OPINION: We need to sustainably feed a growing world population with nutritious food and there’s growing – and justified – public concern about how food is produced. We’re acutely aware that the way food is produced has implications for our health and the health of the planet.
All food production has an environmental impact, and this is a complex issue. It isn’t about simple either/or approaches to foods – it’s about finding a balance, where a range of foods from both plant and animal origin complement each other to bring about the best health and sustainability outcomes.
We’ve all heard the sound bites about the carbon footprints of various foods, or how much water goes into food production. These provide useful food for thought, but they’re basic or narrow measures of sustainability.
The emerging holistic approach is to factor in nutrient quality, or how efficiently we get what our bodies need out of our food, rather than simply comparing on a kilogram or calorie basis.
* A fake meat future? Yeah right
* Climate Explained: How climate change will affect food production and security
* Expert panel calls for tax on red meat to help save the planet
* Drastic reduction in red meat intake at odds with health guidelines, nutritionist warns
The concept of sustainable nutrition has been evolving over the past couple of decades and has recently been highlighted by the likes of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s definition of a sustainable diet includes concepts such as food and nutrition security, in addition to low environmental impacts.
The science continues to evolve but existing comparisons rely heavily on overseas farming practices not commonplace in New Zealand. Our natural, low-impact farming methods, where sheep and beef are free-range and pasture-fed, are different to the intensive high-impact systems (grain-fed or feedlot, where stock are raised in close confinement) used around the world.
In fact, while we recognise there’s still work to do, New Zealand farms serve as a model for how to sustainably produce nutritious beef and lamb.
The carbon footprint of New Zealand’s sheep and beef production is one-quarter of the global average, and our water footprint is a fraction of grain-fed meat production globally.
Our sector has reduced its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent since 1990 – no other industry has achieved such a significant reduction. Our goal is for the New Zealand sheep and beef sector to be net carbon neutral by 2050, and we’re already a long way towards achieving this. A recent AUT study estimates the extensive woody vegetation on New Zealand sheep and beef farms is offsetting between 63 and 118 per cent of the on-farm agricultural emissions.
And we’re working on further improvements – since 2003, the pastoral sector has invested around $80 million towards ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including low-methane-producing sheep and improvements in feed, nutrition and pasture management.
We understand that consumers, locally and internationally, need to see ongoing progress. Ultimately every New Zealand beef and sheep farm will have a tailored environmental plan that can feed into assurance programmes that also provide trusted traceability, food safety and animal welfare information.
You can already feel good about eating locally raised beef and lamb. It stacks up well against existing sustainability measures, but when you factor in its nutrition credentials, you’ll really feel better.
Lean red meat is a nutrient-dense and bioavailable source of a range of essential nutrients required for us all. In other words, you get a concentrated amount of quality nutrients that play a role in immunity and energy levels, among other benefits, in every serve you eat. These are important factors to consider when nourishing you and your family.
According to WHO, an estimated two billion people have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, referred to as ‘hidden hunger’. The most common deficiency is iron, estimated to affect a quarter of the global population. In New Zealand, eight out of 10 toddlers and over a third of teenage women don’t meet their daily iron requirements, with one in 14 women being low in iron in New Zealand – and beef and lamb can play a crucial role.
Animal-sourced foods are the best sources of iron because the amount of haem iron from animal foods your body absorbs (bioavailability) is greater than non-haem iron from plant sources.
New Zealand scientists are currently undertaking groundbreaking research to compare pasture- raised beef and lamb against grain-finished meat and plant-based alternatives – exploring the nutritional makeup and how our bodies respond, but also psychological elements.
This research is important because most global research on the nutritional, environmental and health impacts of producing and consuming red meat have been based on grain-finished cattle. New Zealand’s farming style is different, but so too is the meat.
We know price, taste and convenience are key determinants around food choice for New Zealanders, but consumers need to understand these important differences and be better connected to the story of food production.
If you want to know more about how your food is produced, go direct to the source. Talk to a sheep or beef farmer, visit a farm and find out more. Open Farms, which will be staged for the second time on March 21, is a great initiative, and research shows people who visit a farm report changes to the way they think and feel about agriculture and their own actions in the food system.
– Jeremy Baker is Chief Insight Officer at Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd.
– Fiona Windle is Head of Nutrition, Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc.