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By Catherine McBride – 7 minute read

AS I READ yet another attempt to demonise New Zealand farmers over the tiny meat quota given to them in the recent Free Trade Agreement – equal to roughly 1% of UK total beef consumption – I wonder if the NFU was watching what was happening in Glasgow? The real enemy is not other farmers but the green agenda zealots many of whom appear to have little common sense nor even the ability to check things using the internet.

Does Beef use scarce water supplies?

We could start with a calculator that appeared in at least three articles in the Telegraph – not known as an oracle of the Green movement – that claims it takes 15,400 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef (3,496 litres per 8oz steak). Unless beef has some super absorbent properties, it would be impossible for a kilo of beef to hold more than a kilo of water, also known as a litre of water. So how did the Telegraph come up with 15,400 litres? In the UK most beef cattle are sent to market before they are 30 months old in order to avoid BSE testing of the animal’s spinal column. So, to get to 15,400 litres per kilo in 30 months, a 250kg steer would be drinking over 4,200 litres of water per day. Does that even vaguely sound possible? 

Maybe they were counting the rainwater that is used to grow the feed for the animal, but rain feeds more than just grass and grain. It is responsible for all life on earth including the fungi in the soil, the insects, worms, birds, and other wildlife that also eat the grass and grains and the insects and the worms. And more importantly most of the water that is drunk by an animal, is returned to the soil within about 24 hours and eventually returned to the water table. This isn’t rocket science. Children used to learn this in primary school, but it looks like today’s green agenda zealots were on their School Strike for Climate during that lesson.

When you consider that the average Briton uses 142 litres of water per person a day (without counting the water used to grow either the food they eat or to produce the textiles for their clothing) and lives on average for 81.5 years, thus using about 4.2 million litres during their life just for their urban lifestyles. That is having a shower (13L/min), flushing the toilet (5L/flush), washing your hands (30L/running tap wash), running the dish washer (14L/cycle), the washing machine (50L/cycle), watering the garden, washing the car, etc, etc. This list comes from Water.org.uk and one of the least surprising quotes from the article about their survey on water use perception is:  The misconception is most acute amongst the young with 66% of 18-34-year-olds believing their household uses under 20 litres. This is also the age group most likely to be Green Agenda Zealots demanding an end to the consumption of red meat. 

…and what about the methane?

But the Green Agenda Zealots will also claim red meat is the cause of methane emissions. While it is true that ruminant animals (cattle and sheep) produce methane as they chew grass which leaks into the atmosphere from burps, they are not the only producers of methane. Dairy cattle, rice paddies, wetlands, swamps, bogs, natural gas production, coal mines and landfill sites also produce methane and often in much greater quantities than beef cattle and sheep. Yet not only do we never hear Green Agenda Zealots demanding an end to milk drinking and rice eating, the UK government is also planning to restore the UK’s wetlands and peatlands. In DEFRA’s National Food Strategy, page 229 you will find the Government’s plan to restore 325,000 hectares of peatland and 200,000 hectares of lowland heaths, water bodies, marshes, reed beds and wet grasslands. According to Methane emissions from peat soils: “Rewetting of peatlands suppresses aerobic CO2 and N2O emissions but also leads to increased methane (CH4) emissions.”  But while the UNFCCC is usually uninterested in non-anthropogenic methane emissions (that is those not made by human activities) reinstating a drained peatland is considered to be anthropogenic and must be reported to the UNFCCC.So methane produced by beef cattle and sheep is bad and must be cut, while methane produced from rewetted peat soils and recreated wetlands – is fine and part of DEFRA National food strategy.

…and then there are the forests

Cattle are also being blamed for deforestation. The moment the government announced that it was proposing a ban on deforestation by 2030 at COP26, the BBC website illustrated the story with a photograph of a herd of cattle with the caption ‘trees are often cut down to create grazing land to feed the world’s hunger for meat.’ One would have expected that a photograph of a lorry piled high with logs would have been more appropriate, but no the cattle get it again. There was no mention that many rainforests are cut down to grow soybeans and maise fed to chickens, pigs and dairy cattle living in vast factory farms in Europe. And only a small note towards the end of the article about forests that are cut down in Indonesia and Malaysia to grow palm oil, a substance used to make everything from lipstick to Nutella. But as far as the BBC is concerned it is the ‘world’s hunger for meat’ that is the problem. Not simply the world’s hunger. 

I suspect the BBC’s post only mentioned palm oil because Indonesia has apparently signed the end to deforestation pledge. But the BBC also uses the story to take a dig at Bolsonaro under whose reign deforestation in the Amazon has apparently accelerated. Their website shows a map of south American with the amazon basin outlined and areas with more than 30% tree loss since 2001 coloured pink. Unfortunately for the BBC narrative, the pink area also covers large parts of Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Central America. Maybe this deforestation isn’t just a Bolsonaro problem nor even an exclusively Amazon problem?

…and let’s not forget sheep

I was in a meeting recently with four men in very fine suits who were worried about the Australian practice of ‘mulesing’. More NFU propaganda that has even managed to appear in DEFRA’s National Food Strategy’s table 15.1(page 139) of comparison of ‘food’ standards. 

Mulesing is a process that prevents sheep bred for wool being eaten alive by maggots in Australia: like sheep dipping in the UK, it is done for the animals’ welfare. It is predominately done to merino sheep whose super-fine wool is used to make very fine Savile Row suits. Merinos have dense, fine wool that will collect dung if it is growing too close to their anus, the dung attracts flies and eventually maggots that eat the dung may then eat into the sheep’s flesh. Mulesing prevents wool growing near the anus by scaring the skin around it. Merinos are expected to live between 6 and 11 years – so you can be sure that Australian farmers are not doing anything that would shorten the life of their very valuable sheep. (The practice is dying out due to the introduction of dung beetles that have greatly reduced the number of flies in Australia, rather than from pressure by animal rights activists.)

Sheep bred for meat are fast growing, well-muscled breeds that are not mulesed as they usually have poor wool growth, some are even ‘shedding’ sheep that do not produce wool so adult animals don’t need shearing let alone mulesing.

I found it incredible that the men at the meeting seemed to believe mulesing was a sadistic practice with no real purpose. But were any of them prepared to give up their wool suits? And how did this cloth from apparently ‘abused’ animals make it through the UK’s animal-rights-heavy customs? Why, by being spun into superfine cloth in the woollen mills of Italy, no doubt bathed in the redeeming, sin-absolving light of the European Union so that when the wool is re-exported as cloth to Savile Row it has had any taint of Australia’s apparently ‘cruel’ farming practices removed from it. 

I should also probably note the UK does not make a competing product to Merino wool, even the Spanish, the original homeland of the Merino 200 years ago, can’t touch Australia’s finer product. So, the UK’s National Farmers Union propaganda unit has let wool slip through its net but is trying to use the practice of mulesing wool-producing sheep, as a way of preventing Australian lamb-meat from non-mulesed, possibly wool-less, sheep entering the UK. 

Australian farmers are not the enemy any more than New Zealand’s farmers are. But there is another issue coming out of COP26 that may change food production for all farmers. Farming’s unlikely saviour is the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who wants the world’s financiers to ‘starve’ fossil fuel producers of cash. But would fossil fuel producers really be the people who will starve? 

How about synthetics?

While many bankers wear super fine merino suits, they may not realise how much of their wardrobe is made from synthetic fibres that are a by-product from the oil refinery process. The polyester moisture wicking T-shirts and spandex cycling shorts they wear while riding their very expensive carbon fibre bicycles on the weekend, or their training shoes, or their children’s fleeces, their teenage daughters’ leggings, the outer shell of their down vests, even much of their wife’s Bond Street wardrobe are all made from synthetic fibres. 

In the 1950’s Australia rode on the (Merino’s) sheep’s back, but the rise of synthetic fibres forced many sheep farmers to convert to breeding sheep for meat or to growing cotton. Australia’s shorn sheep numbers have dropped from 180 million in 1991 to 67 million in 2020. Australia’s sheep meat production increased by 30% from 1960 to 2018, while Australian cotton production has risen from 87,000 bales in 1971 to an expected 3.9 million bale crop in 2021/22. 

If the world abandons fossil fuels, while there are possibly enough single use plastic bottles already in garbage piles to make leggings and fleeces until 2030, eventually farmers will move back to natural fibre production. While this is great news for Australian farmers it might not be such great news for the countries that have grown used to buying food from Australia. 

In the 1960’s children in Australia were told to eat their dinner because people were starving in Asia, then Australian farmers started selling food to the starving children of Asia, and undernourishment in developing nations dropped from 35% in 1970 to 13% in 2015. While the number of people living in extreme poverty in East Asia and the pacific and South Asia fell by 87%. Much of the world’s synthetic fibres are produced in Indonesian textile mills and sewn into garments in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, thus giving these Asian nations enough income to buy food from Australian farmers who no longer use their land to produce wool. 

And I haven’t even mentioned how plastic has completely altered the production of medical implements, diagnostic tests, and medicine distribution. All of those covid vaccinations for example, are given using plastic syringes, kept sterile in plastic wrapping and disposed of after use in yellow plastic buckets. 

But to return to farming, are the Green Agenda Zealots really proposing we move back to a time when clothes are expensive because the are made from natural fibres, food is expensive because some farmland has reverted to producing fibres and developing nations no longer have a viable industry producing throw away clothes for teenagers, cycling clothes for MAMILs and trainers worn by literally everyone these days – even with party dresses?

Competition for the UK’s meat farmers will not come from New Zealand, or Australia or even Brazil. The enemy is within, and it is the Green Agenda Zealots.

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Catherine McBride is an economist and a fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy. She has recently written a paper reviewing the National Food Strategy for Global Britain and has previously worked for the IEA and the Legatum Institute.  Catherine has been appointed as a member of the UK Government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission.

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