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Sheep & cattle: good for the environment

Friday 06 November 2009

Farm livestock has been given a bad press in recent years as being major causes of greenhouse gasses, says our countryside correspondent John Sheard. But new scientific research, and a controversial new book, suggests that raising livestock on traditional pastureland is in fact a boon for the environment

WITH ONLY a couple of months to go, 2009 has not been a good year so far for farmers in the Yorkshire Dales and similar areas of the UK. Because of soil and climate, they are overwhelmingly make their livings by raising livestock – and that has become anathema to the more extreme wings of the global warming lobby.

Without putting too fine a point on it, cattle and sheep produce a great deal of methane, one of the serious “greenhouse” gasses, and the green activists have campaigned all year for a reduction in their numbers.

Found Not Guilty

Just three weeks ago, the environment department Defra suggested that animal grazing in some upland areas should be cut by as much as 70% (See a Week in the country, October 23) which alarmed farming organisations who said it would put thousands of their members out of business.

Then, two weeks ago, the Governments’ adviser on climate change, Lord Stern of Brentford, a prominent economist, suggested that we should all become vegetarians – which must have been music to the ears of Defra Secretary Hilary Benn, himself a prominent veggie, despite the fact that his latest brief is to ensure Britain’s future food security at a time of growing shortages worldwide.

Now just what a London-based economist or a Westminster-based vegetarian understand about farming, and upland farming in particular, I just do not know. But now there is a flood of new scientific evidence which suggests that their views are a load of hot air.

For a start, there is a growing body of American scientists lead by Nathan Myhrvold – described by Microsoft founder Bill Gates as “the smartest guy I know” – who believes that most of our present views on climate change are simply wrong. Carbon dioxide, another greenhouse bogey-gas, they say, is actually good for the planet and encourages greater growth in food crops.

Cows and sheep exhale carbon dioxide as they breathe, as do we humans, but they are being pilloried more for the methane they burp into the atmosphere, a common side effect of all grazing animals: turning grass into nourishment is a long and tough process. But this is where the really good news for livestock farmers comes in.

An English writer and countryside expert called Graham Harvey – who is so sunk in rural affairs that he produces story lines for The Archers, the world’s longest running broadcast series – has written a book called The Carbon Fields which makes an incredibly important and topical point.

his latest brief is to ensure Britain’s future food security at a time of growing shortages worldwide...

Rather than adding to greenhouse gas production, he says, livestock farming actually helps reduce the problem because the millions of miles of grass roots actually seal carbon into the ground. They do so better when the grass itself is cropped hard by grazing – so by grazing cattle and sheep, livestock farmers are actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

There is, however, an important consideration to be taken into account here. One of the main criticisms of modern livestock and poultry production is the amount of grain fed to animals to fatten them up quickly for market.

It can take eight pounds of corn to produce one pound of meat, say the critics, so forget the meat and feed the grain to people. By, so to speak, cutting out the middle man, we can give people more food more cheaply and at the same time cut back on those noxious gasses.

And this is why our Yorkshire Dales farmer and his colleagues in other wild parts of the can afford a smile. In countries like the USA, it is common to feed cattle with expensive grain (along with hormones and other dodgy additives) to produce super-tender steaks for an affluent (and often obese) market.

But that rarely happens here. Yes, our farmers do feed extra supplements, particularly in winter, but the vast bulk of their livestock diet is grass grown on natural pasture or stored at hay or silage: the very grass which is cutting back our carbon emissions.

So who do we believe here? A city-based economist who even took his peerage title from one of the dreariest suburbs in London, or a vegetarian politician who sits for an inner-city seat in Leeds? And to leave aside the dark political issues at stake here, here’s a cheery thought for the weekend: enjoy your egg and bacon, your roast beef or shoulder of Yorkshire Dales lamb. Bon appétit!

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