especially animal farming can be actively good for the environment, that it might even hold the key to combating the climate crisis.

Olivia Oldham 1:48
Meanwhile, climate change and biodiversity loss continue to accelerate. Ecosystems continue to collapse, and farmers around the world. People who make their living from the land bear the brunt of these entangled crises. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? If you value the health of the living world around you, and you’re concerned about the stability of our climate, how might that play into your decision about what it means to eat meat? And whether or not to do it? And if you are going to eat meat, how much and what kind?

Katie Revell 2:27
We’re not going to give you the answers. We don’t think there are any easy or straightforward answers. But we do think they’re important questions, we can all be asking questions that can help us get away from the polarised sometimes angry debate, questions that hopefully can help us move forward.

Olivia Oldham 2:53
Ruminants, like cows and sheep, and that large amounts of methane and their burps, and to a lesser extent their farts. In general, there’s nothing wrong with that. This is just how their digestive systems work. But when it comes to the climate, it’s a bit of a problem. That’s because methane is a really powerful greenhouse gas, its ability to warm the atmosphere is a lot greater than that of some other greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. And it’s this methane outsize warming intensity that lies at the heart of claims about animal agriculture is outsized climate impact.

Katie Revell 3:31
It’s often said that animal farming contributes so dramatically to climate change, that the single best thing an individual can do to help mitigate it is to stop eating meat, and especially red meat. But it’s not necessarily quite that simple. Their warming effect is only one aspect of how different gases like methane and carbon dioxide or co2, affect the atmosphere.

Raymond Pierre Humbert 3:55
If you put a molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will still be affecting the climate substantially 1000 years from now. That’s

Katie Revell 4:02
Raymond Pierre Humbert Halley professor of physics at Oxford University. One of his areas of research is the effects of different greenhouse gases on the climate.

Raymond Pierre Humbert 4:02
If you put a molecule of methane in the atmosphere, after maybe 20 years of a steady amount of emission of that gas, the rate at which it goes away balances the rate at which you’re adding it and so the concentration doesn’t increase anymore. So in that sense, the climate effect of methane is kind of reversible. There’s relatively little harm in delaying action because the gas will go away. Within a decade or so, of your actually taking action. Carbon dioxide is different carbon dioxide is like a poison that accumulates and so that means that if you substitute a certain amount of methane emission reduction for carbon dioxide emission reduction, then you might To get some short term benefit, but that’s at the expense of putting up more co2 that will stay in the atmosphere forever. It’s a very bad trade off. And so estimates of the relative benefits say of reducing agricultural emissions reducing beef consumption, versus say actions that reduce the burning of fossil fuels depend very much on how you compare the methane effects with the carbon dioxide effects.

Olivia Oldham 5:29
Raymond argues that some of the more popular ways of making these comparisons fail to account for the timeframes involved. As a result, they end up misrepresenting the warming effect of methane emissions, especially over longer timeframes. In doing so, they also misrepresent the potential effect of reducing methane emissions. For example, by reducing or completely ending animal agriculture,

Raymond Pierre Humbert 5:55
Net zero does not mean Net Zero cows, you can get a cooling benefit from reducing the size of your herd. But if your objective is to stabilise the climate, and keep it from warming, that does not require you to get rid of all of your sheep, and cows.

Olivia Oldham 6:10
But as he also points out, the

Raymond Pierre Humbert 6:13
The real risk in the food system and in livestock is that if the entire world starts consuming beef, at the rate that Americans do, which is by no means the highest per capita rate, then that alone actually is enough to give you a degree or so of additional warming. And so the big numbers really are in future growth of beef consumption. And a lot of that is going to happen elsewhere in the world, not not in the UK or, or United States.

Katie Revell 6:44
So although delaying action on reducing methane emissions is less risky than delaying action on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, that’s not some kind of get out of jail free card. Eventually, we will still have to take action on methane. That doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all sheep and cows, but it may well mean reducing their overall numbers.

Olivia Oldham 7:10
There’s another reason we might misunderstand or misrepresent the importance of methane emissions, for example, from cows, when we’re trying to understand the climate impact of animal agriculture. And that’s that many analyses are geographically limited. They don’t look beyond the farm gate.

Raymond Pierre Humbert 7:27
If you just draw the boundary at the farm, you tend to concentrate on the methane emission from your cows. If you’re growing chickens, and you draw the boundary just at the forum level or the chicken coop level, then you see a much lower methane emission. However, beyond the boundaries of the farm, there’s the question of where did the feed come from, the food might have been grown someplace that used a lot of fertiliser, which then incurs emissions of co2, carbon dioxide, from the Haber process that makes a lot of fertiliser. But even worse, that feed might have been grown on deforested lands, soybeans in South America, for example. And deforestation to produce agricultural land emits a huge amount of carbon dioxide. And so it’s really very important to look at the whole lifecycle analysis of the impact of the food system, which means a much bigger emphasis in our thinking about sustainability on where the feed comes from, and not just the on farm emissions.

Katie Revell 8:29
So there are two issues that have a major effect on how we perceive the climate impacts of different meats. One, the lifetime of different greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and to where we draw the boundaries in terms of understanding the emissions of any particular system.

Olivia Oldham 8:45
Chickens and pigs emit much less methane than cows and sheep. So their meat is often seen as the more climate friendly option. But if their feed comes from soybeans that were chemically grown on deforested land, there’s a lot of co2 wrapped up in that meat. So when it comes to climate change impacts, maybe the question is, what are we measuring? And how are we measuring it?

Katie Revell 9:15
To be clear, Raymond’s not saying that animal agriculture on the methane it emits doesn’t pose any kind of risk to the climate.

Raymond Pierre Humbert 9:23
Many of the advocates for very aggressive action on methane, pointing to the risk of crossing a tipping point,

Katie Revell 9:29
Tipping points are a way of describing climate thresholds. Passing one of these thresholds could push our climate into a completely different state. And that change would be irreversible on human timescales.

Raymond Pierre Humbert 9:41
It is true that if you aggressively control methane, you do get for a short period, significant drop in temperature. The difficulty is that if you put your money into reducing methane aggressively and don’t act on co2, then you’re in the situation that after a few years As the co2 emissions undo all the benefit that you’ve gotten from reducing the methane, and then if you were worried about the tipping point, you have to worry about the tipping point all over again, a lot of tipping points are more likely to be triggered if it stays warm for a long time. So that’s where we engage the lifetime of methane.

Olivia Oldham 10:21
So maybe we could say it’s a question of priorities. Yes, methane is a really potent greenhouse gas. And yes, animal agriculture is responsible for a lot of methane emissions. Based on what Raymond saying, we probably can’t afford as a planet to be increasing our production of say, beef, which is the direction of travel at the moment.

Katie Revell 10:47
But, methane is relatively short lived. It decays pretty fast. If we drastically reduced animal agriculture, yes, in theory, that would have a cooling effect. But if we didn’t also address the emission of carbon dioxide, which is much, much longer lived, then within a few years, that methane reduction would be kind of moot. The biggest emitters of co2 are things like deforestation, manufacturing, and construction, transport, and electricity and heat generation. And as we record, the UK Government has just approved a new oil and gas field for the North Sea.

Olivia Oldham 11:32
There’s something we haven’t touched on yet. But that’s become increasingly important in the conversation about farming and climate change. And it’s also been highlighted more generally as a potential climate solution, soil carbon sequestration. It’s been recognised in the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, and in the UK is new sustainable farming incentive. In other words, soil carbon has hit the mainstream.

Katie Revell 11:59
But this is a highly contested area. On the one hand, there is a lot of talk in the world of regenerative agriculture, about the potential for certain approaches certain ways of managing grazing animals, for example, to sequester carbon. In other words, to draw carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil where it plays a really important role in improving soil health and fertility. Initiatives like the International 4 per 1000 Project promote this as a key climate change solution, and a crucial way of counterbalancing the emissions caused by animal agriculture.

Olivia Oldham 12:34
Farmers might also benefit financially from sequestering carbon in their soil, as carbon credit schemes and national governments have started paying farmers for this sort of environmental service. On the other hand, though, there are those who have doubts about the True Potential for soil to sequester carbon. Raymond for one isn’t convinced.

Speaker 1 12:57
The fact is that grasslands contain a lot of carbon, that carbon has been stocked over 1000s of years. And so naturally, there’s the idea that, well, if we could do something that increased the rate at which grasslands put new carbon into the soil, that would be great. The problem with a lot of the studies that have argued for managed pasture increasing soil carbon uptake, are based on rather short time periods, maybe five years or so that doesn’t tell you very much about what happens in the long term. So maybe when you first change your management practices in a pasture you have an increased soil uptake for a while, then you have to ask the question, at what point does it stop taking up carbon? One of the problems is that soil carbon is very inhomogeneous. One little patch could be sucking up a lot the patch right next to it could be emitting a lot. And so just the monitoring needed to even determine whether some farmer grazing cattle in some particular means should get a carbon credit or not, is really a horrendously difficult thing. There is a risk that certain kinds of grazing that the disturbance of the soil could actually released carbon that was put down there 100 years ago. And so in some sense, the first order of business is that if you’re going to have grazing, it should be done in a way that doesn’t actually emit the carbon that was already stored. At the very least we can say this is a hard thing to quantify.

Katie Revell 14:36
What Raymond’s saying raises a lot of questions. The potential for grazed pasture to sequester carbon was one of the reasons I started eating meat several years ago. It’s one of the reasons I got interested in regenerative farming. I’m actually now a lot less sure about this than I was 15 years ago. I’ve read and heard about evidence that seems to support what Raymond says and evidence that seems to come contradict it. Because of course, there are also people who argue that there’s plenty of evidence that well managed grazing animals and other practices like planting cover crops and not ploughing or digging the soil, that these can help soils to sequester carbon on a significant scale. If you’re at all engaged with what’s going on in the farming world on especially the regenerative farm world, you’ll know that this is a major Flashpoint. The carbon sequestration question has become hugely contentious.

Olivia Oldham 15:29
Has it also become a bit of a distraction, and maybe for some, quite a convenient distraction? A distraction from some of the far bigger and much less contested levers we have for addressing the climate crisis. Things like reducing fossil fuel emissions. Is the idea of commodifying carbon and paying farmers to sequester it attractive, partly because it promises to get us off the hook for emissions and other areas? And given that there’s so little agreement about the carbon sequestration issue, given that it’s all still so unclear, what would it look like if we set it to one side? What if we focused instead on some of the environmental benefits of well managed grazing that are more easily observed?

It’s very interesting thinking about this in the context of the relative impact of methane and carbon dioxide, because often, the focus on slow carbon sequestration, it comes across to me anyway, sometimes like a defence to the attacks that are often made against animal agriculture. It’s like, well, but we sequester so much carbon that like balances out. And so you know, don’t focus on that. But if we take what Ray is saying, then you don’t need that justification or that defence? Because you can look at it and say, Well, yes, methane is important. Yes, it has warming effects, especially if you’re increasing the number of animals. But maybe it’s not the thing we should be focusing on the most in terms of marshalling our resources to address climate change.

Katie Revell 17:22
And there’s a voice in my head that asks, Is that in itself a bit of a deflection? Like, is there a risk that actually because this is all so tangled and so difficult, that it’s, it’s easy to say, oh, but what about the fossil fuel companies? You know, look at them.

Olivia Oldham 17:37
I definitely like feel like agree with the hesitation like me, then it’s still a greenhouse gas, right? Like, it still doesn’t seem wrong, to try to address it where we can and you know, like it or not, like ruminants are a source of that. So yeah, I don’t want to like throw the baby out with the bathwater about it, but it definitely does seem to lend a lot of perspective. Yeah, it kind of enables farmers to, I guess, focus on like, the benefits that they can perceive, like, improves our soil health, or, you know, it’s beneficial for biodiversity and, and life in the soil. Some, I think, like there’s quite an interesting potential for like reframing and like maybe free farmers from, from the need to like, justify, on all fronts, everything that they do.

Katie Revell 18:37
At the end of the day, it seems like what this all comes down to is a matter of perspective and priorities. If we demonise a single industry, a single practice or a single food as the cause of all of our climate woes, or conversely, if we sanctify it as the solution to them, does that risk obscuring the bigger picture?

Raymond Pierre Humbert 18:57
The idea that becoming vegan is the single most important thing you could do for climate. When you look at the food system and livestock agriculture, through a more accurate lens, it’s definitely not the best single thing you can do. The best single thing you could do probably is to live in a city use public transit, and to have heating through district heating on a heat pump. There’s a danger in over emphasising the role of personal choices on meat consumption, if it’s a hard thing for an individual to do, when shouldn’t devote too much psychic energy into trying to become a vegan, to the detriment of the really big things you can do. Really big things you can do include not just the things that are under your personal control, like what kind of heating system and car you have, where you live, but also political activity. Having a government that will take Net Zero seriously and stop making new oil leases that’s really important. That takes a lot of energy to that kind of activism and if you coming home to a beyond burger instead of instead of a roast chicken makes it harder for you to maintain the psychic energy for political activism that that’s a loss that is a real loss.

Seonag Barber 20:28
So I’ll just trundle on up to the gate and then they’ll follow. They’re so clever, they recognise the red car. Their heads go up as soon as they see the car coming. This is a great bit of ground for them because it’s a good scope, and they’ve got the trees and they love being in amongst the trees at certain times of day.

I’m Seonag Barber, and I farm with my husband Andrew and our family at the Mains of Fincastle.

Andrew Barber 21:09
I’m Andrew. So I’m the other bit of that equation at the Mains of Fincastle.

Seonag Barber 21:14
The Highland cow is a great cow. You can see by the coat, they’re just made to be outdoors. And really they don’t want to be indoors. They wouldn’t do well indoors at all. They would get over hot. And they’re just excellent for the ground. They’re light on their feet, they can munch their way through rough pasture, you know.

Olivia Oldham 21:35
From a climate perspective, we’ve heard the animal farming isn’t necessarily the Boogeyman. It’s sometimes painted as things are much less clear cut than theirs sometimes presented to us as being. But what about that other key environmental issue? Ecosystem health and biodiversity loss?

Katie Revell 21:54
We visited Andrew and Seonag Barber on their organic Hill Farm near Pitlochry in Perthshire. They raised cows and sheep, and they’re part of the growing number of farmers who describe their work is regenerative, meaning they aim to manage the land in a way that enhances rather than degrades the health of ecosystems on the soil.

Andrew Barber 22:15
Right, welcome to Fincastle. That’s the highest point of the land is, is that how that Heather Hill which is about 1500 feet.

Katie Revell 22:23
In recent years, they’ve started planting trees on the farm to create what’s known as wood pasture where animals graze amongst the trees.

Andrew Barber 22:31
So we’re looking down now on to one of the wood pasture. But it’s actually biologically one of the richest bits, this combination of open ground and trees is a very rich one for wildlife. If you’d ask me what I am, I would say I’m a grower, first and foremost. But botanists tell us and I’m sure it’s true is that we’ve simplified our vegetation types in the uplands through too many deer too many sheep, and a move away from the cattle economy which dominated the highlands, that shift has had a big impact in terms of the complexity of our vegetation types. So in a way, what we’re trying to do here with wood pasture, and all the rest of it is recreate that complexity. And we are in ecological terms trying to create a food production system that has a mosaic of habitat types in it changes we made, I suppose, been incremental, we didn’t think of it as being this type of agriculture or that type of agriculture. I’m not even sure we would have used the phrase farming with nature. But it was not farming against nature, we’re very clear, might have used the term ecological. I don’t know.

Olivia Oldham 23:46
Several years ago, Seonag and Andrew stopped routinely treating their animals for intestinal parasites. Instead, they started using a rotational grazing system, where the animals are moved from one piece of land to another throughout the year. This disrupts the lifecycle of the parasites, and makes sure the animals don’t get the parasites in the first place.

Speaker 2 24:08
That was driven initially by animal welfare and disease control considerations. But that has meant that there’s a lot more flowering species grass growth is better.

Katie Revell 24:19
There have been a whole range of knock on effects from this shift that have dramatically improved conditions for biodiversity on the farm and the health of the soil. The thing is, anti parasite treatments might be helpful for dealing with harmful bugs in the guts of animals, but they’re not always very good at discriminating between the good and the bad. When an animal has been given one of these treatments, they eventually excreted onto the field. And once it’s there, it can really harm beneficial insects and other soil life.

Andrew Barber 24:47
If you are sterilising that key part of the soil fertility. What do you the older beasties and bugs eat? If they don’t have cowpats, you lose a suite of insects Then

Seonag Barber 25:00
You go walking through the fields here. Within days of the cowpat, making contact with the ground, it’s riddled with millions of little holes, you know, it’s just full of full of life. Now these little bugs attract the birds.

Andrew Barber 25:15
You go and look for where the cattle and you’ll find swallows hunting hunting there.

Olivia Oldham 25:19
Another change Seonag and Andrew have made is that they’ve stopped using synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, that’s had benefits for the health of the farm ecosystem

Speaker 2 25:29
Production is better year on year. And that is been because I think the soil biology is working. And that’s a belief, I have no evidence for it other than what I see.

Seonag Barber 25:40
Our cows live a very happy life. And very, very rarely in the crate, having anything done to them, allowed to graze in a natural environment and

Andrew Barber 25:52
Sneeze naturally.

Unknown Speaker 25:55
I’m sure it has an effect on how the cows perform

Andrew Barber 25:58
Moving to a less pressured more natural way of managing animals, reducing stress, all these things reduces disease burden. And what’s true for animals it’s true for people.

Katie Revell 26:31
Maybe just tell us who we’re going to visit.

Nikki Yoxall 26:33
Yeah, we’re gonna go and visit the wee mob. So this is our herd of Shetland and Galloway cattle, mostly Shetland, and there’s also Karen, who is a, an Angus native Angus heifer in here as well. So it’s a mix of cows last year’s calves, steers who will be going for beef. And heifers which are first time calfers this year so yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how they allget on. They all know what’s happening they’re all coming up the field, ready to come up and get a fresh bite grass and get their next bail. I am Nikki Yoxall and I guess I wear a few hats. I work for pasture for life as head of research. And but I also do project work in Scotland with farmers. I’m a PhD student looking at agro ecological transitions, particularly nature connectedness. And I also work with my husband James, farming. Running Grampian Graziers.

James Yoxall 27:41
I’m James Yoxall. I am one half of Grampian graziers, and I’m also head of regenerative agriculture at Highlands rewilding.

Katie Revell 27:50
Nikki and James Yoxall are also part of the regenerative farming community. They moved from England to their farm in Aberdeenshire, five years ago,

Nikki Yoxall 27:59
We started farming because we wanted to produce the sort of food that we wanted to eat. And we wanted to produce something that we’d be proud to kind of serve to family and friends. So we got these two heifers, female cows that we brought here, just to help us kind of manage the landscape. And that was it. Yeah, we kind of started with those and then got offered more grazing so bought more cows and ended up then the wee mob became bigger and bigger.

Olivia Oldham 28:24
Nikki and James use their cows, the wee mob to help landowners achieve whatever goals they have for their land. And often those goals are to do with increasing biodiversity.

Nikki Yoxall 28:34
So we use the cattle as an ecological engineering task force if you’d like. Before Christmas, our cattle hadbeen grazing where we know Curlew have nested previously and we’re trying to manage the grazing that’s optimised for Curlew nesting habitat. And so it was really great to be able to tell people you know, the beef that you’re eating has played a part in helping to restore Curlew nesting habitat. I think it reconnects food with place and natural ecosystems. And that’s the thing that’s missing.

Olivia Oldham 29:03
Nikki and James use a farming system referred to as holistic management.

James Yoxall 29:07
holistic management, I guess for me is recognising that we’re always part of something bigger and all of that is interconnected, and has a relationship.

Nikki Yoxall 29:21
We move our cattle almost every day, genuinely our whole process is around animals moving across landscapes, guided by natural processes to create more healthy and functioning ecosystems.

Katie Revell 29:52
This idea of working with natural processes to support thriving ecosystems is also at the heart of the work of Lynchmere community At grazing, or the cow club in West Sussex. The cow Club is a community interest company that grazes a community owned herd of belted Galloway cows on land that’s also community owned. The cowclub provides meat to its members, but its main focus is on conserving a rare lowland Heath ecosystem. Edwin Brooks is one of the club’s directors.

Edwin Brooks 30:24
lowland Heath is a very rare habitat that exists on a low lying, relatively low lying, acidic sand geology. And it exists across a little bit of northern Europe and then this sort of part of the south of England. It’s not got dense tree cover. And it has been kept open since probably the Ice Age, originally by large ruminants and then by the activities of humans. And so it’s always been a managed landscape in the sense that over the years, it’s had different uses for local people. So it’s been a source of fuel, it’s been relief grazing. If it’s completely covered in Woodland, then a lot of these very rare species that have found their niche in this managed environment, they can’t continue to exist. So for example, the silver studded blue butterfly that has its specific corresponding symbiotic ant species, and they require a very specific type of habitat which is like a south facing piece of bare ground on a Heathland, or Dartford. warblers that are, you know, a really where and lovely little bird that’s very hard to find, and has its niche on lowland heath. All sorts of creatures live on the common. So basically, the cows maintain a really varied profile in the undergrowth. They also just keep the bracken down, they keep the gorse back, they eat the young birch regrowth, I think that they’re absolutely key for maintaining this particular environment. It’s constantly a process of observation and adjustment. Because you have to really look at what those cows are doing and what the real effect is of what they’re eating and when, because it’s possible, definitely to overgraze these sites, and that can have a negative effect on the species that you’re looking to conserve.

Olivia Oldham 32:41
So it’s clear that depending on where they are, how they’re managed, and the way they interact with the landscape, grazing animals can have a really beneficial impact on biodiversity, on ecosystem functioning, and on soil health.

Katie Revell 32:57
One criticism of these kinds of extensive approaches, approaches that take up relatively large areas with relatively few animals is that they’re inefficient. The argument goes that more intensive systems, for example, ones where animals are housed year round, or kept in densely populated feedlots, that these systems are a lot more efficient.

Olivia Oldham 33:19
These terms, efficient, inefficient, have come up time and time again in our conversations with farmers and eaters, researchers and activists. But what are we really talking about when we use those words?

Katie Revell 33:37
That really annoys me when words like efficiency are sort of bandied around without any further explanation. I think it’s really unhelpful to assume that a word like that has the same meaning for everyone, or in every context.

Olivia Oldham 33:54
I think there’s an assumption that we mean economic efficiency. But all efficiency means is maximising the production of a desired result, while minimising waste of specified things. But that’s super vague. That doesn’t tell us anything, you know, what is the desired result we’re trying to maximise? Is it as I think a lot of people assume financial, like money and profit? Or is it human and non human thriving? Is it? How many hundreds of 1000s of chickens we’ve produced in the last year? Millions? Or is it about how many different ecosystem functions we’ve been able to support? And on the other side of it, it’s like, well, what are we trying to minimise the waste of? Is it energy? Is it time? Is it land or is it money?

Katie Revell 34:56
I mean, in my mind, It makes sense to define an efficient system as being one that is aligned as closely as possible with the natural systems in air quotes that underpin it. So one of the elements of that, I think, would be thinking about waste. You know, if you look at a functioning natural system, there will be no waste, even things that we might frame as waste within that system, they will have a function.

Olivia Oldham 35:34
Yeah, I think that’s a super good point. I think another thing that that question of waste, like points to is the idea of redundancy, you know, often, pursuing increased efficiency in a system is understood to be synonymous with streamlining it. But if we look at functioning ecosystems, it is that redundancy that makes them resilient. They need that diversity and that redundancy, you know, lots of different species doing basically the same thing, because it makes them stronger.

Katie Revell 36:14
I think that brings us on to another point, which is what’s the timescale we’re talking about? If a system inherently over time, undermines or even destroys the basis for its own existence? You know, if the system destroys the ecosystems that depends on or it heats the climate to the point where farming just isn’t viable anymore? Isn’t it a little bit disingenuous then to call that system efficient?

Olivia Oldham 36:43
It’s about time and it’s about space, right? Where do we draw the boundaries? How do externalities another incredibly annoying word, fit into this? A lot of highly efficient systems produce a huge number of these quote unquote, externalities, which are consequences of that system, they are internal actually.

Katie Revell 37:11
Which brings us on to another big issue when it comes to the environmental impact of meat, animal feed, and in particular soy. In the UK, one of the biggest uses of imported soybean is this feed for chickens. dairy cows aren’t to a lesser extent, pigs.

Olivia Oldham 37:28
As Raymond pointed out earlier, a lot of animal feed like soy is farmed on deforested Land, land, which often has encroached into indigenous territories. Almost all of the UK soy comes from biodiverse regions of South America, like the Amazon. Deforestation not only has serious climate impacts, but it also damages ecosystems and is a major cause of biodiversity loss. Soy for animal feed is almost always grown in large monocultures, typically relying on toxic pesticides which cause further harm to local humans and animals who are exposed to them. If you start to account for these externalities, intensive animal farms start to look a lot less efficient.

Jill Russell 38:15
You can see the girls all the way over there. You can see how the foraging much further than the broilers, they’re much further away from the coops, they just go in and have a bath and have a wander and see what they can see.

That’s Jill Russell. She and her husband Colin raised chickens at Ramstein farm in North Ayrshire.

Colin Russell 38:44
Soy is a really good protein for the monogastric for your chickens and pigs. Generally, what you find is you can’t you can’t find one other single protein source that replaces that.

Jill Russell 38:52
When we originally had an original flock, we just fed actually any feed. Coincidentally, we’re soya free.

Katie Revell 38:58
Joe and Colin didn’t feel comfortable about the link between so best food and deforestation and other parts of the world. So they decided to continue down the soy free path.

Jill Russell 39:08
We tried to make it ourself and in doing that, we went around a lot of feed companies to see if we could make a feed that way soya free, and to be perfectly honest, Colin was kind of laughed out the, laughed out the door at the time because it was a long time ago. But anyway, we managed to find a company that was willing to kind of work with us on it.

Colin Russell 39:29
Chickens need to be fed feed. They’re omnivores, they can’t just live off grass, you know, and that and that does confuse some people when you’re called pastured poultry people think oh, they just eat grasses all day, they can’t unfortunately, they’re omnivores. They need a animal protein you know, because they need B 12. And they love a frog. Yeah, frog shrews. Slugs. They go, ah spring they got absolutely mad for the slugs. So things like having to add fishbone to do that. It’s not a bottom trawled fishmeal, when the fishing boats come in from Aberdeen they process all that for the fish shops, and then all the scraps, the bones and everything, we then use that. So we’re utilising a waste stream, which is you know, about as best you can do when it comes to fish meal. So there’s, there’s more we want to do, there’s more we want improved, we’ve got plans and ideas, these just take time, but looking at other ways and means of getting animal protein, you know, and we’re looking at black soldier fly larvae at the moment. And I think that’s something that we can produce on farm, but we need to try it.

Olivia Oldham 40:33
But thinking more broadly, there’s a problem. If every chicken farm in the UK decided to do what Jill and Colin are doing, if they gave up soy based feed tomorrow, there wouldn’t be nearly enough of those alternative feed ingredients to supply them all. Not only that, but the ingredients that are available, like wheat, peas, barley or maize. They’re usually grown in ways that damage the health of the environment.

Speaker 3 41:02
In the event things are all pretty much grown in monoculture. So the end of the day, there’s there’s no ideal solution right now, you know, we can only do our best.

Katie Revell 41:13
Chickens aren’t the only animals that need to be fed feed. So do pigs.

Flavian Obiero 41:18
Pig farming is pointed out for not being environmentally friendly, because you got the pigs inside. They rely heavily on soy because soy is one of the best raw materials you can get with this amino acid profile. My name is Flavien Obiero. And I’m a tenant farmer based in Hampshire.

Katie Revell 41:36
Flavian recently started a new mixed farm where he’s raising sheep, goats and pigs, and he’s also maintaining a woodland. But Flavian hasn’t always farmed this way. Until recently, he’d mostly worked on commercial pig farms.

Flavian Obiero 41:50
The first time why I decided to take soya out when I worked at the farm in in East Sussex, it cost us nine pound extra a ton to take soya out.

Katie Revell 42:00
On his own farm Flavian plans to start milling his own feed next summer, using grain grown by one of his neighbors and rapeseed meal from elsewhere in the UK. He wants to address the environmental harm that can be associated with raising pigs, a lot of which is linked to using soy based feed.

Flavian Obiero 42:16
Id’ say we’ve got 60 Odd pigs at the moment, it’s easy for me to take soya out at the level we’re at. And not panic too much. Because I don’t have a supermarket chasing me for growth or whatever. But when you’ve got a multi million pound business, if you take soya out and it goes left, you’re losing money anyway. So you tweak something that is tried and tested forever that it works to try something new, it’s a bit too risky. And if it goes wrong, you won’t get paid for it. So that’s why a lot of people are risk averse when it comes to that, but people are trying to change.

Olivia Oldham 42:52
This is a really important point. The reason farmers may not choose to remove soy from their supply chains isn’t because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to. Another reason we might think of more intensive farming systems as less efficient is because they rely on food that in theory is edible by humans. Or maybe more accurately, the land use to grow feed for these animals could instead have been used to grow food directly for people to eat. Given that for every 100 calories fed to a chicken or a pig, only 27 or 16 calories respectively make it onto our plates. It’s easy to see why these systems could be argued to be highly inefficient.

Katie Revell 43:43
Having heard all of that, and having had those conversations, what are some of the questions that we think we could be asking when it comes to the environmental dimension of less and better and of meat? Generally?

Olivia Oldham 43:59
Yeah, so many, so many questions.

Katie Revell 44:04
I mean, I think a very, a very basic one is, you know what kind of meat is actually better from an environmental perspective. If we are going to be eating meat. What kind of meat is best?

Olivia Oldham 44:23
So many people say, ah, well, chicken and pork are better for the environment than then red meat. It seems like it depends to some extent, what they were fed on. And that can be actually super hard to know in detail. But also I guess the bigger point that comes into this is like how much do you buy the arguments that we’ve presented here around methane and soil carbon and all the rest of it? And then how does that affect what, what meat is best?

Katie Revell 44:59
Yeah, Yeah, I think fundamentally, and I don’t think this is necessarily very helpful. And I almost feel like it could be the sort of tagline for the whole series. It depends. It’s complicated. That in itself feels important to me. Because so much of the conversation is so binary. And I understand. Because yeah, it depends is not a very clear kind of instruction. It’s not a great basis from which to make decisions. But yeah, you know, chicken and pork, what kind of chicken and pork produced were by whom? Being fed, what, under what conditions? There’s such a wide spectrum.

Olivia Oldham 45:51
And the same with beef or lamb or anything like that, you know, to some extent, it seems like maybe it’s true that it’s the how not the cow. But at the same time, it feels important to nuance that with other questions like, how does the amount of beef say that I eat, influence how much other people might get to eat on this day, some imagined global meat consumption budget, or you know what trade offs are being made around different land uses to allow me to eat this beef that was regeneratively produced, you know, what are the various different values that we might want to pursue? In making decisions about land use, feel like we should make a montage of ‘I don’t know’s.

Katie Revell 46:54
In the next episode, we’ll be looking at alternative proteins, and asking whether we should really see them as alternative at all. Thanks for listening. You can find a transcript of this episode and links to relevant resources on the farmer on my website.

Olivia Oldham 47:13
If you value what we do at Farmerama, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

Katie Revell 47:19
Less and better, is researched, produced and edited by me, Katie Revell, and me, Olivia Oldham with the support of executive producer Jo Barrett.

Olivia Oldham 47:28
Our series music is by Alex Bachelor, and our artwork is by Jagoda Sadowska. Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Dora Taylor, Annie landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

Katie Revell 47:42
Less and better was made possible thanks to generous funding from the Radek Foundation and the A Team Foundation.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai