You are here

THE FUTURE OF RED MEAT: SUSTAINABILITY AT THE CORE

Adapted from a feature originally published in the May 2019 issue of Dietitians New Zealand magazine, Smart Bites.

As a significant exporter of premium, nutrient-dense food and employer of 80,000 people around the country, the New Zealand beef and lamb sector plays a central role in our nation’s economic backbone, while nourishing 40 million people around the world.

With growing concerns about the environmental impact of food production, and how the projected world population of 10 billion by 2050 will be fed with a healthy, sustainable diet, what does this mean for the New Zealand beef and lamb sector?  Fiona Windle, Head of Nutrition of Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc takes us closer to the farm to investigate.

The general public are under increasing levels of pressure when it comes to making healthier decisions for themselves and their families – it has never been so complex. Throw in the environment and they’ve got an even greater moral dilemma to navigate through.

With this in mind, a greater understanding of food production systems and the environmental impact they have should be of growing importance to New Zealand health professionals – for the individuals they support, the workplaces they influence and the food supply they demand from.

Given the huge variances of production systems, the diversity of agricultural systems, and range of foods eaten around the world, it is fundamental a local context is applied, as outlined by the EAT Lancet Commission in its report Food, Planet, Health(1).

So, in New Zealand, where 86% of households still enjoy red meat according to recent Colmar Brunton research, what happens beyond the meat cabinet, that backs the industry vision of being global leaders in producing sustainable meat?

New Zealand beef and sheep farmers are well placed in making a difference.  They are connected to the land and animals as caretakers and have to work within the limits and rhythms of nature, all the while enriching their piece of paradise to leave a legacy for the generations of farmers to follow.

So, what are the challenges and how are they being addressed? 

Because environment is at the heart of what New Zealand beef and sheep farmers do, last year Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd released its environmental strategy(2) to provide a direction in how the sector continues to be efficient in producing more with less. 

Let’s talk emissions.  Most of us working in the health sector deal with bodily functions when it comes to determining health status, so when we talk about cows and sheep farts, I wouldn’t expect readers to flinch.  Of course livestock do contribute emissions to the atmosphere, but innovation in livestock management can deliver a significant share of the necessary mitigation effects(3).  This includes regenerative grazing systems, breeding low methane emitting ruminants, the use of a vaccine to reduce ruminant methane emissions, and identifying inhibitors that reduce methane emissions.  There is still work to be done, but many farmers are adapting to these technologies and in turn, are having a net positive impact on the environment.

For the last three decades, the New Zealand beef and sheep sector has been reducing its emissions. Today’s emissions are 30% below the 1990 carbon emissions values, which exceeds New Zealand’s current Paris 2030 target (11% below 1990 levels)(4).  It’s fair to say we are on track towards being a carbon neutral industry by 2050.

Trees also have a positive role to play in removing or sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, which is why researchers from the University of Canterbury’s School of Forestry and AUT quantified the number of trees on beef and sheep farms.  The report(5) found that there was some 2.8 million hectares of native bush on sheep and beef farms. When combined with 180,000 hectares of pine on our sheep and beef farms, not only does this improve biodiversity and soil quality, there is undoubtedly a significant amount of carbon sequestered (removed from the atmosphere), which isn’t currently being attributed to our farmers.  However, we need to get a better understanding of how much carbon is being sequestered, with further research underway.

With the growing interest in plant-based foods, it begs the question should beef and sheep farm land convert to growing crops?  In New Zealand, there is a wide range of land types from rolling and flat pastures at sea level to rugged hill country and mountainous regions. Topography, climate and soil fertility all dictate the most appropriate fit-for-purpose land use.

Most sheep and beef production takes place on land unsuitable for growing crops or vegetables with 10% of hill country farms flat land, 32% rolling and 41% steep. Steep land is only useable for food production through grazing.  This allows sheep and cattle to convert this land to produce high quality food for New Zealanders and the world from plants that could not otherwise be used for human consumption(6,7).

Many farms are diversifying, but within the limits of what is environmentally sustainable to maintain biodiversity.  Initiatives include protecting waterways and existing native bush blocks; conversion of pine blocks into native bush areas; enhancing natural native tree seed dispersal by birds through planting appropriate trees in specific places to encourage bird life; and continuing to eco-source plants suitable to a challenging natural environment.

Soil erosion and sediment can be an issue on hill country properties. Most hill country farms have or are undertaking planting for erosion control and have or can build sediment-debris traps where appropriate. These actions are having a positive impact on the quality of water surrounding the farms.

To keep our sector accountable, the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd Environment Strategy is driving further gains in sustainability, specifically water quality, greenhouse gases, soils and biodiversity through widespread use of Farm Environment Plans, catchment groups, and better evidence and data to drive improvements on farm to validate the sector’s pasture to plate story via a Farm Assurance Programme.

When it comes to choosing or recommending New Zealand grass-fed beef and lamb with its favourable nutrient profile, remember we are privileged to have access to a natural, premium, nutrient-dense protein delivering a lot in a little.  It is demanded from the world over, because it has been produced within the natural limits of the environment.  The industry is future-focussed, with a progressive attitude, striving to continually improve and is dedicated to take New Zealand health professionals on the journey with them.  Watch this space.

NEW ZEALAND BEEF AND SHEEP SECTOR FAST FACTS

  • There are 27.3 million sheep in New Zealand, down 29% in last decade  (50% North Island, 50% South Island)
  • There are 3.6 million beef cattle in New Zealand, down 18% in last decade (70% North Island, 30% South Island)
  • 86% of New Zealand households eat red meat
  • Sheep and beef farms have 2.8 million hectares of native bush including 1.4 million hectares of native forest
  • There are 30% less emissions from the New Zealand sheep and beef sector since 1990, more than the 2030 Paris 11% target
  • The New Zealand beef and sheep industry are committed to being a carbon neutral sector by 2050

References:

  1. Willet, W., Rockstrom, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S. et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy idetes from sustainable food systems. The Lancet 393 (10170), 447-492. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4
  2. Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd. (2018). Environmental Strategy and Implementation Plan 2018-202 https://beeflambnz.com/environment-strategy
  3. The Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium https://www.pggrc.co.nz/
  4. Ministry for the Environment: About New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets http://www.mfe.govt.nz/climate-change/reducing-greenhouse-gas-emissions/New-Zealand%E2%80%99s-post-2020-climate-change-target
  5. Norton, D. A., Buckley, H. L., Case, B. S., & Pannell, J. L. (2019). The New Zealand Beef and Sheep Sector’s Contribution to Biodiversity and Carbon Sequestration. Proceedings, 8(1) 48 https://doi.org/10.3390/proceedings2019008048                        Full report: Norton, D., & Pannell, J. (2018) Desk-top assessment of native vegetation on New Zealand sheep and beef farms. School of Forestry, University of Canterbury and Institute of Applied Ecology, Auckland University of Technology. https://beeflambnz.com/sites/default/files/FINAL%20Norton%20Vegetation%20occurence%20sheep%20beef%20farms.pdf
  6. Morris, S. T. 2013. Sheep and beef cattle production systems. In Dymond JR ed. Ecosystem Services in New Zealand. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand.
  7. MacKay, A. D., Rhodes, A. P., Power, I., Wedderburn, M. E. (2012). Has the eco-efficiency of sheep and beef production changed in the last 20 years? Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association, 74: 11-16.
  8. Compendium of Farm Farms. (2018). Beef + Lamb New Zealand Economic Service. 42nd Edition. ISSN 2230-5777 https://beeflambnz.com/knowledge-hub/PDF/compendium-farm-facts