The Great Red Meat Debate

On Wednesday the 19th of June, Beef + Lamb, along with the Northern Club, hosted five industry experts and 131 eager listeners to dine and discuss the topic of New Zealand’s red meat industry, and its sustainability moving forward. The panellists were asked a complex question, and each of them looked to address it from their given fields.

Does New Zealand-produced red meat have a role in a healthy and sustainable diet?

While the panellists each presented unique points of view, there seemed to be no silver bullet solution to the ‘problem’. The idea of reducing New Zealand’s illustrious red meat industry seems complicated—mitigating the damage of such a large sector sounds almost impossible. However, conclusions taken from the evening lean towards moderation, one speaker mentioning the idea of a spectrum, saying that as the future is looking increasingly plant-based, moving people along from slight reductions in consumption, towards a full-on vegan diet is a start. While there are those who are advocating the full switch, however, it seems unlikely that generations of New Zealanders who have grown up eating red meat are going to become herbivores en masse. The idea of sustainability, in all senses of the matter (economic, planetary, environmentally, nutritionally, etc.), is something that all sectors of the industry are concerned about, and while we are not perfect, changes are being made across the board.

Read on to hear from each of the speakers.







Facilitated by NZ Herald journalist, and editor-at-large of the Healthy Food Guide, Niki Bezzant, attendees were informed by Dr. Denise Conroy, a senior scientist at Auckland University and consumer behaviourist with the Plant and Food consumer team, Dr. Mike Boland, a principal scientist at Massey University and the Riddet Institute, Dr. Mark Craig, an Auckland-based GP advocating a whole food and plant-based diet, Jeremy Baker, the chief insights officer for Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and Angela Clifford, CEO of Eat New Zealand.

Following a dinner that provided diners with either a meat or vegetarian option, Bezzant started by saying, “You may be interested to know what the split was… 106 people ordered the lamb, and 25 people ordered the quinoa.” While the audience erupted into applause, it became apparent that there was still much to discuss surrounding such a complicated matter for New Zealand’s future. Bezzant continued, “Researchers from Oxford University reported, in a journal called Nature, that the world food system is broken. If we keep producing food the way we are now, by 2050, the environmental impacts of the food system could reach levels that exceed the proposed boundaries for planetary stability. This is science speak for, ‘We are in trouble.’”

“The World Health Organisation recommends a diet that is limited in meat for planetary sustainability. The EAT-Lancet report, a report that looked to define what a healthy and sustainable diet looks like, both for the person and the planet, found that people should be eating around 16g of meat per day.”

While Bezzant said, “Kiwi red meat consumption has been receding for the past ten years, and plant-based consumption has been on the rise,” there still seems to be a problem—is a reduction in consumption enough? Will this lead to sustainable planetary health?

“Research shows that nine out of ten Kiwis still eat red meat regularly, but are we okay if we enjoy a steak on the regular, or are we kidding ourselves, and killing ourselves if we continue our love affair with meat?”

The first speaker was Dr Denise Conroy, a confessed vegetarian for 40 years. Conroy started by saying that the question is immensely challenging to answer. “This is a complex question disguised as a simple question. There is no real simple answer.” As she continued, she looked to unpack each individual part of the question, and address the intricacies of the ‘why’ and ‘what,’ as she put it.

“It’s quite foolish to look just at New Zealand; we also need to consider world trends. Developed countries are seeing a decrease in red meat consumption, and two main groups are driving this; ageing populations, who tend to become more concerned with their health, and Millennial and Gen Y, who are concerned with things like by 2050 we will supposedly see 9.8 billion people on the planet. For this to happen, we need to see an increase of 70 percent in our agricultural systems—something we can’t do with meat.” Conroy also described how important other factors are, like animal welfare, animal ethics, and the environment.

Moving on, she looked at the concept of a ‘healthy diet’. “What does this mean? New Zealand is the third most obese country on the planet—it is clear that a healthy diet hasn’t penetrated our thinking. What about a sustainable diet? Environmental? Economic? Cultural? Social? The idea of a ‘sustainable diet’ is broad and holistic and sustainable means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and sectors.”

In a question posed to Conroy from the audience, she was asked whether she thinks people have a real understanding of the connection between food and the environment. She said, “I think that a lot of people are willfully ignorant—they choose to not think about these things too hard. People are often disconnected from where the food comes from, as well, or where it ends up. It gets overwhelming very fast if people think about it too much.

Conroy concluded by bringing her argument in a circle—there really is no easy answer to such a complex question. “Complex questions require complex solutions, and complex solutions require collaboration.”

Dr Mike Boland was the next speaker, who looked to address the question through a scientific scope. “There are good reasons to eat red meat. It’s an important part of the diet and an important part of the global diet.”

“Red meat is an important source of protein, and proteins are not equal. Plant proteins aren’t as nutritious weight for weight as dairy and meat protein. Meat is also a great source of iron. While there are plant sources of iron, they aren’t as bioavailable—it’s all well and good for these minerals to be available in the food, but if your body can’t absorb it, there is no point having it there.” Boland went on to outline the other nutritional benefits of consuming red meat, including its levels of zinc, vitamin B12, and CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that protects against some cancers. “The only place that you find this in nature is in meat and milk—particularly grass-fed meat and milk.” On top of this, Boland highlighted the importance that red meat sources have for us as humans. “The animals that produce red meats are ruminants. They can eat grass and turn it into stuff that we can eat. We can’t do that.”

“On a nutrition level, meat and milk provide essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make; we can only get them. Plant proteins cannot provide these as well as red meat. Plant proteins also aren’t as digestible as animal proteins. Our stomachs are usually capable of digesting and absorbing 95 percent of ingested animal proteins, for plant proteins, its usually only around 80 percent.”

Boland also expressed the importance of red meat for the global economy. However, for the red meat industry to survive on a worldwide scale, it has to be sustainable. One idea that crops up often concerning the red meat industry is the idea of resource consumption and how inefficient it is thought to be. Boland explained, “Red meat production in New Zealand uses land and water that wouldn’t otherwise be used. Hill country can’t often be cultivated, but the animals can use it. Also, it is using water that often would be otherwise unused, too.” Not hesitating to admit the flaws of the industry, Boland continued, “There is, however, of course, the problem of methane. This needs fixing.” While it seemed that there was no disagreement with Boland’s final remark, there seemed no readily available solution to the methane problem.

Mark Craig was the third speaker, an Auckland-based GP and advocate for a whole food plant-based diet. Craig spoke from experience when he said that he has seen patients reverse their diabetes, or reverse their heart disease and open up their clogged arteries by merely changing their diet. “Nutrition is fundamental to happy living, but it’s hard to tell people to change their behaviour.” Although Craig was aware that he was in a room full of both omnivores and herbivores, he pushed people to understand the nutritional benefits that a whole foods plant-based diet can have. He posed an interesting question, “Once we start putting quantities on red meat, and saying that we need to limit our intake, it begs the question, why don’t we have to do this for fruit and vegetables and legumes? It says something about what is in that food.” Craig believes that there isn’t any nutrition in meat that you can’t find in plant-based food. “The future is moving towards plants. But there is a difference between whole food plant-based and vegan. Vegan doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of the food that you’re eating. So, we say plant-based. We base our diets around plants, fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds.”

“If we go the other way, and we say that everyone has to be fed off what plant-based provisions can provide, will we be okay?” asked Bezzant.

“Absolutely,” answered Craig, “Meat and dairy are super inefficient in terms of using resources. The EAT-Lancet shows that we will eventually have to move towards plant-based anyway, so it’s just about getting people moving down the spectrum. Once people have the knowledge of what they should be eating, people will begin to enjoy the food more.”

The next speaker, Jeremy Baker, represented Beef + Lamb New Zealand. Earlier in the evening, Mark Craig had made an interesting point by acknowledging that Beef + Lamb’s involvement in the event was like walking on eggshells, as financial interest meets science, culture and business. Baker, however, presented a rounded look at the topic question.

“This isn’t about meat versus plant. It’s about balance. In general, the New Zealand red meat story is about sustainability.” Baker agreed with the water usage point Boland had mentioned earlier, saying that the water use of New Zealand’s red meat industry is very sustainable. “Most of the water is taken straight out of the sky—stuff that wouldn’t be taken by anybody else. Usually, it takes around 65 to 115 litres of water for each kilogram of beef produced; and around 40 to 90 litres per kilogram for lamb. For some fruits, it can be about 200 litres per kilogram, and for some, it can be up to 800 litres per kilogram. The bottom line is, it’s not always more efficient to do plant-based. On top of this, water scarcity in New Zealand is not because of the red meat industry.”

“Water quality, is another issue, however. But nitrogen contamination is not a part of it. Sheep and beef farms leak around 15 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, but there are other industries that I won’t name, that can get up to 100 kilograms per hectare. We do, however, need to work on sediment. We are a very erodible country, the baseline sediment loss in this country is very high, but we do need to work on this. Where the work is being done, though, the water clarity is improving.”

Baker also gave a clear outline of the progression of New Zealand’s sheep and beef farming over the years. “Only around 7 percent of sheep and beef farmed land could be used for crops. Between 1990 and now, the land used by the sheep and beef sector has dropped by four million hectares. Two million returned to the conservation estate, one million to forestry, and one million to the dairy sector. Also, since 1990, the sheep and beef sector has reduced methane emissions in absolute and real terms by 30 percent. We have done this by changing the biology of the system by increasing lambing rates and reducing emissions per kilogram. We’ve gone from 54 million sheep to 27 million, but we still have roughly the same amount of production—it’s just four times the value.”

Furthermore, Baker produced statistics that targeted the collateral damage should the sheep and beef sector be minimised. “The average farmer spends around $16,000 on pest and weed control a year. That’s $175 million spent a year on eradicating possums, wilding pines, and wild deer—a significant contribution.”

Baker said that the sheep and beef sector look to be carbon neutral by 2050. “And,” he said, “This is self-driven, not from the government.”

Attempting to address each aspect of sustainability, Baker talked about the importance that the sheep and beef sector has for the community and economic sustainability of New Zealand. “The sheep and beef sector is the backbone of the New Zealand economy. There are around 11,000 commercial farms across the community—90 percent of which are family owned. They support the rural landscape and allow the schools and services to continue operation. ‘Removing’ this sector would remove around 80,000 jobs.”

Baker concluded by saying that he believes the current levels of red meat production are sustainable. “I can’t think of a more sustainable red meat production system than what we have in New Zealand. We’re not perfect, as there is always more that you can do; but in the last 30 years, the journey has been remarkable.”

The final speaker was Angela Clifford, whose family history dates many years back through the sheep and beef sector. Clifford took an unbiased approach to the debate, and instead of leaning towards either side of the discussion, she proposed another option. “Regenerative agriculture is a biological system of farming, where conservation and rehabilitation is the approach. It focusses on top-soil regeneration, which increases biodiversity and improves the water cycle, increasing resilience to climate change. It also strengthens the health and vitality of our soil.”

“We are one of the best pasture growing nations in the world. But, is it perhaps time to give up pasture farming for an alternative? Instead of creating another monoculture, this presents itself as an opportunity to create biodiverse systems. Tree crops, or silvopasture systems—farms that can combine both trees and pasture and enhance both types of land use.”

“While New Zealand only emits 0.1 percent of global carbon emissions, agriculture is New Zealand’s only real chance to address our carbon emissions. Plants alone are not the future of our country, as plant-based proteins would still have to be imported due to the lack of sufficient arable land that we have.”

Concluding, Clifford posed the audience an interesting choice. “We have two options. We can disengage in eating meat, or we can engage differently. If we choose to engage in our meat-eating tendencies, can we do this by eating less meat, but spending more money and time on buying directly from our farmers? Doing this shortens our value chains, and returns more money to our farmers, who can then reinvest into biodiverse systems to capture carbon and contribute to our rural communities, and the kaupapa of our New Zealand food story.”

Where does this industry insight leave us at the end of this discussion? It is clear that although there is a difference of opinions on how to move forward, there is a desire to move forward. As another member of the audience asked towards the end of the debate, “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned balance? And moderation?” It is hard to say where the truth lies in terms of how much change is required, and who is in charge of implementing change, as differing opinions colliding often left the audience unsure. For instance, with Boland and Baker arguing that the red meat industry uses resources efficiently, and Craig arguing that it is an inefficient way to farm, there were often disparities. However, the one thing that people perhaps inadvertently agreed upon was that the future looks different to the present, whether or not it is entirely plant-based, or partly plant-based. Moderation seems to be a logical step forward, regardless of what side of the argument people took. While there were attendees who advocated for an entirely whole foods and vegan diet, it seems unlikely that New Zealand culture will turn entirely off red meat anytime soon. As Conroy and Craig both mentioned, changing people’s behaviour is difficult. However, as global trends indicate, there is a desire to improve and develop both farming practices, and the general information surrounding nutrition and sustainability. Furthermore, a global reduction of red meat consumption has already begun. On a national scale, the New Zealand red meat industry’s sustainability, while good on a comparative global level, still has changes that need making.

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