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 (Press statement – No embargo)

June 23rd 2009



This overlong press release is adapted from notes sent to the Treasury and Defra.  Sir Paul McCartney recently suggested that everyone should give up eating meat on a Monday to save the planet from global warming.  Some people appear to have the same misunderstanding as Sir Paul about the methane exhaled by cattle grazing in the UK.  The information below is offered on the assumption that some items may be of background use and if and when the issue crops up again. 

The chairman of the NBA, Christopher Thomas-Everard has sent this data to Defra and the Treasury because some in both of these bodies perceive disadvantages of maintaining grazing cattle in the grasslands of the UK.


Hungry mouths.

The pressures on global food supply in the future should alarm consumers, retailers and the Government and governments generally.  With six million additional people in the world every month, a declining area for production and China and India raising their standard of living, globally agriculture will need to produce 50% more food by 2030.  The population of 6,783,421,727 at the end of May ’09 is increasing by 9,200 every hour (220,980 a day,) and will be 7 billion by February 2012,  7.5 billion by 2015,  8 billion by 2025 and 9 billion by 2040. With improved medical knowledge and food the latter three figures may be under-estimates.  The UK population is projected by the Office for National Statistics to increase from 60.6 million in 2006, to 65 million in 2016 and 70 million in 2028.


UK has mostly grassland and moorland.

The UK has only 25% of its 17.4 million ha of agricultural land as arable and 75% is grassland (7.2 m ha) and moorland and rough grazing (5.9 m ha), (with 9.34 m ha of farm-land in England).  The grass and moor can almost only be used for grazing by ruminants.  A few grasses can be eaten and are quoted at  In countries suffering starvation (Ireland in the famine, Korea in the Korean War and some Afghans in 2008) people have attempted to fill their bellies with grass but without any nutritious benefit.  There are two main problems with a grass diet.  The first is that human stomachs find it impossible to digest raw leaves and grasses because the cell walls are made of cellulose which is an extremely tough fibre that can almost only be broken down by microbes and by the enzyme cellulase after rumination.  Ruminants have a very specialised digestive system with four chambers to aid in the digestion of grass.

Aside from the digestion issues, a second problem with grass as a food source is mastication.  Grass contains a lot of silica, an abrasive which quickly wears down teeth.  Grazing animals have 24 molar teeth that are adapted to continually grow, replacing the worn tooth surfaces.  Ruminant cattle break down cellulose by cudding.  By decreasing particle size, the cellulose surface area can be increased by up to 106-fold before digestion begins.



Food through cattle and sheep. 

Cows and other ruminants house a complex mass of bacteria, protoza, fungi and archaea in the main chamber of their stomach which produce the cellulase to turn the cellulose into carbohydrates for energy and organic acids.  The grass or in particular the cellulose of which it is made up is basically a polymer of glucose.  Ruminants and other herbivores utilise a mutualistic form of symbiosis, using microbes to break down cellulose into digestible food.[i][1]


Les Rosebifs.

The British are widely recognised as beef eaters because they have been dependent for centuries on cattle turning rank vegetation into their principal food.  (Lambs were kept for wool).  


The British were famous in Roman times for the quality and quantity of their cattle and Britons have been eating beef since about 500,000 BC.  Very large wild white Urus cattle (skull found at Cottenham Fen) of the Palaeolithic (old stone age) and Neolithic times (new stone age) (9,000 BC) were followed by the Bos primogenius (skulls found at Bath and Tiverton, which became the wild White Park cattle of Chillingham etc) and the smaller domesticated Bos longifrons (Celtic short-horn) which became the modern British and Irish breeds of cattle (Galloway and Dexter being the most similar).  These cows provided milk and the bullocks were slaughtered for meat.  From the archaeological remains of bones found at Danebury Hill Fort (550 BC to 100 AD), it has been estimated that two-thirds of the meat eaten by Iron Age Britons was beef.  (The rest was 20% mutton and 10% pork).


Shortages ahead.

The UK has dropped from being 109% self-sufficient (exporting cow beef) in 1995 to only 80% in 2008, while consumption has risen by 150,000 tonnes to 1.1 m tonnes.  From 1990 to 2007 UK slaughter numbers for steers dropped 28% and 23% for heifers.  This is reflected by the drop in the national English breeding herd of 27% over the same period (to only 750,000 cows). 


Uncertain availability of imports.

We now have to import 300,000 tonnes of beef a year.  Overall EU production is expected to fall by a further 45,000 tonnes over 2009.  At a global level five countries (Brazil, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina) whose production surpluses account for the world’s export sales, reduced the collective tonnage they traded by seven per cent in 2008 and are projected to trade two per cent less over 2009.  Argentina used to be a main supplier but since riots over food shortages and high prices their Government has caused exports to reduce, farmers have reacted by cutting back, and the Argentine is forecast to become a net beef importer.  Their breeding cow numbers fell by 2.7 million head (five per cent) over 2008.  More alarmingly, from the Argentine perspective, production cannot be maintained if cows account for more than 43 per cent of slaughterings. Cow disposals have accounted for more than 50 per cent of beef throughput over 2007 and 2008.


Drop in home supplies.

With the recent drop of 3.8% in the UK suckler herd from December 2007 to December 2008 the total UK herd of dairy and beef cattle has fallen below 10 million for the first time since records have been kept, and the total UK breeding stock is down to just over 3 million.  In 2007/08, 80% of dairy cows were inseminated with Holstein and other dairy crosses and 25% of their male calves are only suitable for shooting shortly after birth with some going as bobby veal.  Our future beef supplies are now heavily dependent on beef cross suckler cows.  In 1990 beef from sucklers represented only 30% of supplies.  In 2008 the figure was 50% with beef from the dairy herd reducing fast.  With many suckler producers having little confidence in the future, currently (like Argentina) we are eating our potential breeding stock and sleep walking towards a national shortage.


Losses at recent prices.

Analysis of most systems of rearing beef by Eblex show that almost all farmers made a loss in 2007/08 if fixed costs are included, and the average LFA suckled calf producer was losing £357 per head.  While inflation has pushed up costs, beef prices at £2.80 / kg are now only just over what they were in 1993 and have fallen by £1.20 a kilo in real terms – with a drop in support payments as well.


Misunderstanding about beef and global warming.

Cattle, sheep and grass are part of the short carbon cycle.  Grass absorbs carbon dioxide from the air which is then released by bacteria rotting the grass outside, or breaking it down for digestion in the rumen of a ruminant animal.  The entire cycle recurs repeatedly and is carbon neutral.  The atmospheric carbon absorbed by all vegetation is part of photosynthesis - taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.  Some bodies (such as apparently the IPCC) fail to note the carbon release when vegetation rots.  Frank Keppler from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany revealed that plants themselves produce up to one-third of the second most important greenhouse gas – methane – swamp gas.  (Methane is broken down by oxidation with hydroxyl radicals (OH) and has a life in the atmosphere of about 9 to 15 years –compared to C02 which lasts for hundreds and even thousands of years.)  Plants worldwide produce millions of tonnes of methane each year, with the greatest share coming from the tropics, and the plant contribution is calculated to count for 10–30 per cent of annual methane emissions.  This could explain why the build-up of methane in the atmosphere has been slowing down for the past decade — a trend that could be due to global deforestation. However such deforestation, by being burnt, produces vast amounts of other carbon gases and also from the ex-forest floor being tilled.


In contrast it can be argued that UK grazing cattle reduce atmospheric carbon because their bones are made mainly of calcium fluoride, calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate, and these can go to landfill sites for burial and therefore long-term carbon sequestration.  Examples of long term carbon storage are the many fossilised dinosaur bones.  In the case of larger abattoirs, the bones and fat are now collected by specialist firms and are used as fuel for incineration of food waste – replacing fuel oil.


Grass-fed UK beef and lamb (killed locally), blackberries and field mushrooms have a lower carbon footprint than any alternative food.  Imported beef consumes fuel for chilling and food miles, and some Brazilian beef is fed on cereals and soya grown on land of recently burnt rain forest.  All the UK’s beef cows graze grass in the summer and are either fed hay, silage or straw in winter, or in many cases remain grazing throughout the winter too.  In addition to grass the progeny are often fed on arable by-products (sugar-beet pulp etc) to finish them. 


The alternative of ploughing up grassland (releasing colossal amounts of carbon) to grow crops for human or poultry and pig food, would be far worse for the climate and fossil fuel reserves than cattle grazing and foraging rough grasses, gorse and other vegetation that nothing else will or can consume.  Cereals generally use energy from fossil oil fuel for ploughing, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, plus the making, transporting and spreading of fertiliser and several sprays followed by drying, storage and haulage, milling, mixing, and distributing grain.  Growing cereals lets out huge amounts of stored carbon from the soil, whereas ruminants also take transient vegetative energy in the form of cellulose and other carbohydrates to produce, as a co-product, the high fertility value of dung to improve the soil so that micro-bacterial activity increases in the soil and stores still more carbon.  In the case of finishing cattle on an arable farm, waste products, such as straw, are converted into meat ideal for human consumption, leather, bones, and well rotted farm yard manure - replacing fossil-derived fertilisers and adding organic matter to the soil.  Indeed it is recognised that the fastest possible way to lock up carbon is to sow grass seed on arable land and, with grazing animals, build up the sward into a thick turf as very long term or permanent storage.  This can be done in three years - whereas planting conifer trees requires at least 30 years to achieve any worthwhile storage of carbon (and which, unless utilised, then rots down after 70 years and releases the carbon back into the atmosphere).  The time taken to initiate carbon storage by broadleaved trees is even longer.



Most beef suckler cows are in the higher, rougher, vegetation of the uplands and National Parks and are a major contributor to the way “our best loved landscapes” survive as open ground.

Cattle browse all rank vegetation (including gorse at the right time of year) whereas most sheep are selective feeders.  The RSPB state “Extensive beef production – suckler cows on low input grassland - is crucial to the maintenance of many hill and upland habitats”, and Defra say that under-grazing is the main reason for the deterioration of SSSIs in the UK


Cultural and social considerations.

As cattle numbers decline so employment in the uplands reduces.  Sheep alone do not need labour for dung spreading or much haylage or silage making.  The labour force needed for essential environmental works (wall and bank repairs and hedge laying) in National Parks survive by summer employment on cattle farms.  About 16 people per 1,000 ha (2,500 acres) are required to look after cattle, about 6 for sheep alone and less than 2 per 1,000 ha are needed on many large arable farms.  The current drift away of a stable working population (with a long cultural history) has very bad implications for very many hill and upland communities.     


Human nutrition.

Beef provides all of the essential amino acids / protein the human body needs, is a valuable source of vitamin B (and the only natural source of B12) and minerals, particularly iron, zinc and selenium.  Beef contain iron (haem-iron) in highly digestible form [ii][2] and even helps the body to absorb iron from vegetables (much of the iron in greens (although it shows up in lab analysis) is not easily digestible by humans).  The marbled fat interleaved in the beef is a monounsaturated (rather than poly-saturated) fat with a low melting point similar to olive oil and melts in cooking to the bottom of the pan.  Before doing so it gives the succulence, sizzle and taste which is so special to beef.  Much of any fat eaten with the meat of grass-fed beef is omega 3 which is positively good for humans.  (Ideally omega 3 should be the same as or double any omega 6 from other foods) [iii][3].  The Atkins diet has been the most popular of all diets for losing weight – concentrating on eating lean meat and other proteins.  Most trimmed beef has a total fat level of only 5%, and rump round, with a saturated fat level of only 1.62 grams/100 grams, compares favourably with fried chicken drumsticks with skin, which have a saturated fat level of 3.66 grams/100 grams.   Thus there is 126% more saturated fat in such chicken joints than in the equivalent part of beef. 


[i][1] Herbivores have a completely different digestion system compared to humans.  It starts in the totally different mouth anatomy with much longer jaws and very differently shaped teeth.  In the case of cattle: they do not even have any incisor teeth in the upper jaw and have no or only rudimental canine teeth.  Their molars are perfectly sized and shaped to grind on grass and hay and grow continually to match the wear incurred.  When an adult with a developed rumen has eaten enough they rest for a good hour to chew the cud.  This starts by contraction of the reticulum - the first part of the stomach – they regurgitate a bit to chew intensively on it for at least a minute adding a large amount of ph neutral saliva. Then this green mash is swallowed down and ends up in the rumen in about 30 - 50 litres of a soup-like mass enriched with a vast number of permanently reproducing bacteria and micro-organisms.  (It is of utmost importance that the climate in this mass is kept steady.  A ruminant is happy to eat very much the same diet all year through.  An abrupt change of diet might kill this mass of micro-life, could upset the whole climate and be fatal within days.)  After the rumen there are two other stomach compartments – the filtering omasum and the abomasum ~ the latter being somewhat similar to the human stomach ~ where enzymes and other digesting fluids are added and where digestion takes place.  Further digestion happens in the 65 foot long gut including the large caecum.  In the whole digestive process all the plant-fibres (consisting mainly of cellulose) are broken down to glucoses which are absorbed together with some important amino acids.  These come partly out of the plant material and even more from all dead and decaying micro-organisms which have prospered on the rumen contents.  These are composed again into proteins in the body.  (In non-ruminants the digestion happens mainly in an enlarged caecum.  Rabbits sometimes even eat their faecal pellets to profit from the nutrients and still living micro-organisms in them.  Horses have up to 70 feet of small intestine with another 25 feet of large intestine housing cellulose-digesting bacteria.  Camels have a complex 3 compartmented stomach which is even better than other ruminants at digesting poor quality forage – and chew their cud.)


[ii][2] Anemia due to iron deficiency is recognised as a major public health problem throughout the world.  According to the epidemiological data collected from multiple countries by the WHO, more than one-third of women and two thirds of young children in the world are affected by anemia.  In Europe, the prevalence of anemia fluctuates between 7 and 12% among women and children.


[iii][3] Omega 3 is the type of fat that is found in oil-rich fish, grass-fed beef and some plant oils.  These are the ‘good’ fats - polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are not only beneficial for health but are essential in the diet. For example, of all the fats, they are the most heart-friendly.  People who have ample amounts of omega-3s in their diet are less likely to have high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat. Remarkably, they are 50 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack.  Omega-3s are essential for the brain as well.  Those with a diet rich in omega-3s are less likely to suffer from depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder (hyperactivity), or Alzheimer's disease.  Another benefit of omega-3s is that they may reduce the risk of cancer.  In animal studies, these essential fats have slowed the growth of a wide array of cancers and also kept them from spreading.  Omega-3s are most abundant in seafood and certain nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds and walnuts, but they are also found in animals raised on pasture.  The reason is simple. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae.  Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s.