British lamb: food or foe?

Cute woolly baa lambs, or evil methane machines, opinions vary as to the desirability of farming or eating lamb. We hear constant conflicting statistics about climate change and its causes, and while we nearly all agree it is at crisis point and needs addressing, after that we get a bit confused.   Obviously, we’ve mainly stopped using spray deodorant (except the vibrant teenage boy market), and feel a bit more guilty about our cars, or the decline of bees, but is it correct that we should stop eating red meat so much?  As someone who is passionate about wool as a fibre, I wanted to see if I could make sense of the information around this topic.

Official reports[1] tell us that the sheep sector is a major contributor to the UK economy, with over 33m sheep a year producing over 300k tonnes of mutton and lamb.  So quite a lot then.  The overall value of this meat in 2015 was £2,216m, of which we consumed about 64% and exported the rest.  At the moment, we are the largest producers in Europe, although obviously we will have to surrender that title shortly, ahem.  But although we export a lot, we actually import more than that, due to the seasonal demands of shoppers.  As in, we’re used to eating it at Easter, but its only in season towards Autumn, so we have to ship it from the Antipodes, with a silly carbon footprint. Duh. The production of sheep and wool also contributes £291.4m to the economy, with nearly 150,000 jobs in all the allied industries, so quite a significant chunk of our national goings on. 

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But what is the effect on the environment of all this farming and methane?  It is staggeringly easy to hear figures on global carbon emissions, and apply them to our own country’s situation with hardly any effort to think it over.  I was amazed to find how much I had misunderstood, before I started reading more deeply.  If you’d asked me, I would have largely agreed that less meat or dairy farming would have a massive impact on reducing global emissions, and tucked in to my falafel burger looking smug and lefty.  Me, not it.  But slow down a minute, the world is a huge place and the situations and solutions vary enormously. 

Glib commentators might tell us that globally some 25% of producers cause 65% of emissions from cattle farming, so we should focus on stopping them first.  But it turns out those 25% mainly live in Sub-Saharan Africa, with poor soils and low rainfall, dreadful for arable crops, and in danger of starvation.  Their herds make more methane because they are eating poor herbage[2].  And let’s face it, that is probably their only carbon emissions anyway, as their use of cars, aeroplanes or central heating is weirdly low.  Whereas in Northern Europe, especially in the UK, the climate is ideal for growing grass, and our beef and lamb farming are really productive, which therefore has a much smaller carbon footprint per animal.  On the other hand, our use of fossil fuels is astronomical compared to those poor herders, so we might want to remove the log from our own eye first.

Even so, we should still do our bit and switch to a more plant-based diet, right? Erm, not really.  What about the massive amounts of nitrogen fertiliser (production of which has very high emissions) and pesticides used in crop production, or the decline in pollinating insects, caused by intensive farming methods?  Then there is the increasing issue of soil degradation, which isn’t a problem you find in grasslands used for grazing.  Continuous crop production is not sustainable, rotate ye never so carefully.  The soil doesn’t recover for generations.  There is a recognised need for grass breaks, times of grazing not farming, to control weeds, which have become resistant to herbicides from so many years of arable rotations.  Plants in grasslands, like clover for instance, allow nitrogen to build up in the soil again, far more than bean products or high rates of fertiliser, and allow the crops to grow better another year.

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In addition, we should remember the amount of rabbits, hares, deer, moles, and birds, killed each year to protect crops.  And the hedgerows which have been removed steadily for decades to facilitate intensive crop farming, which has led to declining numbers of hedgehogs and other mammals.  Not forgetting as well that our infatuation with vegetable fats instead of butter has seen huge production of palm oil, which has destroyed the habitat for orangutans, pygmy elephants, and others in South-East Asia[3].

With grazing animals though, it is a different story.  They are part of a complex ecosystem, held in a delicate balance.  The RSPB for instance lets cattle graze on its reserves, and has even commented that undergrazing leads to problems like the spread of bracken and other rank grasses. Grasslands purify drinking water really well, and provide food for pollinating insects.  And the land stores huge amounts of carbon, which if dug for crops would be released into the atmosphere.  Furthermore, a significant proportion of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass, so we couldn’t use it for crops anyway[4].  Think pretty rocky hillsides dotted with sheep.  Ploughing up there? Not a hope.

But yes, the sheep and cows are definitely producing greenhouse gases, as all that grass munching has its inevitable outcome.  So that’s bad.  But actually, its not very bad, because they are producing recycled carbon not fossil carbon.  The plants take in carbon dioxide from the air in photosynthesis, the sheep eat it and release methane back out.  Methane which breaks down in about ten years anyway.  Whereas fossil fuels are releasing new carbon which was previously held in the earth for millions of years, and they are producing a much larger amount than Shaun and his friends can ever dream of.  So, it is in fact far more important to argue for local food systems, stopping the big supermarkets having central warehouses and driving food around in lorries, and to eat British food not imports.  Don’t blame the baa lambs, stop driving to Tesco’s.

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So, let’s talk about wool.  The gorgeous by-product of all this valuable eco-friendly grazing.  Wool is increasingly seen as a brilliant sustainable choice, for both fashion or homewares, for many reasons.  Firstly, part of that carbon the sheep are taking in from plants (and therefore removing from the atmosphere) is converted into wool, and in fact almost 50% of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon[5].  So wool is actually storing carbon.  Secondly, wool products have longer lifespans than many other textile products, and thirdly they are washed at lower temperatures which is better for the environment.  Added to this, wool is one of the most recycled fibres, and at the end of its lifespan it biodegrades really easily and returns to the soil.  It is also fairly obviously renewable, as the sheep grow more each year.  Amazing.

Polyester, Acrylic, and Nylon, however, currently make up about 60% of all textile fibres, and they are all oil-based synthetics.  As in, derived from the fossilised oil reserves which have acted as the earth’s carbon stores for millennia.  And they are the ones shedding microplastics, which escape in the washing machine and end up in the rivers and oceans being eaten by the sharp end of the food chain.  They don’t remotely biodegrade, although they can be recycled to make more fabrics to shed into the oceans, so that’s nice.  And they help overseas economies exploit more poor people in sweatshops, rather than supporting our own well-regulated industries.  Just saying.

Plankton eating microfibres.jpg

Anyway, the upshot is that if you were popping on your polyester fleece to drive to Tesco’s to buy imported food (and I do it myself), you can now feel guilty twice. We should be wearing woolly jumpers and walking to the independent butcher.  We should be eating flavoursome local meat only when it’s in season, real butter on organic bread, and going camping in Cornwall not flying abroad.  Ideally, growing our own vegetables and keeping a goat called Geraldine.  If we are genuinely bothered about doing our bit for climate change that is.  If not, we can carry on bleating about not eating lamb.


[1] The Value of the Sheep Industry, a report by the Rural Business School, Duchy College, for the NFU.  Feb 2018.

[2] Sustainable Farming Needs Livestock, by Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. June 2018.

[3] Sustainable Farming Needs Livestock, by Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. June 2018.

[4] Livestock and Climate Change: The Facts, by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, 2018.

[5] International Wool Textile Organisation, ‘Sustainability’.