Arguments against beef not fleshed out

Arguments against beef not fleshed out
It has not been established that red meat causes cancer and other diseases, and there may be variations between cattle fed on grass and cattle fed on grain.

There is little evidence that the meat is carcinogenic, whereas long-term cultivation of grains depletes soil of organic matter, says Michael H. B. Hayes

BEEF farmers’ difficulties are exacerbated by misconception.

Much of that has originated from the widely referenced Lancet article of January 16, ‘Food in the Anthropocene, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Healthy Food Systems’.

The initiative was led by a distinguished nutritionist, Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. It devised a healthy, sustainable diet for a world population of 10bn.

The conclusions were based on epidemiological evidence from extensive surveys, and were not based on peer- reviewed experiments.

It was implied that red meat contributes to cancer, diabetis, heart disease, strokes, and several other life-threatening diseases.

The recommended, daily healthy diet would contain about a half-ounce of red meat.

Georgia Ede, a distinguished American scientist, has presented a far-reaching and convincing rebuttal to the EAT-Lancet Commission.

She effectively dismisses the validity of the epidemiological studies on which the ‘healthy daily intake diet’ is based, and shows that red meat, and other meats, and fish, are vital for healthy living.

Shortly after the Lancet report was published, I communicated with Dr Willett. I told him I was not competent to comment on diet, but that I had reservations about the environmental considerations in the report. In his response, he stated: “The dietary targets in the report are based on health considerations, but the environmental analyses also confirmed them as making a global sustainable diet for 10bn people possible.

“There are many potential mechanisms for the benefits of at least partially replacing red meat with nuts, soy, and other legumes ... even just changes in blood lipid effects can account for important difference.

“Our targets would not lead to a reduction in global dairy production, but consumption would be better distributed globally. Consumption of red meat would be reduced. The main step would be to greatly reduce/stop feeding grain to cattle, and then shifting, when feasible, grass-fed beef production to dairy production. From what you describe, this very much fits what you are doing in Ireland. As you say, every step in the production system needs to be examined carefully and the full range of options considered and evaluated rigorously.”

We read of the suspected contribution of red meat to incidences of colon cancer. There has been anecdotal evidence that the incidences of colon cancer among Texans may be attributable to their liking for barbecued beef. That suggestion ignores the fact that when meat or proteinaceous substrates come in contact with flames, it can give rise to charring, and the charred products will be mutagenic, possibly carcinogenic. We have shown that even pyrolysed manures from animals fed on grains are mutagenic, but those from grass-fed animals are not. This nonsensical misinformation, that beef can be carcinogenic, can be resolved by carrying out replicable tests on the meat and on meat cooked in different ways. The study might be extended to meat from animals fed on different diets (grain or grass).

The Lancet Initiative and Soil Sustainability

I pointed out to Dr Willett that the Lancet initiative failed to recognise that the soil would not be able to sustain their targets for the production of crops for their diets.

A significant proportion of the most fertile soil of the world is under long-term cultivation.

That involves the yearly (more where climatic conditions allow) production of crops such as maize, rice, soya beans, wheat.

That is leading to the depletion of soil organic matter (SOM). From studies compiled by Rattan Lal, of the Ohio State University, when president of the International Union of the Soil Sciences (IUSS), it is estimated that for 50-100 crops, the SOM will be depleted, the soils degraded, and productivity lost.

(That may not apply to soils where rice is extensively cultivated in Asia where good soil conservation practises operate.) (Incidentally, in terms of measurements that apply for scholastic excellence and impacts, Dr. Lal’s scores are far superior to those of any of the contributors to the Lancet article).

That must surely be a far greater immediate threat than climate change, yet it is not receiving any media or international governmental attention.

Disaster can be avoided. When, two generations ago the late Dennis Greenland, FRS and this author produced the research texts ‘The Chemistry of Soil Constituents’ and ‘The Chemistry of Soil Processes’ we emphasized the theme that “all that comes from the soil that is not used for food and fibre should be returned to the soil”. That essential primary necessity is not being adhered to.It hurts to note opponents to applications to land of sewage sludges, magnificent organic fertilizers, even though we have a technology that guarantees that such sludges are pathogen free. There is emerging a technology that gives rise to interactions between reactive molecules in SOM that confers resistance to degradation, but that approach is in its infancy and will require support for its development The Proposed EU Mercosur Trade Agreement

There is genuine concern in the Irish farming community about the possible effects of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement on the Irish beef industry.

The tonnages involved may not, at this time, be a cause for major concern, but the long-term effects can be very serious. Adherence to EU regulations and traceability have meant that what we produce meets rigorous standards.

Have we forgotten the origins of the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001, which had a devastating effect on the British cattle industry?

Replacing red meat with crops, grains, and beans may deplete soil fertility. Picture: Cathal Noonan
Replacing red meat with crops, grains, and beans may deplete soil fertility. Picture: Cathal Noonan

AS the result of involvements in an EU-Latin America research project on fuels and platform chemicals sourced in biomass, this writer and his colleagues have travelled extensively in the four Mercusor countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), and we have been able to observe cattle in the fields and in government research stations. The cattle in fields were of poor quality, in comparison with those in our Irish pastures. In contrast, the qualities of those in research stations were excellent, but these were fed on grains and under controlled conditions.

The EU negotiators should insist that the beef exported from the Mercosur countries meets, in every way, the standards that apply for EU produce.

I have given several seminars in South America. Even 20 years ago, audiences expressed concern about the cultivation practices for the production of maize and soya beans by foreign consortia.

They were acutely aware that the long-term monoculture practices were depleting the SOM reserves.

Concern was invariably expressed about deforestation in Amazonia to facilitate cattle ranching. The majority of those I have listened to considered that this practice should be stopped, and replaced by world-wide financial contributions for the conservation of the rainforest.

Deforestation for cattle ranching has largely taken place at the peripheries of the rainforest, and in areas where dry seasons can prevail. There is little emphasis on the fact that the rainforest is a source of oxygen from photosynthesis. Even if deforestation were to be stopped now, forest replacement in the vast deforested areas would take a long time to achieve pre-deforestation benefits.

Farmers with suckler herds here are dismayed by the suggestion that their herds will need to be significantly reduced to meet our greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Their concerns would be allayed if publicity were given to the technologies we have for lowering emissions of ammonia from slurries and for decreasing the methane emissions from ruminants.

Different organisations throughout the country are aware of such technologies. All that is needed is to convene the persons/organisations with the appropriate technologies and to formulate a programme that will greatly lower emissions without decreasing herd sizes. Then, it will be appropriate to invest in developing systems that will lower the emissions, and the investment cost will be far, far less than may apply through fines or loss of production.

Our marketing emphasis on grass-fed beef is laudable, but we know of widespread concerns among our beef farmers about feedlot production approaches used by beef processors. In these, the animals are fed on grains and imported soya beans.

Such practices belie our claims for grass-fed beef.

The dangers that the world will face from land degradation do not apply to Ireland, because more than 90% of our land is under grass and forestry, and only a small amount is under long-term cultivation.

For these reasons, we have vast reserves of organic matter sequestered in our soils, and we can justifiably claim to have, per head of population, more carbon sequestered in our soils than any other country in Europe (with the possible exception of Finland).

Deductions that give rise to that thesis may be found in EPA Strive Report 58. I am amazed that we are likely to be penalised for our greenhouse gases from agriculture. Cultivation, of any kind, gives rise to carbon dioxide from the oxidation of SOM, and that must be regarded as fossil carbon, the same as that from petroleum products. Surely, we should be in a position to provide persuasive arguments to substantiate our position.

Michael H. B. Hayes is adjunct professor of chemistry at University of Limerick

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