For farmers, it may be time to think insects, pea milk and lab-grown meat

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a beef farmer’s daughter who no longer eats meat. But far from feeling a smug sense of satisfaction about playing my part to help save the planet, it’s left me wondering about what’s going to become of a sector that’s been a visible part of the fabric of Irish life for so long and is now facing unprecedented disruption.

re all the plant-based solutions being put forward as viable as we may think? And do farmers themselves hold the key to positive change?

One of the things we’re consistently told is that cutting out meat and dairy from our diets is the most straightforward way to reduce our carbon footprint. In fact, if you’re willing to take the plunge and convert to a fully plant-based diet, you can reduce the environmental impact of the food you eat by half.

The evidence supporting this is compelling. A quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production and half of those emissions are linked to meat, according to the science publication Our World in Data.

Once you start looking at the specific foods associated with carbon emissions, beef stands out like a sore thumb. It takes a huge amount of land, energy and water to rear livestock and to grow the crops that feed them. And that’s before we start talking about other gases like nitrous oxide generated from the fertilisers used on the land, not to mention all the burping and farting. Methane gas released by cows belching (and, to a lesser extent, farting) goes into the atmosphere and accounts for a third of the total emissions from agriculture.

This might be the one time we can ever talk about farts with a straight face because the reality is, this is no joke. It’s serious business. The future direction of the planet and the trajectory of agriculture’s role in the food industry is at stake. It might sound dramatic but the beef sector has never been more vulnerable and under more pressure to change, adapt, transform or become obsolete. Some have even gone so far as to discuss beef farming in the same vein as coal mining. When reporting on how carbon intensive beef is, The Economist describes beef as a “bigger outlier among foods than coal is among sources of electricity” because of the proportionate number of greenhouse gases it emits per calorie of food. “Doing without beef from live cattle is hard to imagine, but the same was true of coal 100 years ago.”

So where does this leave an industry that’s now at the coal face of big changes looming as governments around the world grapple to get to net zero? Is there ever a scenario where beef farming can be climate positive?

With so much data sending a strong signal about the negative impact of meat consumption, it sounds like cutting out meat and dairy is the solution, right? Not necessarily. In the book The Future Of Food science writer Matt Reynolds (who is vegan) outlines how alternative ways of producing meat will become an important way of tackling the climate crisis. But he doesn’t see this as a global solution. Reynolds points to OECD numbers which project meat consumption will be up 12pc by 2029. By 2050 the UN predicts the world will be producing more than 450 million tonnes of meat annually (it’s 350 million now).

But if we are to meet this rising global demand can it be done in a way that’s at least more environmentally friendly? Scientists say the key could be in changing the microbes in the gut of cattle so that their burps and farts aren’t so polluting to the atmosphere. A pilot study by AgResearch in New Zealand (led by Irish woman and microbiologist Dr Sinead Leahy) is looking into ways to counteract methane including a vaccine. If successful it could potentially pave the way for consumers to eat meat or dairy that’s guilt free.

Not all farms are equal and they do not have the same environmental impact. An industrial scale farm set on 1,000 acres of land where animals are reared quickly so they can be sold with the highest margin is a different proposition to a small regenerative farm that produces locally and strives to maintain biodiversity through the preservation of hedgerows.

Take Cynnie Fortune Ryan, for instance. She’s a designer-turned-regenerative farmer who’s changing the face of Irish farming with her Instagram posts about the realities of running small farms in Kildare and her native Kerry. “My ethos is, if possible, people should eat less meat but of a higher quality,” says Cynnie, who characterises her farming as “slow beef”. (Her animals are grass-finished and take 24-32 months to rear rather than the tighter time frames on other farms).

“It’s almost like re-wilding,” she tells me. “I don’t have a tractor but I make use of every bit of the farm, fertilising the land with what’s come out of the cattle. It’s about creating a cycle that’s sustainable. It takes longer to produce but it’s nutritionally dense and ecologically sound.”

If you’re going to eat meat, you probably can’t do much better than getting it from a farm like Cynnie’s. But if, like me, the idea of a dead cow now fills you with sadness (or dread about the environment) there are a range of solutions being developed.

Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are pioneering new lab-grown products which have a similar smell, taste and texture to meat (bloodiness included) but they’re actually made from plants. Their prevalence has grown to the point where you’ll now find plant-based burgers on a McDonald’s menu. I’ve tried one and it’s not quite the same as a burger but it’s the next best thing.

In my quest to explore meat alternatives, I’ve even tried insects. Crunchy bags of crickets were being sold in my local Spar in London. They looked revolting (I ate them with my eyes closed) but tasted similar to sour cream and onion crisps.

Although creepy crawlies are not yet frequenting my snack drawer, I’m keeping an open mind about the potential for farmers to harvest them as livestock.

The above solutions are not perfect. Questions are still being asked about the nutritional value and the environmental impact of some of these meat alternatives. But one thing is certain: whether it’s lab grown meat, insect farming or milk made from peas, there’s a huge opportunity for the food industry and for farmers too. Here in Ireland, companies like Glanbia have shown how possible transformation is. They’ve gone from being a dairy co-op to a globally recognised food innovation company.

The future of beef farming is a topic that’s fraught with emotion, particularly in Ireland where the land is an extension of identity and legacy. And besides, some people will always still want to eat meat and dairy. The success of companies like Glanbia shows fulfilling both appetites is possible. And the rise of Impossible Foods is not just happening because consumers care about the planet. It’s big business.

The farming community has an opportunity to become a part of the transition towards more sustainable agriculture and new revenue streams in the food industry.

Vilifying an entire sector is not the way forward. Being open to new ways of doing things (with or without meat) is.

Anne-Marie Tomchak is a journalist and eco-entrepreneur. You can follow her on social media @amtomchak.


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