'Evidence rather than ideology': Shropshire professor defends livestock industry

A Shropshire professor is defending the role of livestock in society, amid global movements towards a plant-based lifestyle.

Professor Michael Lee
Professor Michael Lee

Professor Michael Lee, deputy vice-chancellor at Harper Adams University is backing the Dublin Declaration on the societal role of livestock.

The declaration stresses the need for livestock systems to remain embedded in society and calls on scientists to provide reliable evidence of livestock systems’ nutrition and health benefits, environmental sustainability, and sociocultural and economic values – as well as to provide solutions for necessary improvements.

Professor Lee, is among almost 1,000 scientists from across the globe who have signed up.

The declaration comes at a time when more people than ever are turning towards a plant-based lifestyle, with environmentalists calling on people to put down animal products to fight against climate change.

A study in 2021 revealed meat accounted for nearly 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases from food production, twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods.

According to the Good Food Institute, the sales of plant-based foods grew three times faster than overall food sales in the same year.

The worldwide vegan food market grew from $14.44 billion in 2020 to $15.77 billion the following year and is forecast to continue growing.

Professor Lee said: “What the Dublin Declaration states is that we have to be extremely careful that we don’t, through unintended consequences, undermine the critical role that livestock systems play in supporting global food security.

"What it doesn’t do is say we have got everything right, and that we shouldn’t do things to amend those systems where needed – absolutely, we should!”

A paper co-authored by Professor Lee focuses on the complexities of meat production’s environmental impacts, examining links to climate change, and issues around the simplification of the warming effects of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

Methane has been targeted as a major concern associated with livestock due to its greater warming potential than carbon dioxide.

However, the paper emphasises that while every effort is needed to reduce global methane by 30 per cent, to bring it back into natural production-removal cycles, emphasis also needs to be given to methane removal via atmospheric sinks.

The paper also examines the role of good land and water management strategies in boosting biodiversity, the impact of nutritional assessments at a meal level, and the societal support that livestock systems can provide.

Professor Lee added: “We should not undermine the vital role that meat has globally– and this paper is part of the scientific response to that and one of the ways in which Harper Adams academics from across the university are supporting sustainable agriculture research and education.

“Other peer-reviewed papers in the issue look at things like health indices, ecosystem management and the ethics of meat consumption.

“The Dublin Declaration and the supporting evidence in the papers is rebalancing the debate around the role of meat and livestock products back to a scientific debate via evidence, rather than an ideological one.”

Professor Lee believes that the role meat, and the wider livestock system, play in human society means that academics will need to continue to make the case for its inclusion in human diets globally the same time as improving through lowering emissions and improving welfare.

He added: “The societal role of meat requires us to ask the question – how do we feed 11 billion people equitably, how do we do that while protecting our planet? Humans are part of that planet, part of its natural capital, and part of planet Earth – and we need to live alongside other organisms.

“Livestock production often does have a higher environmental footprint than plant-based foods, but it has benefits such as its increase in nutritional value, in biodiversity and more as highlighted in the paper series.

“The Dublin Declaration isn’t about being anti-vegan, it isn’t about being anti-ecology – it is about being pro-sustainable agriculture to feed a global population and protect our planet and all its inhabitants.”

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